Nancy Cawdrey, Artist and Whitefish Treasure

Nancy’s artwork makes her a renowned artist – her vulnerability, humor, story-telling, and humble demeanor make her a local treasure. 

LIVE Montana sat down with legendary Whitefish artist Nancy Cawdrey and her husband, Steve Cawdrey, to learn more about her exotic childhood, world travels, and how she reacted when some of her artwork was stolen…

LM: Tell us a bit about your childhood abroad

NC: My pop went into the Army during WWII, and then studied Arabic when the war ended. My family was sent to the Middle East – Damascus, Syria, Aman, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

My mother took me to tea parties with Saudi women. This was in the 60s so Saudi Arabia was very conservative (and still is in many ways), but these women only danced in front of their husbands and other married women. 

The women always wanted to see what dances were popular in the west, like “The Mashed Potato.” 

The older women looked on too. Sometimes there were multiple wives of a Saudi General, so there may be a 13-year-old wife right alongside a 60-year-old wife. The younger ones wanted to learn all about the dances, and the older women were kind of looking sideways, probably thinking, “Oh my, look what’s happening in the West.” The dances were fairly innocent, I wasn’t teaching them anything that could be defined as “provocative.”

Most artists are introverted, but I’ve had various life experiences that have pushed me out of that role, and this was definitely one of them. 

LM: Did you pick up any foreign languages through your travels?

NC: Yes, I was in France for my first two years of college, so I became fluent in French, and when I moved to Italy, I picked up Italian. 

I didn’t learn much Arabic, I was in a British consulate school, which was a very interesting and different culture. My early report cards were hilarious. They said things like, (here Nancy switches to a very heavy British accent) “Nancy finishes her work very quickly, and then likes to flit about the classroom.” I was five years old. I did like to move around. 

LM: What influence did this unique experience bring to you as an artist?

NC: My parents made sure that my siblings and I got to see a lot of wonderful mosques, we went to the Queen Mother’s palace for tea, and my father actually worked with King Hussain, so we were invited to things.

My sisters and I would get all dressed up and go to these embassy parties. What was interesting to me as an impressionable young girl was all the patterns – the mosaics, the Persian rugs – I was absolutely fascinated by that. I have very early memories of staring at those patterns and tracing them – there’s such amazing artistry in the rugs. 

LM: Nancy, when did you realize you were an artist?

NC: My mother encouraged my interest, finding people along the way, like the French ambassador’s wife who “did a bit of watercolor” or the British home secretaries in the embassy. 

My parents – who lived during the depression, survived WWII, and were married in the 40s – didn’t know anyone who made a living as an artist. I knew people who enjoyed art and music as a hobby, but I didn’t know anyone who made a living at it.  

Because of this, I did not major in fine art – I majored in journalism and political science because I wanted to be independent and support myself as a young woman. 

LM: Would you have become an artist if it weren’t for your unique upbringing?

NC: I didn’t quit my day job for a long time. Steve’s an educator, and we ran a boarding school for difficult teenagers, which was sort of a 24/7 commitment. These kids were at risk and from all over the country. It made me so much bigger as a person and as an artist. It made me stronger – I had to find boundaries. That experience definitely helped to mold me – it helped me to find my voice as an artist and it was as important to me artistically as my upbringing.  

LM: You seem pretty fearless when it comes to art – unafraid to use any medium. Do you have a favorite medium?

NC: I started in oil in Paris at age 17. I traveled around the city, studying art, and well, the impressionists certainly made an impression on me.

I go through periods when I want to sculpt with oils, sometimes when I want flowery things – I think florals on silks might be my favorite. I REALLY had to use my left brain to master silk – chemistry, what products could I use? 

I like the challenge of silk. I give myself complete permission to work in whatever medium I want, but silk is what I’m most known for. 

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SC: Silk is great for beginners, but mastery is next to impossible because you can’t fix mistakes. With oils, you can paint over mistakes, but silk is unforgiving. Nancy has been mastering this very elusive medium for years.

LM: What is your key advice for new artists starting out, trying to make a name for themselves?

NC: It takes thousands of hours, a lot of knowledge, and a lot of courage. You have to have thick skin. People have said to me, “My Kindergartener could do better than that.” You just have to have faith that the right person will find the right art at the right time.

Any good painting has a good abstract design quality, composition, design, and values. Of course, it needs to have passion as well. When Steve and I consider other artists to display in our gallery, we are looking for the spirit of an artist and of the artistic piece.

You must have patience. Young artists have given me their work to review, and I tell them, you have to put in thousands of hours to find your voice. THEN you can start breaking the rules. They don’t love that of course.

Lastly, I’d say you’re never too old to start. I didn’t start earning money as an artist until my late 40s. Sometimes, people will see one of my pieces go for a nice sum at an auction and be skeptical – they want to know exactly how many hours I put into that piece, how much my materials cost as if they can break it down to a dollar/hour return. It doesn’t work like that. My reply to that is, “Well, it took 1000 skies.”  

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LM: Tell us about your partnership with Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty…

NC: I was familiar with the Sotheby’s name of course, but I didn’t realize it’s been around for 300 years, making it the oldest art auction house in the world. So there is a natural connection there. We’ve been invited to have a presence in other real estate offices, but we found that Tom (Burk, President of GSIR) shared our vision as it pertains to fine art. 

SC: Tom approached us with, “How can we help you,” and that meant a lot to us. He wanted this partnership to be mutually beneficial.

NC: We have a presence in the Whitefish Glacier Sotheby’s office, in fact, several pieces have already sold. We hope to expand that presence to the Bigfork and Missoula offices, starting with art walks. We feel this is a great partnership between Glacier Sotheby’s and Cawdrey Gallery. 

LM: Let’s wrap up with a story about how you knew you’d arrived as an artist…

NC: I was on a train traveling back to see my parents in Frankfurt and I wanted to bring a few of my pieces to give them – to thank them for my schooling. I left them in the car and asked someone to watch them for me for a few minutes while I went to the restroom. When I came back, they were gone. At first, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to show them to my parents. But then I was truly flattered that someone thought they were worth stealing. I’m hoping someday that someone will come across this stolen art and look me up. 

You can visit Nancy’s artwork in the Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty office in Whitefish, or by stopping in the Cawdrey Gallery in Whitefish, Montana  (206 Lupfer Ave Unit 102).
All images courtesy Nancy Cawdrey

This article is an excerpt from our newly released LIVE Montana. Pick up a copy at your closest Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty location, find it in racks across Western and North Western Montana, or enjoy the digital version here: