Cowgirl artist Shawn Cameron is blessed with an intimate connection to the way of life she portrays in her paintings.
Cowgirl artist Shawn Cameron is blessed with an intimate connection to the way of life she portrays in her paintings.
It was one of the scariest times in her professional art career. In the spring of 1991, emerging Western artist Shawn Cameron was just days away from exhibiting her paintings at the prestigious Phippen Museum Western Art Show and sale in Prescott, Arizona. The event was her big chance to share her pieces with the public, but she was terrified at the thought of having to market her work.
Aware of her shyness, Shawnâs husband, Dean, thought of a way to help his wife overcome this occupational hurdle. He coordinated a âdress rehearsal,â at their ranch, displaying her artwork in the front yard and inviting the cowboy crew to view it.
âHe made me stand beside my work as the cowboys looked at it,â Shawn recalls. âI was surprised at how they actually seemed to enjoy it. Some of them didnât even speak English, but they pointed at it, commented on what they recognized and nodded to me in approval.â
With that boost of confidence, Shawn hesitantly confronted her insecurities and made it through her first major exhibition, selling every piece submitted. Almost two decades later, the artist admits that she still suffers from show nerves.
âI worry about each piece I send out the door,â she says. âIs it good enough? Will it sell? How will it be received? Itâs as though Iâm sending a little piece of myself into the world, and I donât know how itâll turn out.â
But Western art collectors praise Shawnâs ability to capture a realistic cowboy scene in a traditional, painterly style. The action and emotion created from her loose brush strokes, combined with the detail she puts into the riders, horses and landscape, make her artwork speak for itself, giving it a sense of time and place, and expressing the simple honesty of the artist and her deeply rooted ranch values.
âShawnâs passion really comes through in her paintings,â says Maryvonne Leshe, managing partner of Trailside Galleries, which represents Shawnâs work. âThereâs a sense of honesty in her paintings that comes from living the life she paints.â
Shawn Dee Wingfield was born March 17, 1950, in Phoenix, Arizona, into a fourth-generation Arizona ranch family. Her great-grandparents traveled the Oregon Trail in covered wagons in the mid-1870s, settling in the Camp Verde and Mogollon Rim areas of Arizona.
Her maternal grandfather, John Osborne, rode from Kansas to Arizona in 1907 with 35 cents in his pocket and began working on ranches. He worked his way up to foreman of the Chiricahua Cattle Company, a vast operation that extended from southern Arizona into the White Mountains, and later owned ranches in northern Arizona that are still owned and operated by family members.
Surrounded by hardscrabble relatives who were creative thinkers and problem solversâand to whom giving up was never an optionâShawn grew up with similar convictions.
âI had the opportunity to sit at the feet of people who changed the West, literally,â she says. âI thought everyone heard and saw the things I did. It wasnât until the passing of Grandpa Osborne that I realized what Iâd known my entire life was slipping away, and how fortunate I was to hear their stories and observe their ways.â
Shawn was the eldest of two children. She and her brother, Kit, were raised by their parents, Louis and Billie Wingfield, on a farm and feedlot in Arlington, Arizona. Shawn attended grammar school in Arlington, where she was voted homecoming queen of her senior class.
Despite her active role in high school, Shawn wasnât as sociable as one might think. The shy, straight-laced teenager preferred to spend time on her familyâs Horseshoe Ranch near Mayer, Arizona, and draw.
Shawn was interested in art at an early age. Her mother, Billie, had a masterâs degree in education with a minor in music, and shared her reverence for classical music and fine art with her daughter, whose earliest art memories are of drawing the Quarter Horses her family raised.
âI once climbed to the top of the water-storage tower, and, without permission, painted a larger-than-life-size horse mural on the side of the tank,â Shawn recalls. âI was proud of myself, but noticed a few days later that someone had replaced the storage tank and hauled the tower with my artwork to a distant place on the ranch.â
After high school, Shawn attended Northern Arizona University but put her education on hold to marry Dean. The couple lived with Shawnâs family on the Horseshoe Ranch, which Dean managed. There, they raised three children, daughters Dee Ann and Kacie, and son Brooks.
