Capturing the Essence of the Old West

Artist Deborah Berniklau headlines Hockaday’s timeless legacy show

By Justin Franz
Deborah Berniklau's "A Sudden Detour."

What if a carpenter lost the use of their hands? Or a musician lost the ability to hear? What would they do and how would they move forward without the ability to do what they loved?

That was the predicament facing artist and illustrator Deborah Berniklau when she lost the ability to see clearly two decades ago after she was diagnosed with Keratoconus, an incurable eye disease that can cause distorted vision.

“It was incredibly scary because my vision was gone so fast,” she said.

But Berniklau has persevered, and thanks to a number of operations, the New Mexico oil painter is back at the drawing board carving out a unique spot in Western American art. Her work will be displayed as part of the Hockaday Museum of Art’s “A Timeless Legacy – Women Artists of Glacier National Park” exhibit running through Sept. 10. Berniklau was on hand for a special premiere event at the Hockaday on Aug. 13.

Berniklau grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and first practiced her art with chalk on the sidewalk in front of her parents’ home. Even today, Berniklau remembers how much she loved to draw animals – especially horses – as a child. Seeing how much she loved art, Berniklau’s dad enrolled his daughter in art classes, which cemented a passion for painting and drawing. Later she studied at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California before becoming an illustrator. During her career she worked for Disney, Warner Brothers and NASA.

But her career came to a sudden and dramatic halt in 1991 when she was diagnosed with Keratoconus. Berniklau lost her eyesight in just six weeks. Discouraged but not defeated, Berniklau underwent a number of surgeries to stabilize her corneas with different lenses. The surgeries worked, and Berniklau once again has the ability to see. She said in some ways the experience and procedures have helped her art.

Deborah Berniklau. Courtesy Photo
Deborah Berniklau. Courtesy Photo

“It actually helps me pay closer attention to the edges of the images I’m working on, and that makes me focus,” she said.

Then, through the 1990s and early 2000s, she struggled to raise a child as a single mother. Through it all, art remained a cornerstone in her life. In the late-2000s, she started to do oil paintings and quickly discovered a passion for painting scenes of the Old West, especially those with cowboys and Native Americans. Berniklau said she likes to focus on the lesser-known side of the Old West’s characters, especially their family lives.

“I want to bring to life the stories within the stories we’ve heard,” she said, adding that she considers herself a storyteller as much as a painter.

Berniklau has earned numerous awards and accolades. But she said one of her favorite honors so far was being asked to take part in the Hockaday’s Timeless Legacy exhibit. The Kalispell museum first held the female-focused exhibit in 2015, and it was so popular they decided to do it again. Among the artists featured are Stephanie Campos, Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey and Krystii Melaine.

“It’s such a huge honor to be a part of this show,” she said.

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