Cindy Long | Drawing on the West

Cindy Long captures the souls of her subjects in expressive graphite portraits

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Cindy Long, Distant Ranges, graphite, 15 x 11.

Cindy Long, Distant Ranges, graphite, 15 x 11.

This story was featured in the May 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Cindy Long glances up at four words in blue-painted metal, high on a wall above the studio windows in her home just west of Houston: Dream. Imagine. Create. Believe. She hung them there as she was setting up the studio in 2003, ready to reimmerse herself in art after years of focusing on commercial graphic design, family, and multiple moves around Oklahoma and Texas for her husband’s engineering career. “You don’t get a how-to book or a map about how to proceed in the art world,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do, so those were the words I needed to follow: Dream the dream, imagine what you want to achieve, create it, and then believe in it.” Then she adds, “I’m looking for ‘serendipity,’ but I haven’t found it yet.”

What she means is, she is still looking for that metal word for her wall. When it comes to the actual phenomenon of serendipity, though, it’s clear Long has found it—or it has found her—on multiple important occasions over the years. The most dramatic example of this took place in 2009, a few years after the artist returned to her passion for rendering faces and figures in black and white. By then she had been juried into shows and won some awards, but she hadn’t worked up the nerve to approach the art space that topped her dream list, Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, Bozeman, MT, and Jackson, WY. She had just attended a workshop in Oklahoma taught by western artist Carrie Ballantyne. Afterward a fellow workshop participant was flying home when he struck up a conversation with his seatmate, who just happened to be Legacy Gallery’s general manager, Scott Jones. “You really should take a look at Cindy Long’s work,” the man told Jones.

Long heard about the encounter a few days later from her workshop companion. Encouraged but hesitant, she was thinking about sending images to Legacy when her teenage son received a text from a friend who was traveling to a softball tournament in Colorado. The friend texted that she and her mom were checking into a motel and her mother was chatting with a fellow who was also checking in. When the friend’s mom learned that the fellow worked in a gallery, she enthused, “You should check out Cindy Long’s art!” The man, of course, was Scott Jones.

Cindy Long, Always on My Mind, graphite, 14 x 11.

Cindy Long, Always on My Mind, graphite, 14 x 11.

“I couldn’t resist. I just had to look Cindy up,” Jones recalls. “I was struck with her graphite drawings of both her cowgirls and grizzled mountain men. She really captured the essence of her subjects and their attire. I had recently recommended to a couple of our artists to explore cowgirls—both empowered frontier women and young cowgirls—in their paintings. Here were drawings of exactly what I had in mind.” Jones phoned Long, who sent him a mountain-man drawing. As soon as he received it, he unpacked it and leaned it against the wall while he went to call her and express his admiration for the piece. Before he could get to his office, the director of a major western art museum walked through the gallery door. He immediately noticed the drawing and purchased it, even though until then he had never heard of Long.

Today Legacy Gallery exclusively represents Long, whose meticulous, time-consuming process means each piece can take two to four weeks to complete. In her high-ceilinged studio, with words of inspiration on the wall, the 57-year-old artist sits for hours at a time in a comfortable chair beside an almost-upright easel. The implements with which she produces her exquisitely rendered portraits extend well beyond the pencil, although that is an essential means of adding texture and fine detail. She creates ground graphite by rubbing pencil tips on sandpaper, and then she applies and shades the graphite using small craft sponges, tightly rolled paper cylinders, and other tools. Occasionally she works in charcoal, sometimes incorporating touches of color in pastel or Conté sticks. The resulting images combine three of Long’s lifelong obsessions: drawing, the human face and all that it can express, and the history and people of the American West. For many years, however, these interests remained separate threads, each representing a vague longing awaiting its realization in the artist’s life.

