By Gretchen Reynolds
For Sherry Blanchard Stuart, an interest in the West predated, by decades, her residence here. Born in Newport, AR, 63 years ago, she moved with her family to Wichita, KS, when she was 5. There, she settled into a solidly middle-class, middle- America life. Her father was a salesman and her mother a housewife and antiques hobbyist who sometimes sold furniture from the family home. “I still can go into an antiques store and know instantly whether something is worth the price,” Stuart says. But in Wichita and even before, something in Stuart, who was the youngest of four siblings, yearned toward a different place and an entirely other way of life. “My first word was hoy-hoy,” she remembers. “That meant horse. I loved horses. I started drawing them long before I’d ever seen one.”
Artists who paint or sculpt the Old West typically come to their subject matter in one of several ways. Some grow up in ranching families. Some read or hear about the traditions, the characters, and the work of the West and then paint those inherited scenes without ever experiencing them. And some, although they’re not born with any direct connection to the West, are drawn irresistibly to the heritage and find a way to make the life of the West theirs. They live what they paint, and they paint from life.
It took Stuart more than 40 years to work her way west, but once she arrived, she knew she’d found her métier. Today, she’s one of the premier female western painters in the world. In her work you see the signifiers of that tradition—the cowboys, Native Americans, roundups, dust-ups, cattle in swirling, chaotic movement, and occasionally and inevitably, blood—but rendered with a sensitivity and essential quietness that’s unique to her. Stuart’s route to her style was circuitous, but it was unavoidable.
Stuart knew very early that she had to draw and paint. It was a compulsion. “I was always drawing when I was a little girl,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of toys growing up. So I drew them.” Proving that she had a true artistic (and a very atypical child’s) temperament even then, the drawings satisfied her. She didn’t yearn for the toys.
By high school, her family had moved to Minnesota, and it was there that she first attracted attention as an artist. “I had a wonderful art teacher, Mrs. Goodwin,” Stuart recalls, “who encouraged me and helped me get a scholarship to the Minneapolis School of Art.” Enrolling after high school, Stuart wished that she could bury herself in the study of painting, but descended as she is from sensible Midwestern stock, she decided to major in graphic design instead and minor in painting. “I wanted to be able to get a job,” she reasons. “And I’m glad I studied what I did. I learned a great deal about composition and typography, and about how to be a professional.” This was in the 1960s, a yeasty time in art, even in Minneapolis. “There was a strong leaning toward abstract expressionism then,” she says. “I pursued that. I enjoyed it, and then I got tired of it. I wanted more than just throwing paint around and showing a lot of feeling. I think I’ve always had a bent toward traditional realism.”
While at art school, she won a scholarship to spend a summer studying painting and printmaking at the Yale University summer program for artists in Norfolk, CT, which cemented for her some of the glamour—and rigors—of making art. “It was exciting to be able to spend all of your time making art, and it was a little intimidating. Everyone worked hard,” she recalls.
After graduating she took a job teaching at the Art Instruction Schools in Minneapolis—a distance learning school, Stuart explains. Students sent in their drawings and other homework, and teachers like Stuart placed tissue overlays on them for corrections. The school was prestigious—the advisory council included such art-world luminaries as John Clymer, Arnold Friberg, Walter Wilwerding, and Charles Schulz, of “Peanuts” fame—and Stuart’s education continued there, even as she was teaching. “You’re always learning in art,” she comments.
More formally, she began taking evening classes at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis. They were led by Richard Lack, a determinedly classical realist who demanded extreme discipline and concentration from his students. “We’d work from poses that lasted for months,” Stuart remembers. “We were really pushed to get the details exactly right. I’d wanted that kind of approach, but maybe not quite to that extent. It was,” she observes, “certainly a change from abstract expressionism.”
Meanwhile, she was traveling periodically to workshops in Scottsdale, AZ, where she was first introduced to the work and teaching of some seminal western painters, including Howard Terpning, Ron Riddick, and Bettina Steinke. All became inspirations. “I loved the West immediately,” she recalls. “I especially loved the desert, the colors, the landscape, the light.” But not until she moved to Scottsdale 20 years ago, in part to help one of her sons with a breathing problem, did she really start to learn about the life of this land.
“When we moved to this part of Scottsdale,” she says, her voice growing wistful, “it was a very different place than it is today. We had to drive 20 miles to the nearest grocery. It was still vast, empty, beautiful country.” It was cowboy country. And Stuart was fortunate to have friends nearby who kept a cattle herd. They invited her to come along on a cattle drive. By then, she’d become an accomplished horsewoman. But the work was daunting. “I wasn’t very good,” she admits. “The calves would run into the brush and hide there. The dogs and I just looked at each other. They didn’t want to go in after them, either.”
Cattle-herding challenges aside, Stuart had discovered her profession. True, she hadn’t much aptitude for cowboying, but she could be a cowboy chronicler. Soon she was obsessively studying the working cowhands of Arizona. Sometimes she’d paint from life. But that was difficult: “The horses wouldn’t stay still for long.” So for most of her paintings, she’d photograph her subjects. “Cowboys are incredibly gracious,” she says. “I’d try not to interfere with their work, but they’d almost always be willing to linger by the campfire for a few extra minutes to let me take some photos.”
Today, her work marries, in interesting fashion, aspects of abstract expressionism and classical realism, with a spirit and style that belongs completely to neither. There’s the close attention to composition and details of realism, but with more softness to the lines and color than strict realism would allow. The paintings have a beauty, atmosphere, and emotion that suggest not exactly nostalgia but, perhaps, loss. “I know, of course, that the old way of life of the West is disappearing,” Stuart acknowledges. “I only have to look out my front door to know that. The land is being developed all around us. It makes me very sad.”
But, she’s quick to add, her sorrow doesn’t cause her to idealize the West. “I paint what is still there,” she says. Stuart works from photos and observation, not from gauzy memories or stories. She continues to ride along on cattle drives when she can and, once a year, she joins other artists in South Dakota for several days of western immersion. The local Native tribes set up teepees and other dwellings. Cowboys do their work. The artists sketch and paint and, for that time outdoors, observing a life that probably cannot last, they feel blessed.
Stuart immortalizes the West she now thrives in—“its landscapes and people, its history and present time. It all fascinates me as an artist. The cowboy culture has had a unique and colorful past in this country, and I think the remnants of it will be with us forever. At least, I hope so.”
She paints every day in her in-house studio, which looks out at the desert. She watches the sun crimson the sky at dawn and dusk. She drives, sometimes, the few miles from her house to where cowboys still work to chat with them or just observe. “I can’t imagine growing tired of painting what I do,” Stuart says. She aims to constantly refine her technique: “I’m trying to use more color, more power in my color,” she comments. “That doesn’t mean overstatement. I want to show more with less.” And always, Stuart says, she’s drawn to light—“the impression and illusion of light. That’s why I love the desert. The light is so extraordinary.”
The artist wonders sometimes what she might have painted had she never moved to the West. “I probably would have been a figurative painter still,” she muses. “But I don’t think it would have been as fulfilling.”
She sighs happily. “I feel like part of the West now. I’ve lived here long enough. I have a part to play in the tradition of the West. Knowing that,” she concludes, “makes me feel lucky, as an artist and a human being.”
Stuart is represented by Gold Nugget Art Gallery, Wickenburg, AZ; Nichols Taos Fine Art Gallery, Taos, NM; El Presidio Gallery, Tucson, AZ; and Philinda Gallery, Edwards, CO.
Featured in March 2005