âIt was one of the most beautiful places to live and the best time of our lives, but there were few luxuries and physical work was never-ending,â she says. âWe lived in an old ranch house Dean and I remodeled about three times. Most of our food came off the ranch. We butchered our own beef, milked our own cow, baked our own bread, and raised our own fruits and vegetables.â
Shawn thinks back fondly of their simple yet rich lifestyle, which included preserving hundreds of quarts of fruit each year.
âThe kids would pick the fruit and bring it to me in wheelbarrows,â she says. âIt was a hot project, but very rewarding to see the brightly colored jars on the shelf.â
Once sheâd fed the kids and cowboys, the artist sometimes found a moment to draw at the kitchen table or in the makeshift âstudioâ she created in her small laundry area. A generator powered the house, so electricity was at a premium and much of her work was done by candle-, lantern- or natural light. Shawnâs eldest daughter, Dee Ann, remembers that her mom didnât buy coloring books for the kids. Instead, she drew pictures for them to color.
When Shawnâs family decided to sell the ranch in 1993, the Camerons leased the remote SV Ranch in western Arizona, but plummeting cattle prices and the worst drought in 100 years forced them back to square one. The couple went through the cyclical nature of ranch life several times, riding the rollercoaster with their unwavering faith.
At the Horseshoe Ranch, when her children were young, Shawn continued to draw and paint, with the encouragement of her mother and husband. Heeding her motherâs advice to âget off the ranch a little,â Shawn took an art class in Prescott. Her assignment involved turning a black-and-white photo into a color image. Money was tight, so she relied on her creativity and childrenâs watercolors to complete the project. When all the assignments had been handed in, the instructor critiqued each piece.
âWhen she came to mine, she paused,â Shawn remembers. âThen she said, âWe have an artist in the house.â I was so embarrassed to be recognized in front of the class.â
That was the first of many compliments Cameron would receive for her artwork.
Determined to earn her diploma, Shawn took classes through an adult-education program at Prescott College, where she graduated with bachelorâs degrees in education and creative writing. She went on to work as a substitute teacher, contract illustrator and freelance writer.
Shortly after Shawn earned her degree, Dean convinced her to take her art seriously. Well-known graphite pencil artist Robert âShooflyâ Shufelt was holding an art class at the Scottsdale Artistsâ School, and Dean enrolled Shawn.
âBeing very frugal and not wanting to spend any money on herself, it was a challenge to get her to Scottsdale,â Dean recalls. âShe packed an ice chest to eat out of, and she stayed at Motel 6.â
The experience was one of many that helped Shawn grow as an artist and step beyond her comfort zone.
âI was scared to death and hadnât been off the ranch much,â she says. âWe had very little money, and thinking of the cost, all the people in the room and staying by myself in town literally made me shake as I sat before my easel. Bobâs easygoing nature really put me at ease.â
Shawn also credits successful artists Joe Beeler and Bill Owen for her success. Owen critiqued her early images, offering âjust enough information to help me grow and encourage me.â Beeler had an open-door policy for Shawn, caring not only about her career but also her life as a mother and rancherâs wife.
Selecting an artistic genre was never a conscious decision for Shawn. She credits a divine hand and her life experiences for leading her down the path. Her family bred Quarter Horses that excelled in roping competition, and her family all rodeoed. Horses and ranch life naturally became intertwined in her artwork, because it was what she saw every day and what was most important to her.
âIâve never grown tired of horses,â she says. âThereâs something about the way they smell and feel when I touch them that makes me feel as though Iâm where I belong at that moment. Itâs a familiarity Iâve known all my life.â
Choosing a medium was a little more complicated. The artist started with pencil, but was attracted to the challenge of oil. Sheâs also experimented with pastels, watercolor and clay, casting her first bronze in 1996. Titled Tail to the Wind, the sculpture depicts a horse turning its back to the wind. In 2006, the piece nearly sold out within one year.
âIâve watched so many horses weather bad storms by simply turning their faces away and waiting for the storm to pass,â Shawn says. âTo many people this sculpture is just a horse standing in the wind, but to me it represents much of our life. If we turn our face toward our faith and away from the storm, weâll still be standing when the storm passes.â
In her oils, Cameron relies on a simple color palatte of primary colors, from which she mixes. Black is never one of her choices.
âI realized itâs the bending of light in the prism of a water drop that enables us to see the colors in the rainbow,â she explains. âThere are just a few colors, and how theyâre used depends on the light in the painting.â
Cameronâs paintings come from her soul, each depicting a theme or message to which she hopes someone relates. Dean and son Brooks often serve as models, and the reverent bond between the cowboy, his horse, the land and the situation at hand is strikingly apparent.
