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Carrie Ballantyne Captures The Cowgirl Inside

A phenomenal artist paints her West.

July 01, 2019

Carrie Ballantyne grew up in Southern California, but it is the people of the Mountain West—especially those engaged in traditional lifestyles tied to the land—who inspire her art. Ranchers, ropers, Nevada buckaroos, old-timers, horse trainers, rodeo cowboys, children with their animals, a favorite model from the nearby Crow reservation: Her inspiration is as varied as the people she encounters during the course of her everyday life, whether at the gas station or at a branding.

In her work, Ballantyne often chooses to illustrate her subjects interacting with the trappings of their lives: an older cowboy holding a lariat and a border collie puppy; a girl with a fiddle; a young cowboy with what is probably his most valuable possession, his saddle. Her subjects are often mounted, or standing next to a horse, or given a suggestion of setting through a background of well-worn barn boards or open pasture. Most often, the subjects are alone, usually looking directly into the camera, not with a challenge but with a visceral immediacy. The artist has a gift for delivering a glimpse into her subject’s inner lives. These moments can convey striking intimacy, even more so when the subject’s gaze is averted and they possess a pensive, dreamy, or melancholy expression—as if caught in a private moment.

As an artist, Ballantyne seeks to convey each subject’s essence; she uses the medium as window to the soul. It begins with her ability to capture the details in a sort of hyperfocused photo-realism. These details—the change in hue on a hat where it has been grabbed hundreds of times; the folds of a denim work shirt; the drape of a silk bandana favored by the buckaroo-style cowboys; the fringe on a pair of well-worn chaps; the paint on the cheekbones of a young Lakota as it catches the light—are photo-perfect. As a result, the viewer is not distracted from the authenticity of the portrait, but rather, drawn to the subject’s face. In this way, the works are compelling interactions between subject and viewer, the artist serving as invisible intermediary.

Ballantyne’s Summer Solace.

Ballantyne has written, “I’m often asked, ‘How do you choose a model?’ This may sound vague and artsy, but I think they choose me,” she says. “It’s an exchange that begins in another realm. I simply follow the lead I sense God gives me, and trust that there will be another that will appreciate the beauty I see and desire to portray. It’s the only way I know.”

This intuitive approach has served her well. Although she clearly showed an aptitude for art as a child, she recalls, “Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, all I was seeing was modern expressionism and it was not what I was interested in.” In her late teens she moved to Cody, Wyoming, to work on a dude ranch and discovered the work of painter James Bama on paperback books in the local Woolworth’s. The New York-trained photo realist was living in Cody painting authentic Western characters he met around town; suddenly a profession in the arts seemed relatable. “I’d always been drawing but never took it seriously. I remember saying myself, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do!’ It was an epiphany.”

Ballantyne moved to Cody fulltime in her early 20s, when she not only met James Bama but started studying with him. “He said you have to work with your own models and use your own images. But I was a camp cook; I didn’t even own a camera.” Carrie acquired a camera and would bring models for them both to photograph. “We’d photograph together then I’d study his photos. I was gleaning composition, values, edges,” she recalls. “C.S. Lewis said if you want to be a good writer you have to read good writing. I didn’t have formal training, so I studied good art. I’d seen Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy as a child and it made such an impact on me: that direct gaze, the touch of blue. It was a portrait you could relate to. Art is all about problem-solving and I had to figure out how to do it. So I took an Old Master approach and copied a master.”

Ballantyne directs her cowgirl subject.

She stayed in Cody 12 years, marrying a saddle-bronc rider/cowboy turned horse trainer/singer-songwriter and fully immersing herself in the Western lifestyle. Through the years spent living on remote ranches in several states and homeschooling her two children, Ballantyne continued making art, applying and building on the lessons Bama taught her, finding authentic people whose character spoke to her, and following her intuition.

In 1980, when fellow Cody artists Steve Devenyns and Ted Feeley encouraged her to submit her work to the prestigious George Phippen Memorial Art Show in Prescott, Arizona, she took the plunge. The first year, her work sold out. The second year she was awarded the first place award for drawing. “That really sealed the deal for me,” she recalls. “Even though I was living in a KOA campground and driving an old Chevy, that’s when I realized there was a possibility of being a working artist.”

