12 Aug Forever Glacier: Montana Painter Nancy Cawdrey Creates an Art Project as Big and Bold as the National Park that Inspires It
A GRIZZLY STRIDES ACROSS A STREAM WHILE THE SUN SPARKLES on the tawny highlights in its chocolate-brown fur. Against a background of craggy peaks, a pack of gray wolves stands on alert, ears perked. Hindquarters stretched in full spring, front paws bent, eyes scanning the ground for prey, a coyote prances beneath the full moon, its fur echoing the hues of the nocturnal world around it — green meadow grass, deep violet sky, orange harvest moon.
Such are the wild living wonders of Glacier National Park as conjured to life through the singular medium and style of artist Nancy Cawdrey, who employs the ancient Chinese technique of painting with dyes on silk — while strategically texturing the colors in mid-bloom with scatterings of salt crystals — to produce images of immersive depth and richly saturated, gemlike tones. The Montana-based artist (profiled in the Summer 2016 issue of Big Sky Journal) is currently in the midst of the most extensive project of her career: Forever Glacier, a suite of 22 large-format paintings depicting the mammals that inhabit the park’s more than 1 million acres, to be exhibited starting in 2020, along with three of her already finished works that were part of Glacier’s 2010 Centennial celebration.
Each of the 18 mammal paintings will be devoted to one large species, and another four will feature a wide assortment of small mammals organized by their ecosystems: prairie and grassland (including weasels, squirrels, and jumping mice); river bottom (badgers, minks, river otters, beavers, and others); alpine meadow (chipmunks, voles, snowshoe hares, and more); and old growth forest (red foxes, raccoons, porcupines, and more). All will be displayed as part of an educational touring exhibit incorporating a 360-degree video narrated by Blackfeet troubadour Jack Gladstone, plus replica animal pelts, skulls, scat, and paw prints; preliminary drawings and color studies explaining the artist’s creative process; and even the aromas of subalpine fir and spruce trees.
Like so many ambitious undertakings, Forever Glacier began modestly. “For the last 20 years or so,” explains Nancy, “I’ve loved painting bison, moose, all the big critters of the West.” Back in 2009, a work of hers that featured Glacier’s wildlife was one of 14 pieces chosen to tour Montana in an exhibition leading up to the park’s centennial. “And one day,” she continues, “my husband Steve said, ‘You should paint all the Glacier mammals.’” That idea made good logistic sense, too, considering that since 1978, the couple has lived within driving distance of the park and, for the past two years, in Whitefish, close to its western entrance.
Something far more than logistics or a love of painting animals, however, fuels Nancy’s passion for the task. Having recently welcomed a grandchild, and with another on the way, she and Steve have been thinking more and more about leaving a legacy for generations to come, a goal informed by their previous careers. For 22 years, before she became a full-time painter and Steve signed on as her business manager, the couple ran a boarding school they founded near Thompson Falls, not far from the Idaho Panhandle. The curriculum emphasized rigorous academics coupled with outdoor activities and a dedication to fostering emotional literacy so students would grow up to become “better husbands, wives, and parents,” says Steve. The setting had a big impact on that goal. Adds Nancy, “I would see kids from Los Angeles and New York and Chicago arrive at Glacier with a whatever attitude.” She stresses that word with the bored articulation of a surly teen. “And Glacier would get them out of that mentality. They would be as moved as I always am when I enter the park.”
But how do you expose more young people to the soul-stirring power of Glacier than just those who are fortunate enough to travel there? The Cawdreys received strategic guidance and constructive encouragement from their friends, and Nancy’s avid collectors, Al and Lisa Stinson, who split their time between homes in Whitefish, Montana, and Fredericksburg, Texas. “Nancy uses vibrant, saturated colors to bring her subjects to life,” observes Al of the potential he saw. “And that makes her paintings particularly attractive to younger people.”
With that engaging quality in mind, Lisa came up with the idea of complementing the paintings with an expanded educational component; and Al, the retired CEO of a Fortune-500 company, suggested the Cawdreys set up a nonprofit organization, through which supporters could make tax-exempt donations to Forever Glacier. The Stinson Family Foundation provided a good launching pad by sponsoring three paintings, including the grizzly bear — which, like all the animal representations, will be exhibited with its scientific and Blackfeet names.
Some 14 more sponsorships to date have steadily followed, and other elements of Forever Glacier have come to fruition. The Cawdrey’s son, Morgan, assembled a team to create a five-minute-long video that will surround visitors with the sights and sounds of Glacier across its landscapes, habitats, and seasons. The hands-on displays are also in the development stage. And Nancy is planning life-sized moose silhouettes that visiting student groups can color. All the while, she has been working diligently in her studio. “I’ll probably be finished with 19 or 20 of the paintings by midsummer,” she says.
As museums that were already well-acquainted with Nancy’s work began to learn about Forever Glacier, they wanted to be part of it. Plans are in the works for an inaugural exhibition spanning three months during the summer of 2020 at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana. “Nancy is a renowned and highly accomplished artist, and her work tells an important story of Glacier and its creatures,” says the Russell’s executive director, Tom Figarelle. “The exhibition is well-developed, timely, and a great way to connect audiences with educational programming.”
From November 2021 through February 2022, Forever Glacier will be on display at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. “I think the show will really highlight the fact that one of the reasons people know and love the West is through visiting our national parks,” says Booth executive director Seth Hopkins, who expects to feature it in the museum’s largest, highest-profile exhibition space alongside a complementary show of artist Mike C. Poulsen’s oil paintings of backcountry waterfalls in Yosemite National Park. “Juxtaposing those two shows will tell a story of our national parks in a unique and powerful way,” Hopkins adds.
Many more venues will no doubt be lined up, but, appropriate to its name, Forever Glacier will not end once it stops traveling. The intention, notes Steve, is for the 22 mammal paintings “to be kept together as a legacy that will be given to the Glacier National Park Conservancy,” on permanent display in a visitors’ center that the group hopes to build just outside the park’s west entrance.
Cawdrey, meanwhile, envisions a mission for the entire body of work even greater than its educational purpose. She hopes her paintings will go on to inspire the young people who see them to follow their own dreams, as she has followed hers.
“I take a deep breath whenever I look at Glacier National Park,” Nancy says. “It reminds me to be big and bold. If that’s the only message Forever Glacier gives to kids, I hope it will inspire them to be as big and bold as they want to be in the time and space that they have in their lives.”