Sonja Caywood’s expressionist work is an ode to fleeting Americana, and a glimpse at life in Wyoming through the lens of an artist who grew up living her version of frontier life. Her cozy studio, built on her family’s ranch-style plot in the picturesque town of Dayton, serves at once as a gallery, an academy, a shrine to frontier living, a tack board for the art her children created in days gone by, and a source of inspiration. The Bighorn Mountains loom not far beyond the trees in the back yard. Two easels stand tall and sturdy, ready for whatever Sonja might throw at them. Family photos are pinned to the walls, stuck to the edges of mirrors. Bible verses and inspirational quotes are mounted here, stashed there, mostly in places where the natural light streaming in through the big glass doors will find them. This is a happy space, a glimpse at what life must be like inside a kaleidoscope.
Sonja’s style is bright, bold, beautiful. She is humble, quick to eschew praise – she says often that she’s had to learn to be an artist the hard way, that her formal training is lacking. You would never know by studying her work. A quick glance at a reference photo – an ugly cow, because ugly cows are the most beautiful – and the paint flows from her brush like it was born from her own blood. The brush is an extension of her self, the art doubly so.
Sonja is anything but the stoic, staid, buttoned-up Western artist of yore. She is easygoing, quick with a smile. Her lines are fluid. She revels in making what she deems “mistakes,” ostensibly so she can take the scene in a fresh direction with fresh paint. She paints the life she knows, not the history others often attempt to conjure. Her paintings feel timeless, vibrant, and spirited.
While she paints, she speaks openly about her life growing up in Wyoming and Montana, her style, her path, the struggles an artist faces in the early days, the new challenges success can create. This is practiced, but wholly authentic; Sonja has taught classes for years, though she teaches less now, tries to create more. Watching her work is mesmerizing, and why she has become a favorite at quick-draw shows in Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, and beyond.
Sonja is a rule-breaker, a passionate creator, a local treasure, and a documentarian of life in Wyoming. For these reasons and more, artist + painter Sonja Caywood is one of our Women of Sheridan, Wyo. for 2019.
Sheridan Travel & Tourism’s Shawn Parker sat down with Sonja to discuss her art, her career, and what life is like for an expressionist in Wyoming.
SHAWN: Tell me about your background; who Sonja Caywood is, where she comes from. How long have you lived in Sheridan/Dayton? Why make Sheridan County your home?
I grew up with one foot in Montana and one in Wyoming. I was born in Sheridan, as was my father, but our family lived to the north, near Lodge Grass, MT, and spent several years south of Ekalaka, MT. In 8th grade, we moved from Wyola, MT, to Parkman, WY, for school and I haven’t left, except to spend summers ranching in MT growing up. We moved to Dayton right after I graduated high school there, in 1988, and the older I get, the less likely I’ll ever love anywhere as much as Sheridan County.
SHAWN: Do you have family here? Are your roots in Wyoming?
I called myself a Montanan until I was in my 30’s and realized I’d actually lived in Wyoming longer. My great-great- grandparents settled in Story in 1901, and my great-grandmother started her family in Sheridan County, but from there, nearly everyone moved to Montana. Two other great grandfathers came to Sheridan via train and took up working for area ranches like the OW, The Antler, and Faddis Kennedy, in Montana. Most of my family lives in Wyoming today, but it’s still the Crow reservation where I feel a physical pull to the land and the feeling of “home.” My mom’s family is from South Dakota, but lived near Kirby, MT when she was a senior in Sheridan. I’m blessed that my son and his wife, and my daughter all live in Sheridan. I think as we see more of the world, people from this part of the US realize it truly is the best place to live. I’m blessed to call Dayton home. My husband and I have lived in Dayton since 1988 and raised our two kids here.
SHAWN: You’ve mentioned growing up in the “old ways” of ranching – what do you mean?
I didn’t realize what a unique treasure it was until I got older, but my dad’s family always moved our cows to summer and fall pastures and branded using a messwagon, rope corrals, tents, teepees, like you see in the Charles Russell paintings. I grew up taking baths in wash tubs or cold creeks and falling to sleep on the ground as the coyotes howled and horses grazed nearby. When my dad and his brother and their parents ran their cattle corporation on an unfenced tract in the Pryor mountains on the Crow Reservation, we spent entire summers living that way. People my age usually haven’t experienced that type of lifestyle, and I really think time away from electricity and running water or modern distractions made me observant of animals, landscapes and light. Of course, I’m an excellent “tent” camper. I’m grateful that they held onto that part of the past, and that I got to experience that part of history.
SHAWN: Are there other artists in your family?
Oh yes, my family is full of creative people. I come from resourceful, inventive stock, who found creative ways to make something they needed or adapt something to serve another purpose. My uncle Aubry Smith is an artist who inspired me at a very young age. I’d watch him turn a blank scrap of paper into a world I could see and imagine myself in. He’d make a story with lines and not words – I found it magical from a very young age. I’m told that when I was very small, he’d carry me to the CM Russell prints on my grandparents’ walls, showing me the color and light in the scenes. My great grandfather Sarpy Sam McDowell was a published poet, and Russell had sent him illustrated letters appreciating his work. He also knew Will James, as did my other great grandfather. There are a lot of musicians on both sides of my family, but I didn’t inherit that gene.
