Sonja Caywood from Dayton, Wyoming paints with oils and love at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. I enjoyed learning about what goes into her beautiful, lively paintings in our interview.
J: Describe your style and subject matter.
SC: My work appears realistic from across a room, but up close is a fiesta of colors in painterly strokes. I want my paintings to reflect my joy in the livestock, landscape, architecture and wildlife that surround me here.
J: What drew you to your subject matter?
SC: My ranch-raised upbringing holds my heart, drives my work ethic, and inspires my art. I’ve always loved animals, so it’s natural they’d show up in my work. I’m also drawn to signs, barns, and machinery that harken to another time, and I feel a need to make a record of these structures as they slip further into disrepair.
J: How did you develop your style?
SC: Focusing on depicting joy, each stroke becomes a visible part of the process of painting something I love. When I was young, I strove for realism; today I find it more challenging to strive for emotion in a painterly portrayal of light, movement and energy.
J: What do you feel is unique about your work?
SC: I’m not sure my work is really unique, but people tell me that seeing it in person is way better than online. I really love it when viewers say they see love in my work, as that’s what I feel when I paint. Painting what I have a passion for, a history with, and knowledge of adds palpable elements to my work that I hope the viewer sees.
J: How did you get your start in art?
SC: I don’t remember ever not wanting to be an artist. My mom saved my first drawing at age 2. An aunt tells me that at around age three, I told her I was going to be an “artist like Uncle Aubry.”
J: Tell me more about your uncle.
SC: As a little girl, I loved watching my uncle Aubry sketch horses and western scenes; learning that a blank page could become anything was magical to me. My uncle says that when I was very small, he used to carry me around my grandparents’ house, showing me their CM Russell prints.
J: Are there any other artists in your family?
SC: My entire family is talented in different ways: I grew up seeing how creative endeavors enriched their lives, whether they were making music, art or food, or simply enjoying it.
J: Did your family encourage your art?
SC: YES! My family always encouraged my talent. My mom sacrificed to buy me meager art supplies when we really couldn’t afford it. My dad told me that with hard work and determination, I could do or be anything that I wanted. It’s important that I learned I’d have to work for it; I didn’t expect it to happen magically. My family didn’t have finances to pay for my schooling. I was responsible for my education, and at times, sold $3 pen and ink sketches at the local cafe to put gas in the car to get to college classes. My family instilling work ethic and “try” benefited me more as an artist than had they paid for my education.
J: How much art related education do you have?
SC: My three semesters of junior college in the 1980’s was interrupted by life and a lack of finances. I never let go of my dream, but it took a back burner when my kids were little. Tragedy struck when our youngest daughter died in labor, and painting became essential – my therapy – through that loss. I made time for art while working a full-time job and a part-time job, and being a mom, wife, playing hockey and caring for our horses. Since becoming a full-time artist in 2012, I’ve taken workshops with Michael Ome Unitedt, Phil Starke, Mike Beeman & Mara Shasteen. I learn from my friends, the web, practice, and by constantly studying the world around me. I once felt like I’d never be a “real” artist without a degree; ironically, it was my college art instructor who finally taught me that a degree is not vital to my being an artist.
J: When did you sell your first artwork?
SC: My first sale was a $10 scratchboard in the Magnum Restaurant in 1987. My husband and I had our first date there, and one of their big windows, which I painted in high school, is in my studio now.
J: Are you a full-time artist?
SC: Yes. Art was a part-time endeavor until 2012, when I lost my full-time job as a teacher’s aide, which ended up being the best thing to ever happen to me because it gave me the chance to follow my dream.
J: What other jobs have you held?
SC: I’ve been a cowgirl, a waitress, a cashier, a janitor, a teacher’s aide, and I rode the garbage truck. As an artist, I get to spend much more time w/ my family than when our kids were small.
J: What are your interests outside of your art?
SC: I love to travel, whether it’s long distances or short drives in the country. The Crow Reservation, just over the MT line, where I lived as a girl, fills me with inspiring memories. I spend time with our dogs, my husband and our two grown kids who live 20 miles away in Sheridan, WY.
J: How do you promote and expose your work to potential buyers?
SC: Artists today – especially those in rural areas like mine – are blessed to have the Internet! I share my art on social media, and I write articles for my blog and an arts feature of our local paper. I send newsletters through my website. Some wonderful galleries promote my work, and I value those partnerships a lot. Displaying my work in the historical log studio of artist Hans Kleiber (1887-1967) where I work during the summers, has been integral to selling art to people from all over the US and ten foreign countries.
J: What do you feel has been your greatest challenge in selling your work?
SC: The greatest challenge is the time it takes to market my work- I’d rather be in the studio than at the computer.
J: What do you feel you’ve been most successful at in your art, and in your art business?
SC: I’ve heard people complain that they weren’t given opportunities to follow their dreams. They cling to reasons why they “couldn’t” do it: no money, no education, no computer skills, no business training, no time, no space, work, family, trauma, illness… I’ve been successful at overcoming those “setbacks” not because I have more talent, but because I work very hard and I wanted this very much. I take cues in marketing practices by watching successful businesses. I’m thankful for the opportunities that working in art affords me, and I’m grateful to be living my dream.
J: How much time do you spend in the studio on an average week?
SC: I spend roughly 25 hours painting in the studio each week, and at least that much (probably more) with marketing, correspondence, sales, shipping and bookkeeping.
J: Do you have a daily routine?
SC: My routine changes with my husband’s rotating work schedule. I get much more routine-oriented when the weather warms up.
J: How much work do you produce per month on average?
SC: It varies, as some paintings take longer than others. Enlarging my studio impinged on production last year, but I still produced about 80 paintings in 2016, a mix of quick studies and larger studio works.
J: Who is your favorite artist from art history?
SC: This is the toughest question, as it changes constantly. Today I pick Van Gogh because his talent was so raw and his work so unusual. Seeing his work at the Musee D’orsay, National Gallery in London, and MoMA was a wonderful experience, as I relate to his passion and his bold brush strokes appeal to me.
J: Enjoy this video tour of Sonja’s studio. If you would like to see more of Sonja’s work, visit www.sonjacaywood.com. Thank you, Sonja!
In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.