Donna Howell-Sickles Visits Texas Tech
Donna Howell-Sickles was in Lubbock in late January for the opening of a retrospective exhibition of her paintings at the National Ranching Heritage Center. She graduated from Texas Tech’s School of Art in 1972. In the years following, when she had to negotiate being both an artist and a mother, she would regularly begin painting as early as 4:30 in the morning, so that she could get three hours in the studio before the day began. “It sounds heroic,” she said to a group of students during her visit to campus on Friday, “but it wasn’t; it was necessary.”
The students were Studio Art majors enrolled in Tech’s senior seminar course, the focus of which is on professional practices and career development. Donna had these words of advice for them: “You want to go where the buyers go—travel destinations, not big cities. Big cities are where people buy artwork for other people. You want the man and wife on vacation, who say, “Yes!—that is exactly what we need.””
Indeed, it would seem Donna’s career has followed her own advice to a tee; she having had work frequently featured in the galleries of such popular vacation spots as Santa Fe, New Mexico and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“I try to honor the requests of galleries,” Donna said in response to a student’s question about galleries who ask that a body of work be extended or manipulated, “but I don’t—for instance—go so far as to change the colors of my artwork for a specific decorator or gallery owner. Thankfully, the cowgirl image is still one that speaks to me, as well as to others.”
The cowgirl image got its start for Donna in her senior year at Texas Tech, when at the bottom of a box of pottery her friend had brought to her house, she found an old postcard of a cowgirl atop a horse. “My initial attraction to the cowgirl had to do with the strength of the female figure.” Women on the ranch in north Texas where Donna grew up were strong and confident—”They could plow a field as well as anyone; could shoot any skunk”—and that conflicted with how women, in Donna’s mind, are typically portrayed in western art.
Her first cowgirls lacked distinctive facial features. Donna wanted her image to represent a type of “every woman.” As the work progressed, though, the cowgirls began to slowly morph: eyes were added, mouths arced into smirks and then smiles. Donna said the change occurred when she started to investigate the history of the cowgirl in the American West, and found that women much like the ones she had been drawing actually existed but had been largely forgotten.
It was at this point, too, that mythology took a prominent foothold in her work. Donna explained to me over lunch on Friday why mythology appeals to her: “As you know, I grew up on a ranch in north Texas, and in a Baptist church—and mythology seems to me to be about the land. Now that’s why I take the agrarian myths from the Greek and transpose them over my vision of the American West… Often I can look out on a thunderstorm over the plains and know Zeus is there, somewhere.”
The animals present in Donna’s work—the bulls, dogs and horses—can also be attributed to her interest in mythology, in that they symbolize humanity’s connection with nature. Furthermore, Donna believes the animals provide an avenue of accessibility: “You do not have to know the sub-text to appreciate my work. The symbolism simply adds more layers to the female affirmation on each canvas.”
Donna’s paintings will be on display at the National Ranching Heritage Center through mid-April.