“Representative art is my mission,” says artist Carrie Ballantyne. And she loves nothing more than representing the West.
Ballantyne considers herself lucky to live and create within the ranching and cowboy culture. Her award-winning portraits of horsewomen and horsemen, children, cowboys, and buckaroos have made her a foremost artist working in the contemporary realistic style. “People are my passion, and through the years I am more aware of that fact,” Ballantyne says. “A portrait is a human landscape.”
Ballantyne came to Wyoming ranching country by way of California. Born and raised near Los Angeles, she grew up in a family of artisans and began drawing as a young girl. It was a bootstrap upbringing: “We were very poor,” Ballantyne says. “We had to earn the money to buy anything, and we learned to make things. I sewed clothes, became a seamstress, made jewelry and beadwork. My family are all self-employed, and they passed that bug on to me.”
It was on an elementary school trip to The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, that she saw Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy. “The painting took my breath away,” she recalls. Her own future work would share that masterpiece’s realism and mastery of brushwork, but her subject matter would be less rarefied and more rugged. Attracted to mountains and horses, Ballantyne headed to Cody, Wyoming, at 18 and found work as a camp cook for a big-game outfitter. There, her fondness for the Western lifestyle found flesh-and-blood subjects for her art.
In Cody, she met renowned artist James Bama, whose influence would prove significant to Ballantyne’s career. Studying his photographs of Western subjects together provided a type of mentorship and helped shape her work.
In 1981, Ballantyne’s art had progressed to the point that she sold or traded every piece she entered in the George Phippen Memorial Western Art Show. Returning to the famous Prescott, Arizona, show the following year, Ballantyne won first place in drawing with a portrait of a cowgirl, Holdin’ Her Own.
Since then, she’s continued to hone her skills as a representational artist, and she makes no apologies: “People who say I am an illustrator, well, I am in good company. Norman Rockwell was a genius. Remington, James Bama — I am flattered to be among them.”
Her goal, she says, was always to do oil painting. “The first 10 years when I was married to a cowboy, raising and home schooling my children, it was easier to use graphite,” she explained to The Brinton Museum, which is mounting a 30-year retrospective exhibition in Big Horn, Wyoming. The next 15 years she did her portraits in colored pencils on a sanded pastel paper using a glazing technique, which mimicked oil painting. “I moved into oil painting about 10 years ago and use conté and charcoal as my drawing mediums for the portraits.”
Ballantyne spends hours photographing a subject, then culls the photos to find the one she sees has captured a person’s essence and character. “I want to cause the viewing public to take a moment, to feel something deeper, connect, and create emotion.”
Friends and family members serve as Ballantyne’s models. She has depicted some, like Steven Yellowtail, a member of the distinguished Crow family, at different ages. Yellowtail was 8 when Ballantyne first painted him. Now in his 20s — “a rancher and quite the horseman” — he’s the subject of a new piece that will be part of the Brinton show, which will feature samples of her graphite drawings, colored pencil works, and her new works in oil.
Ballantyne’s Sheridan community is filled with friends among the ranching culture and a growing group of artists, but she stays focused on her work and spends long hours in the studio. That focus has been especially intense in the run-up to her exhibition. This is the first time she’ll have a show at home. “My shows have always been away,” she says. “People here know and will recognize my subjects, and it’s exciting and a little fearful. I don’t want to let them down. I’ve lived in the Sheridan ranching community for the last 25 years. These are my friends, neighbors, the people I love and respect.”
From the July 2018 issue. Carrie Ballantyne Comes Home is on view June 3 – July 15, 2018, at The Brinton Museum in Big Horn, Wyoming (thebrintonmuseum.org). The artist is represented by the Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Jackson, Wyoming. Follow the artist on Instagram @clballantyne. Photography: (top/cover to bottom) Jesse on the Houlihan Ranch, Collection of Gary and Susan Miller; Pearl of Santa Fe, Private Collection; A Montana Man, Permanent collection of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.