Learning how to be an artist is a process that has spanned decades for Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey.
As she explained on a recent February morning in her Whitefish studio, even a 6-inch by 6-inch painting on silk of the sunlight playing off the snow-covered boughs of mountain pines is representative of the struggle to perfect her craft that has never ended, even as she has embraced the challenge across many of the 74 years of her life. Putting it all together in this small but intricately constructed painting she completed last year, made using Italian and French dyes, felt like a breakthrough built on the last 25 years of her work and study.
In this case, Cawdrey said she found herself reverse-engineering the piece from a vision of its final form, puzzling out first how to use the white of the painting surface, a shade that can’t be regained once painted over. Other aspects of the painting, like color selection, or small details to signify the reflection of light on surfaces, can also be broken down into individual, but interrelated components that when fitted together form the image as a whole.
In that sense, it’s an appropriate concept to keep in mind for Cawdrey’s upcoming exhibition at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell called “Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey: Peaks, Plains, and Beyond,” which will run from March 3 through June 17.
For the first time she can recall, 50 years of Cawdrey’s work will be on display in chronological order, in a display built with pieces from throughout her evolution as an artist who has continued to learn and study, even while seeking to balance the pragmatism of the business side of art, with the mixture of technical mastery and creative impulse that can set an artist apart.
It’s also the largest display of her work hanging in one location that Cawdrey will have ever seen.
“To see it all in one place … It might bring me to tears,” Cawdrey said.
These days Cawdrey is an owner of the Cawdrey Gallery, which relocated from Bigfork to Whitefish in 2017, and represents the work of more than 20 artists. She also finds time to balance the demands of her continued work as an artist-in-demand with her role as a grandmother to a 3-year-old and 5-year-old.
In recalling her origins as an artist, Cawdrey said she’s been told she had a creative streak as a child, but her first memorable milestone came when she signed up, out of curiosity, for a painting class while she was studying in France after graduating from high school in Germany. Cawdrey said her father worked for the U.S. government during the Cold War, and that he was stationed in various countries. She has lived in France, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany and England. In the art class, Cawdrey found happiness in learning how to paint, and enough of a challenge to sustain her interest.
“I thought it was gonna be a lot easier than it was,” she said.
She remembers at one point taking a train to Frankfurt to visit her parents and bringing with her a couple of early paintings that she liked enough to show them.
“They were stolen on the train,” Cawdrey said. It left her disappointed, and yet flattered that someone had thought they were of enough value to be worth stealing. She’s still hoping one day they’ll turn back up.
At that point, she still never thought she would ever actually be an artist, but painting became a pursuit that she never gave up on, even as she worked in education and became a mother. A little over two decades ago, she spent almost a year living in Europe, studying the books and works of the American portrait artist John Singer Sargent, and painting every single day, often bringing an easel and paints to the location of her subject. It was during this period that Cawdrey says she took a “quantum leap” in her abilities.
While Cawdrey has experience with oil painting, and still enjoys the form, some of her most sought-after works are her watercolor style crepe de chine paintings, in which she paints onto silk. She said the material allows her to densely layer colors, and that she is fascinated by the original ancient Chinese tradition of creating art on silk, describing how in some cases 40-foot-long silks chronicling the history of a community have survived thousands of years.
“Silk is amazingly strong,” she said, adding that its resiliency runs counter to the belief she has observed in the Western art world that oil paintings will last longer.
Her work can be more meditative, like a commissioned piece she’s working on right now showing elk gathered in a valley. And it can be playful, like her portrait “Band of Brothers,” which shows four bulldogs posed side-by-side with a seriousness that spills over into comedy.
In each piece, and in many of her other works, Cawdrey uses color in a manner that is intended to be representational, but not realistic. Still, she said her use of color draws on her understanding of the foundational relationships between colors. It’s an approach that allows her to try and capture “the spirit” of whatever she is painting, and brings a vibrancy of color and imaginative quality to her work without sacrificing the identifiable qualities of her subject.
“You find your voice, and you build on that,” Cawdrey said. “And you keep building.”
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