Big as Life: the art of Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey

Montana artist Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey

Colorful technique uses ink on silk

Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey's studio overlooks a slough on the Flathead River, an oxbow of water teeming with deer, fish, waterfowl and songbirds.

From her studio here, Cawdrey brings forth the life around on a silk medium - splashes of color, whimsical wildlife and colors as saturated as a Montana sky. Now one of the most successful artists in Montana and the West, Cawdrey has come a long way from her humble beginnings in a cabin near Thompson Falls, Montana, where she ran a boarding school for troubled teenagers.

Cawdrey has nurtured and refined her artistic skills to a point where she now sits very high among Montana and other painters of the West. Cawdrey uses ink dye on silk - a unique style that not many other modern painters have attempted.

The water-media method produces rich, vibrant colors full of life, full of Cawdrey's vivid imagination. As soon Cawdrey applies dye to the silk it begins to flood and expand, reaching into areas that are not always within the direct control of the artist. And that's what makes her work so interesting to look at.

Edges are not strictly defined, borders are broken down. It's a bit like Cawdrey, herself. "I can only guide these paintings," she says. "The medium itself defies control, and I like that." Underneath all of Cawdrey's artistic freedom is technical purity, however. Cawdrey is not just an artist, someone who stumbled into art and decided to try to make a living at it. Rather, she learned to draw first, at places around the world while she followed her family. Her father worked at embassies in places like Syria, Germany and Damascus.

She studied at the American University in Paris, and received instruction from French painters at the Sorbonne. Cawdrey's colors are big and bold, a bit brash, not unlike Cawdrey herself, who sees her painting maturing as she does. You might find a lime green next to a turquoise next to a magenta. "I like my colors to pop," Cawdrey says. "I'm not afraid of color." She started her art career by working in watercolor, studying and painting in Great Britain, a bastion of watercolor style. While watercolors imbue a sense of pastoral life with muted colors, strong color has always fascinated Cawdrey. At age 17 she learned to paint in oils in Paris. "I was always playing with color, tearing the paper off my crayons," Cawdrey says.

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She still uses watercolor, but she grew into the dye-on-silk technique 15 years ago. With the Cawdreys' only son, Morgan (an artist in his own right), heading off to college next year, she has reached a part in her life where she is able to see the joy in everything around her. "My work tends to reflect the stages of my life," she says. "As I get older, my style gets more loose and abstract."

Silk painting has been around for over 3,000 years, but it's fairly new on the Montana art scene. The technique is very archival. In fact, some silk paintings from the Imperial Museum in China are 1,200 years old, Cawdrey said. "People look at my paintings and say, 'This is new' but I tell them it's actually not," Cawdrey says.

Cawdrey's subjects range from the fanciful to the literal. While one of her paintings depicts rich evening light on a villa in Venice, her "Legends of the Fall" includes fantastic images of eagle, havelina, elk, fish and heaven-bound humans, all interwoven in a rich tapestry of color.

Her paintings are positive and uplifting, never dark or forboding. "That's who I am," Cawdrey says. "I can't paint who I'm not." She also does commissioned portraits.

Her work has been commissioned by the Montana Aids council, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Montana Land Reliance. As an artist, Cawdrey was most influenced by Norman Rockwell, whose paintings in the Saturday Evening Post depicted a certain epoch in American life. "He was a true story teller," Cawdrey said. Look closely at Cawdrey's personal life and you see where some of the images come from. When Cawdrey was a child, her grandmother, Stella, would tell her stories of riding horses to school and getting bucked off.

The colorful memory of this Texas matriarch left an indelible mark on Cawdrey, who now immortalizes Stella in several of her paintings of women riders. "I was never a cowgirl," Cawdrey says, however. The images of women riders are fun to do, she says, "and they sell well."

Which is something Cawdrey - the artist - is not afraid to admit. Her artistic success has earned her financial freedom - or is it the other way around? Perhaps her artistic freedom has earned her financial success. Her artwork has now been licensed in dozens of other forms, from shower curtains to tiles, greeting cards to cutting boards. In addition to her original art, she also publishes limited-edition giclées, which are more affordable. The giclée process takes her artwork and reproduces it on canvas or handmade paper. Cawdrey has no trouble being true to her artistic emotions and her financial needs.

With all of the commercialization of her original artwork, it demanded Cawdrey to ask herself if she was a business person or an artist - the inevitable question posed to those in creative endeavors. It seems you can be both. "At first I was a bit put off by (financial success)," she says, "but then I realized that was just my own snootyness. I'm OK with it." The profession that has now earned her financial success was at one time an emotional salvation.

While running a boarding house for troubled teenagers in Thompson Falls, she would turn at night to her painting. She found refuge in her canvases. "I needed to find a way to take care of myself," she says. "The more stressful it was at work, the more painting I did." From this vibrant woman - who once played Annie Oakley in the Bigfork community theater - come big, effusive colors.

Which is what life is all about to Cawdrey. "It's about being big, big as you want to be," she says. "If you have the confidence, you can go big."

Where to find her

Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey's art can be found at the following galleries in Montana: Chaparral Fine Art, Bozeman; Frame of Reference, Bigfork; Nancy Cawdrey Studios, Bigfork. On the Web:

Art in the Family

Morgan Cawdrey emerged from his mother's studio and held forth a painting he'd been working on all morning. The painting, using the dye on silk method that his mother, Nancy Cawdrey uses, depicted a bass leaping out of the blue-green water, a spray of foam practically flying off the silk. Morgan was quiet as his mother observed the painting. "I'd soften up these lines a little bit. It looks nice," she said. Morgan, a senior at Bigfork High School and an artist in his own right, is following in the footsteps of his mother. He took first place three times in a national duck stamp competition, and won second place in the competition when he was eight years old.
Nancy Cawdrey in her Bigfork studio. Photo by David Reese


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