Her easel stands between two windows that look out at the Bighorn Mountains in Northern Wyoming. On any given day, perched on it are portraits of girls with names like Ada, Martha Sue, and Beatrice — coffee shop names, like the ones you find on a waitress’ nametag. Intense and realistic, staring right into the viewer’s eyes, these gals have a bit of a wild look, with a tangle of loose and layered colorful swirls. But these gals would never be allowed inside a diner, not even in the West, which is where they’re from.
These are paintings of cows, by artist Sonja Caywood.
“It has to be spontaneous, and it has to be a little bit wrong,” says Caywood from her back-of-the-garage studio addition in Dayton, Wyoming, about 20 miles from Sheridan, where she lives with her husband, three dogs, and a cat. “Someone once told me that interesting is better than correct, and I find that to be true.”
Caywood’s cow paintings — like her sheep, elk, and horse portraits — land somewhere between abstract and realistic, depending upon how close or far away you are from them. “There are a lot of shapes and colors in these paintings, and when you back up, they look more realistic. I love to watch people walk into the room and say, ‘Oh, it looks like a photograph,’ and they get closer, and they see that it’s a bunch of colorful brushstrokes and nothing makes sense. It’s fun to have that dichotomy in my work.”
To achieve the effect, Caywood applies swipes of oil paint, constantly walking back from the paintings to make sure they’re both realistic and “totally funky.”
Although she hasn’t had any formal training, Caywood doesn’t consider herself self-taught. “I’ve taken workshops and classes, and I learn from artist friends,” she says. And then there’s practice: Every year for the past decade, she’s made hundreds of animal paintings.
She grew up a cowgirl on the nearby Crow reservation, just over the state line in Montana, where her family’s roots stretch back to her great-great-grandparents. As a child, she spent all of her summer vacations outdoors, helping to move cows while living out of her grandparents’ round-up wagon. She remembers eating meals cooked on the wagon’s tiny wood cookstove and bathing in the creeks. “We didn’t have much money growing up, but I always made art out of something,” Caywood says. “I’d arrange rocks and sticks in the dirt when we were on the wagon. I think that time outdoors led to my animal paintings.”
These firsthand Western experiences, she believes, are what give her work depth and honesty. “I think my history as a ranch girl comes through in my work. It gives me more voice with what I’m painting. There’s an authenticity in them.”
You wouldn’t know it now, but early on she never cared for cows much: “Horses were fun, but cows represented work to me.” But that changed when Caywood accepted a commission to paint one. Using a photograph her client had given her, she saw something familiar. “It was that look that cows have right before they chase the dog,” she says. “Then I began portraying the personalities of cows I’d known as a kid, and I grew to love them.”
At the moment, she’s painting the animals she grew up with, along with any number of things that come her way. For inspiration, all she has to do is look outside. “I’m watching a herd of deer right now,” she says, gazing out the window. “The other day I took a photo of my neighbor’s horses on the hill. The horses were dark, and I loved that they were backlit. The mountain had snow on it, and the snow was all blue as the sun was setting. I love those horses — and I know them. One loves a belly scratch. I think that always comes through my paintings in a way people can connect with.”
Sonja Caywood is represented by Gallery on Main in Dayton, Wyoming; Expressions Art Gallery & Framing in Sheridan, Wyoming; Tripp Studio (in the Emerson Cultural Center) in Bozeman, Montana; Frame of Reference Gallery in Whitefish, Montana; and Studio 8369 in Grand Lake, Colorado.
Header: Remnant, 30 x 40 inches, oil.
Photography: Images courtesy the artist
From our January 2021 issue.