By Katie Hankinson, Gallery Assistant
When Donna Howell-Sickles first began to create her cowgirls in the late 70s, she wanted to redefine the wary stereotypes that represented Western women. Instead of images of, as Donna referenced, the Weary Woman, the Pioneer Woman, the Caregiver, or the Soiled Dove, Howell-Sickles had something else in mind.
“I grew up on a ranch so when I looked at artwork that depicted women of the west, there were no women in any of those depictions that matched the women I knew,” Howell-Sickles said. “The women I grew up with were strong and funny and feminine. They could cook lunch at the drop of the hat for thirty people if they had to. No whining. A lot of strength and a lot of humor. I knew a lot of happy people. It was a lot of stories and a lot of laughter and it was just fun.”
She was on a mission to re-define an icon.
“I really needed and wanted that complete Western Woman, full of strength, character, and humor. Courage. A little bit saucy, a little bit funny. Someone real and multilayered.”
The intriguing bit behind every piece Howell-Sickles creates is that most have a story behind them—some personal narratives and some belonging to stories most are familiar with.
“When I left for college I took books on mythology and books on folk tales with me. So it’s been a lifelong interest. It’s kind of odd that I didn’t discover it until after I started doing the cowgirls, but I realized that those myths all arise out of agrarian cultures. They fit the American West like a glove.”
Howell-Sickles explains that the American West still has that “dependence on fate, luck, and weather, where you feel like you need a divine hand to help you out here.”
“So the stories that I could tell about women could be thousands of years old, and empowering on a level that you don’t have to have a minor in mythology to appreciate,” she said. “For me it was something that informed my work and gave it meaning to me, and made me feel like I was creating a new icon inside the Western art genre.”
When asked if every piece is created with the intention of having a story behind it, Howell-Sickles insists it is something formed out of habit and coincidence, rather than intention.
“Sometimes it’s just “I want to draw horses”,” Howell-Sickles said. “But sometimes, once you’ve drawn them—a lot of what I draw has mythic histories that you can make up bits and pieces that comes after and not before. I don’t think it damages their narrative, because I’m not trying to tell any one story in one picture, or a specific myth”
The stories are intrinsic at this point.
“I’ve been working on all of this stuff for so long, a lot of it is sort of subconscious at this point. It’s like a language I’ve learned to speak to myself.”
See more work by Donna Howell-Sickles here
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