Ballantyne drew in pencil for 10 years and then transitioned to colored pencils, working meticulously through a process that involved applying layer after layer on a special sandpaper for an effect that resembles oil painting. A little more than a decade ago, Ballantyne acted on her lifelong dream to paint. She went off the grid for two years while teaching herself to work in oils in a mostly self-guided exploration. After one workshop at the Andreeva Portrait Academy in Santa Fe, she recalls, “I came away overwhelmed. Returning home to my workspace, I limited my palette to the basics and, putting aside all outside influence, determined to dig deep and find my own voice.”

Her first finished portrait in oil, Pearl of Santa Fe, was included in the National Cowboy Museum’s Prix De West 2007 Invitational Art Exhibition and later graced the cover of the March/April 2011 issue of Art of the West Magazine. Like the work in pencils that launched her career, Ballantyne’s oil paintings possess a photo-realistic immediacy and directness that allows the viewer to feel they are looking into the soul of the subject. The medium may have changed; the message has not.

Carrie Ballantyne’s Buckaroo Diamonds and Pearls (featuring Ballantyne’s daughter, Hannah).

Over the years, Ballantyne has shown in such prestigious venues as Cody’s Buffalo Bill Art Show, the Autry Museum, the Gilcrease Museum, and the Booth Museum, winning many awards and honors and seeing her work appear on the covers of many art journals and Western lifestyle publications. She’s shown in the Prix de West Invitational almost 20 times, been exhibited in museums from California to Georgia, and in 2010 was honored along with sculptor John Coleman with an Artist’s Retrospective Exhibition and Art Sale. In 2017, Ballantyne was named Artist of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists.

n 2018, Ballantyne was the subject of a one-woman show at the Brinton Museum in Sheridan. “Carrie Ballantyne Comes Home” featured 22 retrospective works in oil, colored pencil and graphite, conté crayon, and charcoal completed over a 30-year span, plus some new works. “It was the first time I’d shown in my hometown. It had great community support and felt like a homecoming. After the show, I felt more a part of the community than ever before. Many subjects in the portraits were locals and it was fun to see them show up. Seeing the pieces come from different collections was so special to me; it was almost like a huge family reunion. It was really neat for me because [when you’re working on the portraits] you pour everything into them and they become like family members.”

Ballantyne is always searching for the innermost person in her work; she strives to capture each subject’s strength, character and vulnerability all at the same time. Although her models are contemporary people whom she knows in real life, they project a timelessness that gives her art the ability to transcend a particular place and time.

“I love the whole image of the ranching culture,” she explains. “The clothing, the work, the style hasn’t changed a lot in 100 years. The steady values appeal to me, people working with the earth and with livestock in a community of common interest and common understanding. You’re very close to the land, dependent on weather, and the calf crop, and you realize it’s not all on you; there’s something bigger than you. I’m able to show healthy emotions and values coming through an individual by portraying an inner strength, vulnerability or introspection that reveals the individual soul. To me, there’s value in it when I can portray that unique person. It edifies me, and I hope others can be edified too.”

Ballantyne’s Calico Country.

Known for her depictions of cowgirls, Ballantyne’s most consistent muse has been her daughter Hannah, whose likeness as a child holding a kitten graced a 1996 cover of Art of the West, and whose portrait at age 25 appeared on a 2015 cover of the same magazine. “I like strong, angular features; that’s why I use my daughter so much. She’s long and lean and authentic and she has that true cowgirl heart. It’s really fun to portray authentic people like that.”

After many decades of depicting people’s inner selves, and now executing primarily oil paintings and conté crayon drawings, Ballantyne is branching out a bit and pursuing new interests, whether it’s in her own life (she has recently become a passionate fly angler) or her artistic life. Recent exposure to falconry, for instance, has prompted a desire to pursue sporting art. At 60, Ballantyne is at the top of her creative game, having spent years honing her craft. She is poised to move forward with confidence while trusting the intuition that has served her so well. She will always paint people of the West, of course. Any experimentation with new subjects is merely part of her natural progression.

“I try to bring beauty into the world through my art,” she says, “but to me, it’s all about authenticity. Hopefully, authenticity is what brings truth to people who see it—even if they have never seen it before—in a particular cultural setting. As a child drawing came naturally to me; I started out drawing from life for personal interest and pleasure, never imagining I’d end up as a fulltime working artist. My process really has not changed that much, because it’s such a natural approach, very gut level. Reata Brannaman once said, ‘Every portrait you do tells a story.’ I thought, I like that, because that’s what it means to me. My work is about the person, the individual. It’s about introspection and emotion, as well as contentment. And the cowgirl just happens to be my favorite subject.” CRE

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