Walking into Whitefish’s newly opened art studio and gallery is akin to Dorothy stepping into Oz — the landscape turns a vibrant Technicolor, populated with familiar creatures that don’t conform to convention, and the adventure begins.
This is the world according to renowned Western artist Nancy Cawdrey, whose bold visions play out in rich arrays of color-saturated layers from which iridescent images emerge — bison, bear and moose (oh my).
A pioneer of dye-on-silk painting in the West, Cawdrey’s distinctive style is unmistakable, and her established artistic voice is on full display in the panoply of work that adorns the walls of her new Whitefish venture, which stands out as further evidence that, established or not, Cawdrey is as versatile as ever.
Amid the burnt umbers, Indian reds and cerulean blues of the Cawdrey aesthetic, a business venture was born.
The concept for Cawdrey’s new studio and gallery is the product of a collaboration with her son, artist Morgan Cawdrey, whose own work has been gaining purchase in private collections from coast to coast, and husband Steve, weaving together a trifecta of artistic interests in a single space.
Previously based in Bigfork, the Cawdreys were looking to downsize from their 11-acre property and move to Whitefish when the new space, previously occupied by Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits, became available on Wisconsin Avenue and they struck a lease agreement with owner Tom LaChance.
Equipped with a gleaming commercial kitchen, the 4,000-square-foot building is set up to host weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, baby showers, or fundraisers while a sprawling landscaped yard is available for outdoor use during the fair seasons.
Morgan cut his teeth as an event manager organizing the multi-day Heart of the West Art Show and Auctions in Bozeman, and is running the event venue, called Cypress Yard.
“The idea was to provide a venue so that people can celebrate while they’re also surrounded by beautiful art,” he said.
As a gallery and working studio, called The Nancy Cawdrey Studio and Gallery, the space will feature a rotating suite of artists, including contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers, as well as workshops, painting classes and open studio sessions, which Nancy will hold every Wednesday from 1-6 p.m.
Cawdrey said the educational component of her studio adds an important element, particularly as she spots burgeoning talent in Western artists who may not have found their voice. In addition to classes from mother and son, local portrait artist Loren Arsen will also teach at the studio.
While Nancy is well versed in the history of dye-on-silk painting, which dates back to the Chinese Warring States period between 476 and 221 B.C., she isn’t interested in playing the role of a pedantic mentor.
Rather, she hopes to inspire other artists to be their most honest and open selves while fostering an appreciation of art.
“Be bold and be big and be outrageous,” she said. “If I can get that one message across to a kid, I’ve succeeded.”
The kitchen is operated by Michael Cartwright, of Cartwright Catering, who Morgan Cawdrey said creates a dimension of culinary art, rounding out the three-pronged concept — bring people together in celebration, make and appreciate art and eat delicious food.
Visitors to the gallery will be immediately struck by the mesmerizing wildlife paintings, in which the charismatic megafauna of Glacier National Park — grizzly bears, bison, moose, wolverine — are invigorated with Nancy Cawdrey’s unique color values, which bloom with greater distinction due to her dye-on-silk technique, giving the impression of a form that is at once free flowing and contained.
These critters are part of her ambitious Forever Glacier Legacy Project, which consists of 17 silk paintings depicting all of the park’s large mammals, and three separate paintings depicting its small mammals.
Working in concert with Morgan, the concept is to create a traveling exhibit with an interactive multi-media educational component, and eventually house the work permanently at a new visitor center in West Glacier.
“It will give children in the heart of New York City who can’t visit Glacier National Park the opportunity to see and feel and smell and learn about this special place,” Morgan said.
Each of the paintings is commissioned by a sponsor at $6,500, and will ultimately benefit the Glacier National Park Conservancy.
Nancy Cawdrey said she hopes the expansive body of work and its distinctive color palette will inspire people of all ages to discover a special connection with Glacier Park and with the artistic world.
“It is representational art,” she said. “I think the world is still a pretty amazing place, and I like to think others do, too.”
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