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, Shawn's husband, Dean, thought of a way to help his wife overcome this occupational hurdle. He coordinated a "dress rehearsal," at their ranch, displaying her artwork in the front yard and inviting the cowboy crew to view it.
"He made me stand beside my work as the cowboys looked at it," Shawn recalls. "I was surprised at how they actually seemed to enjoy it. Some of them didn't even speak English, but they pointed at it, commented on what they recognized and nodded to me in approval."
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.
"I worry about each piece I send out the door," she says. "Is it good enough? Will it sell? How will it be received? It's as though I'm sending a little piece of myself into the world, and I don't know how it'll turn out."
But Western art collectors praise Shawn's 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.
"Shawn's passion really comes through in her paintings," says Maryvonne Leshe, managing partner of Trailside Galleries, which represents Shawn's work. "There's a sense of honesty in her paintings that comes from living the life she paints."
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 solvers—and to whom giving up was never an option—Shawn grew up with similar convictions.
"I had the opportunity to sit at the feet of people who changed the West, literally," she says. "I thought everyone heard and saw the things I did. It wasn't until the passing of Grandpa Osborne that I realized what I'd known my entire life was slipping away, and how fortunate I was to hear their stories and observe their ways."
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 wasn't as sociable as one might think. The shy, straight-laced teenager preferred to spend time on her family's Horseshoe Ranch near Mayer, Arizona, and draw.
Shawn was interested in art at an early age. Her mother, Billie, had a master's 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.
"I 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," Shawn recalls. "I 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."
After high school, Shawn attended Northern Arizona University but put her education on hold to marry Dean. The couple lived with Shawn's family on the Horseshoe Ranch, which Dean managed. There, they raised three children, daughters Dee Ann and Kacie, and son Brooks.
"It 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," she says. "We 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."
Shawn thinks back fondly of their simple yet rich lifestyle, which included preserving hundreds of quarts of fruit each year.
"The kids would pick the fruit and bring it to me in wheelbarrows," she says. "It was a hot project, but very rewarding to see the brightly colored jars on the shelf."
Once she'd fed the kids and cowboys, the artist sometimes found a moment to draw at the kitchen table or in the makeshift "studio" 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. Shawn's eldest daughter, Dee Ann, remembers that her mom didn't buy coloring books for the kids. Instead, she drew pictures for them to color.
When Shawn's 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 mother's advice to "get off the ranch a little," 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 children's watercolors to complete the project. When all the assignments had been handed in, the instructor critiqued each piece.
"When she came to mine, she paused," Shawn remembers. "Then she said, 'We have an artist in the house.' I was so embarrassed to be recognized in front of the class."
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 bachelor's 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 "Shoofly" Shufelt was holding an art class at the Scottsdale Artists' School, and Dean enrolled Shawn.
"Being very frugal and not wanting to spend any money on herself, it was a challenge to get her to Scottsdale," Dean recalls. "She packed an ice chest to eat out of, and she stayed at Motel 6."
The experience was one of many that helped Shawn grow as an artist and step beyond her comfort zone.
"I was scared to death and hadn't been off the ranch much," she says. "We 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. Bob's easygoing nature really put me at ease."
Shawn also credits successful artists Joe Beeler and Bill Owen for her success. Owen critiqued her early images, offering "just enough information to help me grow and encourage me." Beeler had an open-door policy for Shawn, caring not only about her career but also her life as a mother and rancher's 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.
"I've never grown tired of horses," she says. "There's something about the way they smell and feel when I touch them that makes me feel as though I'm where I belong at that moment. It's a familiarity I've known all my life."
Choosing a medium was a little more complicated. The artist started with pencil, but was attracted to the challenge of oil. She's 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.
"I've watched so many horses weather bad storms by simply turning their faces away and waiting for the storm to pass," Shawn says. "To 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, we'll still be standing when the storm passes."
In her oils, Cameron relies on a simple color palatte of primary colors, from which she mixes. Black is never one of her choices.
"I realized it's the bending of light in the prism of a water drop that enables us to see the colors in the rainbow," she explains. "There are just a few colors, and how they're used depends on the light in the painting."
Cameron's 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.
"When 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," Shawn says. "I hope to give the viewer a feeling of something genuine."
Rancher and Western art collector Mike Ingram has collected Cameron's work for more than six years and says he can identify one of her pieces the moment he walks into a gallery.
"She really exemplifies our Western heritage, and has a unique way of showing the horse and cowboy in motion," he says. "Because she's lived the life, she can paint with impeccable authenticity."
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 that's a converted water tower. Dean operates ranches in Arizona, Montana and New Mexico, but always finds time to nurture his wife's art career, whether it's 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.
"It takes a lot of fortitude to keep going in both professions," she says. "If you're easily discouraged or not willing to start over, you won't last long."
Cameron's 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.
"Artists can't say enough about Shawn as a person and how her art keeps improving," says Mike Ingram.
He and his wife, Sheila, served as chairpersons of the C.M. Russell Auction.
"When I mentioned that she was going to be one of the featured artists at the C.M. Russell Show," he says, "the artists were very supportive of her."
Other honors Cameron has received include the Artists' 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 Shawn's "painterly realism" 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.
"She's been in a lot of shows with some heavy hitters, and I've watched her ask questions, study the other artists and analyze their brush strokes," Leshe says. "As a result, her work has improved and matured over time. She's an artist I know will continue to advance."
Every artist defines success differently. Some measure it in accolades, fame and money, but Cameron reflects on her main motivation—to share what she's seen on the ranch.
"When people react to my work and share that they're seeing what I felt, I feel as though I've succeeded," she says. "I've seen people who were drawn to my work cry. To think I was able to speak to someone's heart like that is the biggest reward to me."
Dean, who enjoys watching people react to his wife's work, recalls a past Prix de West show in which one of Shawn's paintings stirred the emotions of a hopeful patron.
"A man sat down in front of her work the night of the sale," he recalls. "Many ballots had been submitted for the painting he wanted, and he was sure his name wouldn't be fortunate enough to be drawn. He told me, 'I'm just going to sit here and enjoy it while I can, because I'm sure someone else will get to take it home.' When his name was drawn, tears came to his eyes."
The power of Shawn's work, combined with her relentless dedication, is priming her to become one of today's most influential Western artists, a hefty honor for a woman. But the artist still strives to reach her ultimate goal.
"I'm still hoping to create something profound and meaningful," she says, "that I'll look back on and say, 'Thank the Lord I was able to share that before I set down my brush.' "
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. View Shawn Cameron's 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.