From ranches to rodeos, Carrie Ballantyne’s portraits depict an authentic West
By Rosemary Carstens
This story was featured in the November 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2013 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
“So many faces, so little time,” might be the driving force behind Carrie Ballantyne’s sensitive depictions of people of the contemporary West. It’s not just that they are realistically and skillfully portrayed, down to the last curve of lip or squint of eye. These are character studies in which the artist reveals who these men, women, and children really are, and who they’ve become, within a historic landscape.
For more than 30 years, Ballantyne has been putting pencil and brush to work with depth and texture to depict real-life individuals in today’s ranching and cowboy culture. It’s the faces of these people that captivate her. Some are scoured by decades of hard outdoor work. Others reveal the unadorned beauty of a self- reliant lifestyle among livestock and wildlife. Youngsters reveal the poignancy and sweet potential of a rancher-to-be. Within each of her portraits, the essential ingredients of honesty and integrity shine forth. Ballantyne knows these people. She sees them and lets us see them, too. “It’s exciting and rewarding to be able to portray people and a lifestyle that I admire and respect,” she says.
Born and raised in urban Southern California, Ballantyne has sketched for as long as she can remember—pets, her friends and family, and even her own hands and feet. As a teenager she discovered turn-of-the-century American Indian photographers at her local library. “Those artistic black-and-white images stirred my imagination, and they were the beginning of my desire to draw from photographs. They influenced my personal artistic approach and helped me absorb basic composition, values, light, mood, and emotion.”
Those urban years held other insights as well. Ballantyne’s mother often took her to natural-history and art museums and encouraged reading and creativity. During an elementary-school field trip to the Huntington Library, the young artist saw Thomas Gainsborough’s famous oil painting THE BLUE BOY and was mesmerized. “After 40-plus years,” she says, “its beauty and power still have a profound effect on me.”
Beginning in her late teens, Ballantyne spent many years exploring different wilderness areas and coastlines, often with just a backpack. “At one point I lived in a teepee in the mountains outside Ojai, CA, sewing western shirts on a treadle sewing machine and making beaded belts to pay for my next adventure,” she says. Combining her fascination with horses and the outdoors, she traveled to Cody, WY, and for eight years worked as a camp cook for outfitters and fishing camps. In the off seasons she traveled to Mexico, Canada, and New Zealand but found herself always called back to the American West.
Her sketchbook was her constant companion. In Cody, the artist spent hours at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center studying the work of Frederic Remington and N.C. Wyeth. Norman Rockwell, too, was always a favorite. She discovered the excitement of rodeos and became acquainted with many members of the local ranching community. It was during these years that the West became more than an echo of what she’d seen as a child on TV and in movies—it became a lifestyle she wanted for herself.
Along the way, Ballantyne met James Bama—an American artist known for his realistic paintings and etchings of western subjects—who became her mentor. “I had just found a book on his art at the local Woolworth store, and then I happened to meet him,” she says. “No other living artist has had the impact on me that he has. I consider him a master and will always value the time we spent together, photographing models and discussing the images—what made some work, some not, and why. I feel that was the best art education I could have received and an absolute gift.”
Ballantyne’s career as a professional artist began with a bang. In 1981, she participated in the Phippen Museum Western Art Show in Prescott, AZ, where she sold or traded every piece she had. Although she dreamed of being an oil painter, for 10 years she worked strictly with graphite pencil, then switched to colored pencils. At the age of 50, with her children raised, she took two years off to focus on becoming an oil painter. Recognition was immediate—the year following her debut in the medium, she won the Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Prix de West Invitational in Oklahoma City. She continues to garner prestigious awards, including her selection by the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK, as a featured artist for its 2010 Rendezvous.
Brad and Jinger Richardson, owners of Legacy Gallery in Jackson, WY, and Scotts- dale, AZ, recognized Ballantyne’s talent and potential upon first meeting her 10 years ago. They recently began to represent her and are highly enthusiastic about her work. “Carrie’s realism style is taken to a much higher level than most American artists today,” says Jinger. “Many collectors are drawn to her paintings. Seasoned collectors immediately understand the work’s inherent value and flock to put their names in a hat for a chance to purchase her work. She is also a big draw for the novice collector who recognizes that this art is exceptional and timeless.”
Today Ballantyne is a painter who also does charcoal and conté drawings. She paints thinly, employing multiple layers, and uses a minimal palette. She surrounds herself with books about artists who especially inspire her, including J.W. Waterhouse, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Joseph DeCamp, and Joseph Henry Sharp.
The itch to paint real people, often ranch women, continues to be a passion. BUCKAROO DIAMONDS AND PEARLS, a recent piece, exemplifies the artist’s keen observational skills, proficient handling of paint, and awareness of the regional history of working horsewomen and horsemen. Buckaroos—generally men but occasionally women—take enormous pride in their gear. They are the fashionistas of the horse world. From the subject’s characteristic flat-brimmed felt hat to her flower-carved saddle and diamond- patterned saddle blanket, her brightly hued silk neck rag and fringed armitas (leggings), we see style as well as functionality. Her direct gaze expresses an air of confidence characteristic in a Ballantyne portrait. The artist’s subjects are not costumed. These are not idealized views of an historic West. They are the real deal.
Beyond the subject matter, there is a lot going on in this painting. It began for the artist, as it often does, with a certain “look”—an individual’s expression, a setting, or a scene that inspires her. Once an idea takes hold, she plots out her composition, explaining that “I see lines, stance, and values before color.” Following an extensive photo shoot outdoors in natural light, she pores over the results to arrive at a concept. In BUCKAROO DIAMONDS AND PEARLS, you can see the subtlety of her color work and the strength of the design elements. Note the repetitive angle of the hat and the right arm bent to hold the rope, as well as the echoing curves of the saddle and rope—all carefully planned and thoughtfully determined.
Ballantyne paints those she knows: family and friends, young and old, male and female, cowboys and Indians. These are the faces of the new West built on the spirit of the Old West. Every now and then she paints a stranger, but not often. When choosing a subject, she says she operates instinctually, trusting her gut. “I spend a lot of time on each painting, and it’s nice for me to know and even like that person,” she explains. “I’m fascinated with everyone’s story.”
As a woman who is “wired to make pictures, with a passion for art, a love of all things western, and zeal for adventure,” Ballantyne feels she lives in the best of times. As she puts it: “The people I have known and continue to meet enhance my life and help fuel my art. Art for me is all about being moved, being elevated—inspired toward that which is good. Even with all the pain and hurt this side of heaven, there is much good in the world to be gleaned and appreciated. Art is a wonderful reminder of that.”
Featured in the November 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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