Some may imagine that artists always look to push boundaries, create the unexpected or challenge expectations in their chosen media. These Sheridan-based artists shared how authenticity is more important than novelty. From visual artists to jazz musicians, these artists say originality comes from connecting with individual talent, and unique work is the product of time, dedication and practice.
Making blue houses: Exploring motherhood with cyanotype
Brittney Denham mixes a vat of chemicals in a trash can, dunks fabric in the mixture and hangs it to dry on clothing lines, all in a dark room.
She folds the dry fabric and seals it in black trash bags. She straps her 13-month-old son into a hiking backpack and lays the fabric out in the sun. She lays geometric shapes on the fabric and sprays it with a garden hose.
When the fabric is dry again, she’ll cut it and transform deep blue squares of fabric into quilts that hang on the walls of her studio at Sheridan College.
Denham said cyanotype fabric and paper quilts are part of a new journey in her artwork.
When she became pregnant with her son, she started exploring the idea of the body as a home for a growing child and what it means to create a home in her work.
Emotionally, physically and artistically, Denham said motherhood opened a realm of discovery for her.
Prior to becoming a mother, Denham made art using substances she didn’t want around her infant son, so she turned to cyanotypes.
“I can’t really strap my baby onto my back and take him into a toxic environment or a dark room with silver baths and fixers,” she said. “When he’s with me and I’m still making, I started turning to something that’s a little more safe.”
Before motherhood, Denham created art about encounters and myths of the West, including “Western Vestge,” 1,001 photographs about Western tourism and national parks.
“Instead of seeing with our eyes, we see through a lens and we photograph it, photograph ourselves with it, we photograph our friends with it but we don’t actually stop and bask in its glory,” she said.
Denham, originally from Gillette, said Wyoming offers a unique working space that is free from the distractions of a big city.
“Being a maker in Wyoming just allows you this period, this point of breath to just make,” she said.
Motherhood can be a taboo subject in the art world. While Denham pushed herself to try different art subjects besides motherhood, she felt compelled to create work that was authentic and true to the present moment.
She wondered if she’d still be considered a serious artist if she made work about a universal experience like motherhood, but couldn’t help but delve into notions of tradition, community and home in her work. One of the quilts hanging in her studio is naturally dyed pale pink and deep blue using avocado and red onion for color.
Denham said besides being taboo, motherhood is sometimes exhibited via the male gaze, through a Madonna and Child motif or motherhood as interpreted by men. However, she sees a shift happening today with more representation of and openness to work about motherhood in galleries and art shows.
Denham said she was particularly inspired by Lisa Lofgren, who spoke to Denham’s printmaking class about being an artist and mother.
“I was just flooded,” she said. “[I felt she was] speaking about my experience…I feel completely seen in this moment.”
Denham doesn’t make art to challenge taboos or expectations, she creates art about what she knows and is exploring right now: tradition, home, and the day-to-day surprises of being a new mom.
Painting cows, connecting to God
Sonja Caywood was driving to work one day in 2012 thinking to herself, “Would I ever quit my job if my art started selling?” The same day, she found out after 17 years, she wouldn’t have a job at Sheridan County School District 1 the following year.
Since then, her full-time job has been experimenting with colors, depicting cow personalities and connecting to herself and God through her artwork.
Caywood grew up on a ranch in southern Montana and came to Wyoming as an adolescent. She said it’s easy to give cows and horses personalities in her paintings because she knew them growing up.
Like writing, it’s important to paint what you know, she said. Caywood initially focused on landscapes, but when she was commissioned to paint a series of cows, she fell in love with the subject matter.
“I really started to love it because it brought back my life as a cowgirl,” she said.
One challenge she’s encountered as an artist is staying true to her own style while surrounded by others’ expectations of Wyoming artists.
Caywood said some organizations in Wyoming seek to counteract stereotypes about Western art and push for the avant-garde, the abstract or the unexpected.