âWhen people look at my work, I hope they feel that the person who created it knew what she was looking at and had actually been there,â Shawn says. âI hope to give the viewer a feeling of something genuine.â
Rancher and Western art collector Mike Ingram has collected Cameronâs work for more than six years and says he can identify one of her pieces the moment he walks into a gallery.
âShe really exemplifies our Western heritage, and has a unique way of showing the horse and cowboy in motion,â he says. âBecause sheâs lived the life, she can paint with impeccable authenticity.â
A mother, grandmother of six and devoted wife, Cameron gracefully manages the demands of family, artist and rancher. She and Dean reside on a 50-acre property outside Prescott, Arizona, where she rides regularly and paints from her three-story studio thatâs a converted water tower. Dean operates ranches in Arizona, Montana and New Mexico, but always finds time to nurture his wifeâs art career, whether itâs critiquing a piece or standing by her side at a show. Their children all continue to be involved with cattle and horses.
Throughout her 18-year career as a professional artist, Shawn discovered that painting, like ranching, is full of challenges that require the same pioneer spirit that led her ancestors through life.
âIt takes a lot of fortitude to keep going in both professions,â she says. âIf youâre easily discouraged or not willing to start over, you wonât last long.â
Cameronâs quiet, unassuming nature and her talent have endeared her to gallery owners, collectors and peers alike. This past March, she joined Martin Grelle as a featured artist at the C.M. Russell Auction in Great Falls, Montana.
âArtists canât say enough about Shawn as a person and how her art keeps improving,â says Mike Ingram.
He and his wife, Sheila, served as chairpersons of the C.M. Russell Auction.
âWhen I mentioned that she was going to be one of the featured artists at the C.M. Russell Show,â he says, âthe artists were very supportive of her.â
Other honors Cameron has received include the Artistsâ Choice award at the 2007 Cowgirl Up! event for her painting Fading Light. In 1992, her second year exhibiting at the Phippen Show, she won the drawing category and received the Phippen Family Award, given to the piece of art that most authentically represents cowboy life.
Maryvonne Leshe says that Shawnâs âpainterly realismâ is reminiscent of the loose, impressionistic works by Bill Anton and Jim Reynolds. The gallery owner also notes that Shawn is becoming well known in Western art circles, but adds that the quality of her work, not necessarily the name recognition, sells her pieces.
âSheâs been in a lot of shows with some heavy hitters, and Iâve watched her ask questions, study the other artists and analyze their brush strokes,â Leshe says. âAs a result, her work has improved and matured over time. Sheâs an artist I know will continue to advance.â
Every artist defines success differently. Some measure it in accolades, fame and money, but Cameron reflects on her main motivationâto share what sheâs seen on the ranch.
âWhen people react to my work and share that theyâre seeing what I felt, I feel as though Iâve succeeded,â she says. âIâve seen people who were drawn to my work cry. To think I was able to speak to someoneâs heart like that is the biggest reward to me.â
Dean, who enjoys watching people react to his wifeâs work, recalls a past Prix de West show in which one of Shawnâs paintings stirred the emotions of a hopeful patron.
âA man sat down in front of her work the night of the sale,â he recalls. âMany ballots had been submitted for the painting he wanted, and he was sure his name wouldnât be fortunate enough to be drawn. He told me, âIâm just going to sit here and enjoy it while I can, because Iâm sure someone else will get to take it home.â When his name was drawn, tears came to his eyes.â
The power of Shawnâs work, combined with her relentless dedication, is priming her to become one of todayâs most influential Western artists, a hefty honor for a woman. But the artist still strives to reach her ultimate goal.
âIâm still hoping to create something profound and meaningful,â she says, âthat Iâll look back on and say, âThank the Lord I was able to share that before I set down my brush.â â
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. View Shawn Cameronâs work at the following shows this fall: Heart of the West, National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth; Trailside Galleries, Jackson, Wyoming, and Scottsdale, Arizona; Texas Art Gallery Set Price Sale, Dallas; Small Works, Great Wonders, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City; Mountain Oyster Club Contemporary Art Show & Sale, Tucson, Arizona. For more information, visit shawncameron.com.