SHAWN: The Wyoming Office of Tourism (WOT) is calling 2019 the “Year of Wyoming Women,” as the state celebrates the 150th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. On December 10, 1869, Wyoming Territory passed the first law in United States history granting women the right to vote and hold public office – more than 50 years prior to the U.S. ratification of the 19th amendment. What does it mean to be a woman in Wyoming in 2019?
I don’t think of myself particularly as a “woman” in Wyoming, but as a person here: a child of God and a member of this Great State. I grew up ranching, and was impressed as a child watching ranch women I knew drive tractors, semis, work cattle, train horses, warm baby calves in their homes, run power tools, feed bums, branding crews or hay crews, and after working beside a man all day, do the cooking, cleaning, and help the kids with their homework. I’ve also known ranch men who’ve braided their daughters’ hair and did more than their share of cooking and cleaning, too. Having been raised in a lifestyle where a woman could do anything a man could do, there’s less of a divide between the sexes. Because of our state’s history of equality, women here are inherently tough; we didn’t get the option to faint from weakness or tight corsets, nor to expect a man to defend our honor or provide for us while we did needlework at home. In that sense -or for me anyway, I have to remind myself not to be callus to the pain and feelings of others; to at times temper my independent “get ‘er done” attitude with my buried-deep softer, nurturing emotions.
SHAWN: Why Wyoming? How does Wyoming feature in your life – not only from a professional standpoint, but as a place to live and play?
I was born in Sheridan, and though I spent much of my childhood just over the line in Montana, my parents brought me and my little brothers here in 1983 to finish school. I’ve seen much of the US and the world, and the more I travel, the more I am grateful to be right where I am. The culture and landscape inspire me. I always told my kids, as we’d drive back to Dayton when they were little, “Look at this! People drive from across the US to see what we see every day.” Not only the beauty, but the lifestyle of Wyoming, the self-sufficiency, hard work, and caring for others that much of today’s society seems to have forgotten.
SHAWN: Your work has a vivid pastoral beauty and is marked by a timeless western aesthetic – is this a natural style you’ve honed over the years, or something you’ve consciously tried to develop?
I’m always surprised when people say they can identify my work by sight, as I don’t see my own style as uniformly. When I look back at what I wanted to make in college – tight, exact renditions that resembled photographs – and what I’m drawn to now – loose, painterly depictions of light and color and emotion – I can definitely see how my work has changed over the years. More recently, I see shifts in the colors I use – or rather, their intensity. As I become a better painter, I find I rely on craftsmanship and value more than bold color to get my point across. Many believe that western art should be historical scenes done with a 0000 brush; I like to show that western art can be contemporary and loose and colorful, lighthearted and fun. I don’t care whether they recognize my work as a “Sonja Caywood” as much I want to inspire them to look more closely at the world around us here – to see that there is a Great Creator behind all of this.
SHAWN: You show across the United States – is there any one event, show or gallery that stands out in your mind as a favorite, or as a pivotal moment in your career?
I’m honored to be included in every show or opportunity that comes my way, but Cowgirl Up! Art from the Other Half of the West has not built my career and reputation, making it possible for me to come to life as a full-time artist, but it fills my heart with appreciation for other women artists doing what I’m doing – portraying our own versions of the west.
This show, at Desert Caballeros Western Museum in tiny Wickenburg, AZ, is such a fantastic experience, not because of the sales, which represent a significant portion of my yearly income, but because of the camaraderie of the artists and the many people who attend the opening weekend celebration. The artists are so encouraging and supportive of each other, whether you’re a no-name or a well-known artist. It goes beyond your level of popularity, your politics, your education, background or style of art, and ironically, it goes beyond our gender. This show is about honoring women for their role in the West, and for their contributions to western art. Look in any museum and you’ll find that most of the art presented is done by men.
Wyoming recognized its need for women in our sparsely-populated state many years ago, and likewise, Cowgirl Up! offers a platform where women have an artistic voice. When I say that it goes beyond gender, I mean that this show, like Wyoming, is not an in your face, “I am woman hear me roar,” “Girl Power” movement, but is an art show of highly talented, multi-faceted, strong, intelligent people, who use our strength and our vision to encourage others, regardless of gender, politics or background, through our art. The pioneer women of early Wyoming sought roles in government and business, to take part in forming this great state, not to wield power or domination over men, but to have a say, and to function as an equal part of something much bigger.
SHAWN: You are exceptionally versatile in your art, but do you have a preferred medium? If yes, why?