While she appreciates all forms of art, including abstract and photorealistic work, semi-realistic art like hers has its place, too, she said.
Caywood has seen many young artists lose their natural style as they become professionals, making work that they think people expect of them rather than what is authentic.
“There’s art that easily sells and then there’s the art that’s really inside you,” she said. “It’s great when it’s the same thing, but when it’s not, you have to stay true to what’s inside you.”
Lately, Caywood has been reconnecting with the reason she paints: to express who she is, a cowgirl from the West, and share her own style.
True vs. new: Finding truth through jazz
Sheridan College is one of few academic institutions with a resident big band. Since its inception in fall 2017, the Whitney Center Jazz Orchestra has brought professional musicians from across the West together in Sheridan.
The group recorded its first live studio album Aug. 4, which should be released by the end of the year, said Eric Richards, director of bands and jazz studies at Sheridan College.
As a conductor, trombonist and teacher, Richards said he has seen too much of the focus in music and the arts be on what’s new.
“I’m more concerned about true,” he said. “I tell my students: focus on the true and the new will take care of itself.”
Jazz allows musicians to create something new within the structure of a piece of music through improvisation. But solely focusing on pushing boundaries to become a big name in the art world can neglect true forms of expression — from music to the visual arts, Richards said.
Expressing one’s true artistic voice is more important than novelty, despite the constant academic fascination with what’s new, he said.
“Probably the most powerful and intimate form of truth is the honest expression of one’s individuality,” he said. “If it’s all about the new, why should anyone play another blues? Or why should anyone paint another painting? Or why should anyone even express themselves? The element of truth is what you bring to it.”
Real western romance
Adam Jahiel started a photography project on the Padlock Ranch in Sheridan County in 1989. He’s traveled the world and lived in other cities in the U.S., but he fell in love with Sheridan and decided to plant roots here in 1992.
“Suddenly, I just felt like, for the first time in my life, I actually want to live somewhere,” he said.
Unlike other places in Wyoming, Sheridan County’s landscape, light and community are magical, he said.
Yet what he sees as the magic and romance of cowboy culture isn’t the same as what’s peddled in calendars, Hollywood movies and contemporary country music.
“When I look around, I see the advertisements, I see the Marlboro man…If I see one more picture of a cowboy or a cowboy and cowgirl with the sun setting behind them silhouetted on their horses I’m going to throw up,” he said.
Having spent years on ranches around cowboys, Jahiel said the real magic comes from a reliance on and relationship with the land, and a distance from contemporary distractions like technology.
While he photographs cowboys and Western life, Jahiel generally dislikes “Western art” because it can be cliché and overdone. Originality comes from an artist’s distinct style and perspective, he said.
“I don’t think of myself as a Western photographer, I think of myself as a photographer who lives in the West and documents the West,” Jahiel said.
Certain clichés sell well, but recording the same subjects doesn’t uncover authentic, wholesome moments, he said. It’s important for artists to make something original through their work.
“There’s some bones out there with meat on them,” Jahiel said.
However, the conundrum for artists is finding something original without looking for it, because setting out to be unique can lead to gimmicky work.
“It’s almost like there’s a lot of people who want to talk but have nothing to say,” he said.
Over 40 years as a photographer, he hasn’t found the connection to his subjects that he finds on ranches anywhere else. His goal is to document what he sees and what matters; taking visual notes of life.
“The longer I photograph, the less I feel like I really have any kind of control over what I see,” Jahiel said. “It’s almost like it controls me. I look at my subject and the subject dictates how I should approach it.”
Sheridan attracts artists from traditional craftspeople to abstract expressionists, architects to skilled musicians. A sense of camaraderie supports artistic growth around here, he said.
The honest images of this region — fields and phone poles, the Crow Reservation, houses and front yards — are constantly inspiring to Jahiel and other local artists looking to represent truth, change and culture in their art.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.
Pick up a complimentary copy of the glossy magazine at The Press office at 144 Grinnell Plaza or explore more features online.