Nancy Cawdrey | Forever Glacier: The Legacy Project

Renowned Montana artist shares vibrant paintings of Glacier’s iconic wildlife

Art Beat

Renowned artist Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey pays homage to the natural beauty and enduring legacy of Glacier National Park with “Forever Glacier: The Legacy Project,” a series of large-scale paintings on display through May 3 at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls.

Nancy Cawdrey chose Belton Chalet as backdrop for "Small Mammals of the Alpine Meadows."
Nancy Cawdrey chose Belton Chalet as backdrop for “Small Mammals of the Alpine Meadows.”Photo © Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey

As a Glacier Centennial Artist, and with the park close in proximity and near to her heart, Cawdrey has created a series of colorful silk paintings honoring each of the 18 large mammals that inhabit the park. Four additional pieces show groupings of all the small mammals who live, or have lived, in the high country.

“When I first depicted a large Glacier Park mammal after many visits to the park, it was big and bold and full of spirit, and it was a song I had to sing,” Cawdrey writes. “Little did I know that this was the beginning of ‘Forever Glacier: The Legacy Project,’ and there was no going back.”

She’s since painted “one great beastie” after another: bison, moose, big horn sheep, grizzly, black bear, coyote and pronghorn. This is not her first park-related project. She also created several paintings commemorating the Going to the Sun Road and the Glacier Centennial in 2008 and 2010.

“Forever Glacier” started with a simple question: how do we inspire people across the country into taking ‘stewardship’ of the wild places that sustain wild creatures in our labyrinth of national parks and designated wilderness areas? Cawdrey’s answer was to create a traveling exhibit with the goal of raising awareness for the impact climate change is having on ecosystems and other wilderness areas throughout America.

“I started thinking about habitat destruction and climate change and how these impacted our world and Glacier Park in particular,” she writes.

After reading about how warming trends are affecting the alpine pika, she decided to paint four composite paintings representing most of the small mammals of the park, each in their own habitat: alpine meadow, old growth forest, prairie and grassland, and river bottom.

The Blackfoot creation stories are woven throughout the exhibit, sharing the Indigenous belief that Glacier Park is the Backbone of Creation with all the four-legged and winged as our brothers, sisters and teachers. Educational components include skulls, pelts and an interactive 360-degree video, narrated by “Montana’s Troubadour” Jack Gladstone, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. This element provides a Native perspective and insight about the area and its inhabitants.

For the Forever Glacier collection, Cawdrey employed a complicated application of painting on silk with aqueous permanent dyes, a centuries-old technique developed in China that requires years of skill and prodigious raw talent to carefully guide the process.

Much like painting with watercolor, silk painting requires patience and finesse to get the “paint” to behave as intended. The result is a rich, multi-layered and vibrantly colorful painting style that is dramatically different than that of other media.

“I intentionally made these paintings big and bold and ‘out of the box.’ The challenges that face our world will require strength and innovation — that is the message,” writes the artist.

The exhibit moves from the Russell Museum to the Booth Museum in Cartersville, GA, where it opens in October 2021.

Also on display through May 3 is “From the Mountains to the Prairie: The Artwork of O.C. Seltzer.”