EUGENE, Ore. – For nearly two decades, Eugene artist Lynda Lanker has been painting the American West by looking at the faces of its women.
Specifically, she has painted detailed portraits of dozens of cowgirls and ranch women in a project that began with a friend’s idea and has consumed most of her professional energy since.
Now, it’s at last come to fruition.
“Tough by Nature: Portraits of Cowgirls and Ranch Women of the American West” opens July 1 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. The exhibit contains portraits by Lanker of 49 Western women, done in a wide variety of artistic mediums.
Painting these rough-and-ready women was an unlikely endeavor for Lanker, a soft-spoken 69-year-old urbanite who describes herself, with some exaggeration, as “a princess.”
More than two decades ago, an artist friend, Elizabeth Brinton, suggested a collaboration.
“I’ve got a proposal for you,” Brinton told her. “Let’s go out to Eastern Oregon. I can paint the landscape and you can paint the people.”
Brinton got pulled away from the project early on by the demands of motherhood, but Lanker persevered. She called the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association to make her first contacts, then learned to be tough enough to cold-call women who inhabited what seemed, then, like an alien world.
“I thought they would be very wary,” Lanker said. “They were not. Within five minutes they were telling me their lives.”
Those lives don’t often intersect with the made-for-TV version of the West, Lanker said.
“There is a lot of craziness. There is a lot of heartbreak out there. It’s not all sunsets and baked beans.”
Lanker is the widow of Eugene photographer Brian Lanker, who died last year of cancer. He worked with her at almost every stage of the project, encouraging, editing and nurturing.
Eventually, he looked at the work she was doing and made a pointed observation.
“This is bigger than Oregon,” he told her.
She began to travel more broadly, throughout the West, finding and photographing and sketching women in 13 Western states.
With her portraits of cowgirls and ranch women finished and to be installed at the museum (the show also will travel to other museums, courtesy of a Los Angeles company, Landau Traveling Exhibitions), Lanker is continuing her focus on portraiture. She’s at work in her studio on a stone lithography portrait of the late Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts, working from photographs and from items of Roberts’ clothing arrayed on a mannequin.
It’s been just over a year since Lanker’s husband died.
Lynda Lanker still lives in the house they shared for nearly four decades in south Eugene, working in the spacious studio that Brian insisted that they build for her, throwing herself into her art with daily determination.
“Work is how I know who I am,” she said. “If I’m not in that studio every day … It’s helped me get through a really tough year without Brian. We did all this together. It is so nurturing, and it’s such a beautiful place to be. I’ll stay here as long as I can.”