It may be true that every artist has a style, but not every artist’s work is recognizable from across a room. The cowgirls painted by Donna Howell-Sickles announce the artist as readily as they draw you in. They are dynamic—confident, red-lipsticked, smiling—yet centered. They radiate a calm joy that is only enhanced by the other elements, usually dogs and horses, that are depicted in harmony with them. And although they are clearly women of the West, they represent a universal woman, one who speaks to all.
“Seeking Inspiration,” one of the artist’s recent works, features three cowgirls in timeless Western garb: white shirts and broad-brimmed hats, two of them wearing old-school batwing chaps. As with all Howell-Sickles’ cowgirls, the color red is strategically employed. Here it appears in gaily colored boots, a pair of gauntlet gloves, on the saddle blanket and a glimpse of halter, in matching neck scarves and even, as is often the case, in the coloring of one of the horses. The three cowgirls—one seated, one standing, one mounted—form a triangle in the center of the piece. Three horses and a white dog balance the composition, with a dynamic energy resulting from the interplay between them. The plain blue background suspends them in time and place, and further emphasizes the relationship between the figures while allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in the details.
The beauty, so to speak, of this artist’s work lies in the many layers of depth and meaning found in each piece. Any one of her works can be taken at face value: a colorful, joyous work evocation of the Western spirit. But look more closely and the layers reveal themselves. The colors (reds, blues, and yellows are most common); the animals; the repeated use of triads; and the subtle and not so subtle shapes, often triangles, which might be incorporated into a boot or chaps pattern or fence board, but sometimes appear on their own in a plain background for no apparent reason. The appearance of a sheaf of corn, a piece of fruit, a stylized grizzly bear paw print, books… these all have significance for the artist—often hearkening back to ancient myths or spiritual beliefs—and are incorporated very deliberately.
Even her painting’s edges have meaning; Howell-Sickles employs a frame-within-a-frame motif using charcoal lines to create a border, then chooses when and where her subjects refuse to be confined by those borders. Similarly, the use of reins, rearing and bucking horses, and upturned hooves are meant to do more than tell a story; they are there to symbolize the meaning of life’s journey. And that is why, even when a Donna Howell -Sickles cowgirl is being bucked off a horse, she is smiling.
The artist grew up on a cow-calf operation in a rural farming community near the Red River. Although only an hour-and-a-half from Dallas, it was isolated; their two-room schoolhouse had two teachers in eight grades. When she was in 6th grade, the family moved to New Mexico, her parents having retrained as teachers when farming during a prolonged drought became untenable. (Of her childhood, she comments, “There was a lot of prayer invoking rainfall.”) They lived in New Mexico for 27 years, always coming home to the farm in the summers. Howell-Sickles’ talent was obvious from a young age. “I always drew,” she recalls, “but it was not viewed as an important talent. It wasn’t anything that anyone thought you could build a life around. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized it could play a big role in my life.”
She had assumed she would become a teacher like her parents, but in college she discovered the art department. There, she recalls, “I met people who thought more like me than anyone I had ever met in my life. It was life-changing for me, and so exciting. I thought, this I what I want to do for the rest of my life.” After graduating with her BFA, she moved to Washington, where she spent two years traveling throughout the state teaching art in schools through an NEA-funded visiting artists program. Eventually, the wide-open spaces of Texas lured her back, by which time she was already employing the cowgirl as a recurring motif in her work. By the mid-‘80s, Howell-Sickles had met and married her husband, John Sickles, was raising a daughter, and was well-established as an artist.
It’s been more than four decades since Donna Howell-Sickles began celebrating the cowgirl in her art. Although her subjects convey a retro vibe that hearkens back to the Sweethearts-of-the-Rodeo-type icons of the 1930s and ‘40s, they have a contemporary freshness. And they go well beyond Western stereotypes. The subjects of Howell-Sickles’ paintings and collages are quintessentially female—strong and confident in their femininity. Through the sure hands of this talented artist, they manage to symbolize the goddesses of Greek myth and Norse mythology, women as the source of life, and the (ranch) girls next door.
“In the culture I grew up in, “ Howell-Sickles explains, “complete women were not always depicted. The women in movies were not like the ones I grew up with; the ones I knew were funny and they had complete lives of family and faith. They were all capable of rising to whatever was demanded of them; they were capable of plowing all night long if they had to. [I felt that] the depth of the feminine persona in popular culture was being shortchanged. It was more superficial than the kind of commitment Western life actually demands.”
Demonstrating her own commitment to Western life, Howell-Sickles and her husband in recent years embarked on a grand adventure. They invested in five properties on the historic square in St. Jo, Texas, and in 2000 moved to a house outside town. They restored an 1880s building that had been condemned—for which they won an award from a state historical association—and opened Davis & Blevins Gallery in 2010, with the artist’s studio upstairs. Howell-Sickles commutes the four miles to work with her “precious foundling” sidekick, an Australian shepherd mix, then heads upstairs to start painting. She doesn’t mind being interrupted throughout the day to talk about her own work, as well as that of the many others artists represented by the gallery. She derives a lot of satisfaction in having restored the building, having created an art gallery “in this unlikely place” and, most of all, having exposed countless visitors, especially schoolchildren, to original art.
Although lately she has been creating works that feature wildlife rather than people, the cowgirl still inspires—and her cowgirls still have the power to capture one’s attention from across the room. And in that way Howell Sickles uses her talent to depict something beautiful while illustrating a larger truth. In the 1997 book, Cowgirl Rising; The Art of Donna Howell-Sickles, author Peg Streep writes, “Combining the older mythic symbolism with the graphic boldness of the American cowgirl has allowed Donna Howell-Sickles to explore what it means to be a woman in universal terms.”
This universality holds the secret to her cowgirl’s enduring appeal. “She encompasses more than just cute,” explains the artist. “The cowgirl is a model for every woman.”