Bigfork artist Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey stood in the Hockaday Museum on a recent afternoon, and watched people react to her paintings. It was her first museum show, “American Silk Road,” and while some artists might feel anxious at such a moment, she was composed and cracking jokes. Cawdrey – like her art – is anything but timid. While her paintings convey many things, Cawdry said she intends the bold, unexpected colors she employs to show strength, “that I was feeling strong and I wanted to encourage everybody else to feel strong.”
Cawdrey paints with watercolors, oils and mixed media, but she is probably best known for her work painting French dye on silk, which she said allows brighter, more vibrant color.
“With watercolor it’s hard to get the intensity of color that you can get with that much dye,” she said. “I think what I wanted to do was really go for it with the color.”
Dye on silk is an unusual and difficult medium in which to work. Errors are nearly impossible to repair. Pioneered by Chinese artists roughly 3,000 years ago, Cawdrey decided to try dye on silk after seeing such paintings on a trip to Hawaii and she was struck by the brightness they conveyed. Chinese dye on silk paintings traditionally use very restrained images and colors, but Cawdrey takes it in the opposite direction.
“This is an ancient, ancient medium which obviously can be applied in some contemporary, hopefully fresh, kinds of ways,” she said. “I think what I’m doing is taking a medium that was fairly conservative and fairly muted and really just punched it.”
Cawdrey’s Western scenes depict cowgirls and grizzlies, colts and longhorns, but these familiar images are imbued with shocking color, and patterned borders with smaller renderings that contain some of the color within the main image, and help the eye travel through the painting.
While Cawdrey feels she is best known as “the one who does the cowgirls,” in recent years she has moved toward large paintings of the flowers in her garden, Venetian street scenes and dogs. She recently agreed to paint a friend’s black Labrador, despite her aversion to using the color black: “I would rather layer and layer and layer and build up a dark.” The dog’s features were highlighted in green.
But Cawdrey did not decide to depart from more traditional rules and forms of paintings without learning them first. The daughter of a military officer, she spent much of her childhood in the Middle East, and studied painting for two years in Paris after graduating from high school, then spent five years in Britain. In 1979 she began a wilderness boarding school in Thompson Falls with her husband Steve, where she spent 22 years before moving to Bigfork, and now paints full-time. Of her time in Thompson Falls, she recalls driving two hours to Kalispell, to visit the Hockaday, calling it “my little art Mecca.”
Her work is displayed in galleries across the West, and she plans to take “American Silk Road” to museums throughout Montana. She is currently working on her largest painting ever, commissioned for Glacier Park’s centennial celebration of the Going-to-the-Sun road.
Cawdrey would not be able to do her painting, she said, without the inspiration of a place as big and bold as Montana itself: “That’s part of what I wanted to be, was expansive – to live in a place where I felt that way, and where I could be that way.”
American Silk Road
Selected works by Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey
January 10 – March 8
Hockaday Museum of Art, Kalispell
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.