About 10 years ago, a friend commissioned me to do an oil for his parents. I hadn’t painted with oils since I was 20 but got them out and fell in love with them again. I used to use acrylic, pastels, watercolors, gouache… but I love the way oils feel, how they move and keep their shapes as they build thickness.
SHAWN: Take us through your process – how do you decide what to paint? Does it come together at once, or do you allow the creative process to dictate the result?
I’m not sure what makes me want to paint something, but I think it’s seeing a strong contrast in value or unexpected colors – the more I study color, the more I recognize color in seemingly gray scenes. I love to paint expressions on animals, to give them a personality that people can notice or relate to. Often what the person sees isn’t what I intended, demonstrating that the work is alive and affects viewers individually. This is as all good art: music, literature, poetry, drama… should be – it should become something slightly different to each person, reflecting or casting a light on what’s inside them, and changing them for it. Sometimes it comes together, and I love it, but it doesn’t sell for years. Sometimes I wipe it away. Sometimes I fix it years later. If I have to fix it or wipe it out, it’s usually because I followed my head instead of my heart and lost the very thing that would have made it special. Nothing is perfect, and sometimes the mistake is what makes it interesting. While I love it when something wonderful happens with a piece, I know that it’s not really me doing it, but my “tapping in” to something greater than me.
SHAWN: Your work is on display in some of the finest galleries and collections in the American West. What motivates you to continue creating art when you’re so firmly established and well-respected?
My work doesn’t hang in the “finest galleries and collections,” but I’m honored that the people who buy my work truly enjoy it. It means more when a stranger says, “I saw your cow in the ER at Billings Clinic,” than to know that two hang in the Capitol where only a few might enjoy them. On the other hand, it meant a great deal when Governor and Mrs. Meade told me how much they enjoyed my cow painting in his office, two years after it received a purchase award. Someday I hope to hang in the Coors show, the Buffalo Bill or The Russell, The Booth, or The Autry, etc., but until then I’m just happy making art that an everyday person can enjoy and hang in their home.
When I consider that I’d paint even if I never made another dime on it, it matters less where my art ends up, and more that I paint what’s honestly in my heart.
SHAWN: Artists talk often of creating art for the sake of art, and how commercial success can create a set of new challenges unrelated to the art. How do you remain true to your work and authentically Sonja Caywood when working on commercial pieces?
This is a huge pitfall, as when we become known for something, it’s hard to branch into un-chartered territory to paint what’s in our heart. But the operative word is “heart.” We have to follow our hearts as artists. I tell people that in order to paint their commission, I have to fall in love with it by getting to know the reference photo (if I can’t see the actual place or animal) and seeing beauty beyond what my eye sees. My commission work is often too stiff because I’m afraid of making mistakes, while my true self loves flourishes of color in broad brushstrokes. Again, I have to remember the reason I paint, and put the obligation or the plan of how I’d use the money I could earn completely out of my mind.
SHAWN: Your work captures a fleeting sense of vanishing Americana – how do you balance the sense of place in your paintings with the modern development of Sheridan County?
I don’t believe in painting historical scenes of the past that I have not personally seen or lived. I think that when an artist focuses on subjects they have no personal experience with, it’s not an authentic expression of themselves. This type of “manufactured” art is highly popular with collectors, and many artists; it’s just not my thing. I could rightfully paint scenes of driving great herds of cattle or horses, of life on a roundup wagon, or the way the sunset filtered horse shadows on the canvas of a teepee – these visual memories are within me and are my experience. I can paint cowboys as they are today, as I see them and know them from experience. I’d rather nod to the past with an abandoned barn or an old sign or tractor someone recognizes than “Little House on the Prairie.” I could paint my memories from living on the reservation in the 80’s, but I’d never paint “life in a Crow village circa 1840.” I don’t know these things by experience, so my portrayal is not truly “of me.”
Luckily, the west is full of weathered barns and old signs and tractors that remind us of our history with the land, and of our current place in that timeline, when houses are sprouting up in hayfields and wood barns are being replaced with steel.
SHAWN: What’s on the horizon for you in 2019?
I can with total honestly say I don’t know what’s on the horizon for 2019. Life events lately remind me to really live each day, spend time with those I love and to appreciate the time we’re given, and to spend it well. We will travel to Arizona, to Cowgirl Up! at the end March, and maybe drive up the Pacific Coast on our way back, as we’ve never done that before. Painting is one place where I connect with God, and I’ll continue to work through life’s challenges with a brush in my hand, focused on becoming a better painter and a better person.
For more on Sonja, visit sonjacaywood.com
Click here for WYLD West: The Podcast, to hear Sonja’s episode.
Click here for Sheridan Travel & Tourism’s YouTube channel, with three shorts featuring Sonja Caywood and her work. Filmed on location in Sonja’s Dayton studio. Cinematography by Shawn Parker. Editing by Jeff Shanor.
Find Sonja’s art at:
SAGE Community Arts
Gallery on Main
Tripp Studio (Emerson Cultural Center)
Rimrock Art & Frame
Western Heritage Center