Nancy Boren’s creative spirit leads the way
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the October 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story
A few years ago Nancy Boren wrote a blog post with the title, “The spirit forges ahead while the brain has to figure it out.” It was a reflection on gaining a revolutionary bit of self-knowledge about something that might seem relatively small. But it wasn’t small to her. As she and an artist friend looked through some of Boren’s paintings one day, the friend took note of certain kinds of imagery: puffy white clouds in a turquoise sky, crisp white sails against a deep blue lake, a large white church amidst colorful fall foliage and an intense blue sky. She wondered out loud—correctly, it turns out—whether the diverse subjects might, at least in part, be pretexts for what Boren intuitively loves to paint: large white shapes against a backdrop of strong, bright hues.
Thus, the title of her post. Boren’s aim in writing it was to encourage other artists to step back and look at what they consistently find themselves doing. Hidden within that may be important truths about where their passions really lie. “Sometimes I feel like I’m such a late bloomer,” the 60-year-old painter confesses, sitting in the large upstairs studio of her Dallas-area home, surrounded by collections of natural, beautiful, exotic, and quirky things that inspire her: animal skulls, birds’ nests, art books, colorful textiles, cowgirl hats, antique circus toys, and her own plein-air paintings on the walls.
Boren was certainly not late in answering the call of art. It’s been part of her life from her earliest memories. Nor was she slow in acquiring drawing and painting skills. What took a little time was finally understanding, in her 30s, that her primary focus in a painting is different from what she’d grown up admiring in the work of other artists, including her late father, Cowboy Artists of America member James Boren. “I’m just not a ‘scene’ painter,” she says, referring to compositions in which sky, mountains, buildings, windmills, horses, and people are arranged proportionally in foreground, middle ground, and background, just as they generally look to the eye. “I realized I kept wanting to make the figure big, to have the figure fill up the canvas, maybe be cut off at the waist. I had to tell myself that’s okay; it’s not how Dad did it, but it’s okay. I started to realize what kind of paintings I wanted to do. And now that’s all I do.”
What Boren does—which has garnered top awards and a broad, national collector base—encompasses multiple genres and many types of subjects, including landscapes, horses, portraits, buildings, and boats. But often, as with the white shapes, what instinctively drives the work is her fascination with the figure, whether a cowgirl, a white-bearded old-timer, or a bejeweled dancer in a spangled costume and feathered headdress. “I’m always on the lookout for interesting faces,” she says. “I’ve walked up to people in public places—I try not to freak them out—and asked if they’ll model for me. Of course they never call, but I can’t help noticing great subjects.”
Art and interesting people have been part of Boren’s world all her life. Her parents moved to Alaska two years before she was born, and although the family left for Denver when she was a year old, she grew up hearing hair-raising stories about long, dark, cold winters and her father’s day job as an Anchorage policeman. In 1965 her father became the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s first art director and took his family to Oklahoma City. A few years later they settled on a small ranch near Clifton, TX, her father’s home state.
A shy child, Nancy was passionate about making things, working with her hands, and drawing. Using her mother’s typing paper, she copied illustrations she loved from books, including pictures of Japanese dolls. Soon her father gave her a small but real watercolor set, with watercolors in tubes. While James Boren didn’t sit his young daughter down in the studio and teach her to paint, his immersion in the world of western art had a significant impact on her life. Much of what she learned early on came from daily dinner-table conversations about art and from watching and listening when other painters came to her father for critiques. One such painter, a high school classmate of Nancy’s in Clifton, was Martin Grelle. “Martin got to be friends with Dad, and Dad would give him advice—he’d say, for example, ‘Double check the drawing in the horse’—and he talked about colors, values, shapes,” Boren remembers. “Painters like Bob Lougheed, Ned Jacob, and Melvin Warren (also CAA members) would come to Dad’s studio and talk about art. It was wonderful.”
The Boren creative genes found rich expression in other members of the extended family as well. Boren’s uncle Jodie, her father’s brother, was an award-winning commercial and fine-art painter whose work graced several magazine covers. Nancy’s great-aunt was songwriter and music promoter Mae Boren Axton, who along with Tommy Durden wrote the Elvis Presley hit Heartbreak Hotel. Mae’s son, Hoyt Axton, was a songwriter and actor whose songwriting credits include Joy to the World and Never Been to Spain, both recorded by Three Dog Night.
While James Boren was also musically inclined, it was his passion for painting and his self-discipline in the studio that made their mark on Nancy. After earning a BFA from Abilene Christian University, she accepted her father’s invitation to return to the ranch and set up a studio in an old farmhouse that wasn’t being used. Her father arranged for her to be in a two-artist show at Owens Gallery in Oklahoma City. Spurred by her first professional deadline, she produced a series of wildflower paintings in watercolor and pen and ink, which sold well. “Dad was so generous and giving, so sweet. He opened doors for me, but if I had never sold any paintings, I wouldn’t have lasted long as an artist,” she says, smiling. “You kind of have to come up with the goods.”
At Abilene Christian University, the only painting instruction offered had been water-based, primarily acrylics. But Boren soon found herself increasingly drawn to oils. Numerous visits to art museums over the years, where she stood gazing at works by Nicolai Fechin and others, left her inspired and awed—and ready for a change. “The more I looked at oils, the more I was jealous of that great texture. I had that in the back of my mind all the time I was doing watercolors,” she says. So she taught herself to paint in oils, later studying with such artists as Carolyn Anderson, Milt Kobayashi, Daniel Gerhartz, and Casey Baugh. She also began doing printmaking, which she still enjoys.
As Boren’s creative spirit forged ahead, she gradually began to understand what propels her artistic choices. “My paintings tend to be driven by elements I find visually compelling rather than by true historical moments or the need to chronicle exact events. I also am drawn to strong and interesting silhouettes,” she says. In ALOFT IN THE WESTERN SKY, Boren places the figure of a young man against the linear shapes of windmill blades and the drama of a sun-pierced, threatening sky. The large, striking painting was purchased for the permanent collection of the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, GA, during last year’s American Women Artists show. “I wanted the painting to be like a poem, as opposed to a manual on how to build a windmill,” she says. “I’m not a mechanical person—it’s not a painting of blades and a platform and the little gizmo in the middle. My question was how to make it be about a windmill but not about all those little parts.”
Likewise, SUMMERTIME conjures a seaside Fourth of July parade without needing to include the whole scene. Wind billows through a young girl’s American flag and the nautical flags behind her while her white shirt, sun hat, and a sand- and sky-colored background suggest a buoyant summer day. The painting took the gold medal for Master Signature members in the 2014 American Women Artists show hosted by Addison Art Gallery on Cape Cod. Other recent works feature abstract backgrounds of shimmering gold or silver leaf. It’s a new direction that reflects the artist’s always-curious mind and her openness to following whatever forms of expression her painting takes. Indeed, for Boren, the search for inspiration is a visual treasure hunt, and treasures can be hiding anywhere—in a shop window, a quick scene on TV, an image in a magazine. Then the question is: What makes it jump out? The combination of colors? Textures? Shapes? “If I figure out what it is that makes me stop in my tracks, then I can take what I thought was so striking and beautiful and apply it to my painting,” she says. “You have to be true to yourself. If you know yourself and accumulate the technique, you can do things you never imagined.”
Agave Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Davis & Blevins, St. Jo, TX; L.A. Thompson Gallery of Fine Art, Clifton, TX; Southwest Gallery, Dallas, TX; Wild Horse Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO.
Featured in the October 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art October 2015 print issue or digital download Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
Photo Credits: Beasley’s Fine Art Photography.
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