The pencil came first. One of Long’s earliest memories, from age 3, is of drawing jack-o’-lanterns on a wall in her family’s home. “It was not well received,” she says, smiling. She switched to notebook paper, church bulletins, the margins of spelling tests—any kind of paper she could find. Her report cards consistently described her thus: extremely quiet, shy, loves to draw. “That hasn’t changed a whole lot,” she says in her thoughtful, good-humored manner. Nor has she diverged from the visual subject that has intrigued her since childhood, the human figure and face.

Next came a love of the Old West. As the daughter of an insurance salesman and a homemaker in Shreveport, LA, Long’s exposure to western lore came primarily through 1960s television shows. “You could tell which day of the week it was by the western that was on—Gunsmoke on Mondays, Bonanza on Sundays,” she recalls. Sitting beside her parents, she watched them all. She also listened to colorful family tales about her paternal grandfather, a U.S. Marshal (or possibly deputy marshal) in late-19th-century Oklahoma Territory.

Cindy Long, Day of the Trapper, graphite, 18 x 14.

Cindy Long, Day of the Trapper, graphite, 18 x 14.

But thoughts of the West faded into the background after Long left home. She studied commercial art at Louisiana Tech University and went into graphic design, the closest she could imagine to being able to make a living with art. She married, had three children, and worked in freelance graphic art. Then one memorable day in 2002, a friend showed her an image online by Ballantyne. Having focused for years on responsibilities close to home, Long had never seen a western art magazine and was unaware of the world of western art. Her first reaction to seeing Ballantyne’s work was “Wow!” Her immediate next thought was, “That’s what I want to do!” In one instant, the pieces of her future came together. “It was an epiphany,” she says. “I had been longing to draw more and had been finding myself lingering over nice drawings by others. And I’d had a resurgence in interest in all things western. I had a yearning, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

Naturally, Long Googled Ballantyne. As it happened, the established artist had a workshop scheduled a few months later, a couple of hours away in Oklahoma. Long was thrilled, but after sending in her check, she was told there were no openings. The following day, however, she got another call: The artist had added one more space to the workshop, and Long was in. It was among the first of what she considers serendipitous events related to her art. Returning home from the workshop, Long told her husband, “I think my life is going to change.”

Indeed it did. These days Long is continually on the lookout for the kind of face that defines her portraits: expressive, full of character and personality, whether vibrantly outgoing or reflective and quiet. A face that invites the viewer to wonder what the subject is thinking or what might be happening beyond what we see. Sometimes the most intriguing faces come complete with western dress and paraphernalia—what Long calls “the whole package.” Such was the case with the subject of DAY OF THE TRAPPER, a longtime re-enactment actor attending the Mountain Man Rendezvous near Bartlesville, OK. Long was especially drawn to the range of textures in his beaded, fringed buckskin clothing and fur cap—all historically accurate and much of which he had made himself.

Cindy Long, Hatitude, graphite, 16 x 11.

Cindy Long, Hatitude, graphite, 16 x 11.

Other subjects have a compelling face and character but not the western clothing, which Long provides. She also takes all the photos for her work, her best shots often coming toward the end of a session when she and the model are more relaxed. Recalling the photo shoot for HATITUDE, she smiles and says, “The girl’s interest in being a model had stopped about 10 minutes before I took that picture.” That attitude is clearly reflected in the girl’s spunky, defiant posture and intelligent eyes. In western garb with work gloves in her hand, however, her story is as wide open as the viewer’s imagination.

For a time Long experimented with watercolor and other color media, but when she returned to black and white, it felt like “coming home.” The sensation of a pencil in her moving hand and the direct application of graphite are deeply satisfying, she says. “I also love how a black-and-white portrait can capture the essence of a personality and seemingly go straight into the soul of the subject, without the distraction of color.” That glimpse into the subject’s inner world is central to what Long aspires to achieve. “When I do a portrait, I try to make a connection with the person. I try to capture a mood or feeling or a moment in time. Everyone has a story,” she says. “I want to engage the viewer in that.”

Legacy Gallery, Bozeman, MT, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY.

Featured in the May 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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