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Essence of the West

Author: David M. Brown
Issue: August, 2016, Page 92
photography by Garrett Cook

On her ranch, Cynthia Rigden enjoys spending time with two of her horses, (left and center) I Rate and Slewpy (Candlelighter), grandson of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner.
Art Imitates Ranch Life for Renowned Sculptor and Painter Cynthia Rigden

Cynthia Rigden is fond of saying, “I’m an artist of the West, not a Western artist.” Her bronzes, watercolors and oils aren’t “cowboys and Indians and ‘shoot ’em ups.’ I am not limited to traditional Western themes,” she explains. Instead, the Arizona native is known to gallery owners, museum curators and collectors for her authentic depictions of horses and other livestock.

Her art strikes true because since 1955 she has lived on the 8,000-acre Rigden Ranch—which her grandfather acquired in 1902—in Kirkland Valley, about 45 minutes southwest of Prescott. While she spent the first 12 years of her life on her mother’s family ranch next door, she now manages the day-to-day operations of the large, historic working cattle ranch, assisted only by a small crew that she supplements when needed.

“Out of the Gate,” (oil, 18"H by 10"W) depicts longhorn crossbred cattle at Rigden Ranch.
“The most recurrent theme in her work revolves around her family ranch,” explains Joan M. Griffith, director of Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale, which has shown Rigden’s work since 1982. “She captures imagery inspired by the longhorn cattle; various breeds of horses, including quarter horses and thoroughbreds; calves; chickens; and roosters that live on the property, as well as the occasional resident dog or cat.”

According to Rigden, her art celebrates a passion for horses and other domesticated animals that began millennia ago with Paleolithic depictions, such as those at the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France, continuing through to the artistry of ancient peoples at Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria, Egypt and Greece. “Those early artists captured the essence of animals, and it meant a great deal to them,” she says. “Whether it was for magic or religion or fun, they were all very good at it. Although we are separated by style, technique and time, I see myself continuing that long artistic tradition.”

She’s also following a long family tradition. Her paternal grandmother, Ada Eldred Rigden, came to territorial Arizona as a schoolteacher and eventually became well-known as a watercolorist. Her mother, Margaret Hays Rigden, worked in oils and sculpted. Inspired by the family matriarchs, Rigden began drawing at age 2. After an early education at the still-standing one-room Peeples Valley School House, she entered Arizona State University as an art and agriculture double major, fulfilling her creative urge while preparing to assume responsibilities for the family ranch.

“When the classes I wanted were filled, I chose one in sculpting,” she recalls, smiling. “I soon found, though, that it was the medium I was looking for. It felt right, perhaps because it was in three dimensions, much like ranch life itself.”

“Firebrand” (bronze on a walnut base, 10"H by 12"L by 4"W) is based on a Spanish-style horse, a type that Rigden studied during her travels.
On the ranch, she studied the animals and took photographs to which she could refer when creating. She also read and acquired books on such artists as renowned English equine painter Alfred James Munnings and French “animalier” (an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals) Antoine-Louis Barye.

She traveled, too, visiting England 20 times to study Hereford and Angus stocks and to return to the homeland of her grandfather. She journeyed to the Mediterranean and the Greek Isles, to Italy and Spain, and to St. Petersburg, Russia. She took a European cattle breeders tour to see Gelbvieh in Germany, Charolais and Limousin breeds in France, and Simmental in Switzerland. She went as a rancher and returned inspired as an artist.

At the same time, she has always been influenced by the colors and lights of her home state. “We have a different set of colors here than back East, more earth tones, less green. Our light is clearer, too. I have always felt that you can’t try to portray anything without understanding the light and colors around it,” she says.

Her work on the ranch and her art share equal focus. For instance, when she’s not bringing cattle to market, she has more time to formulate and work on her oils and bronzes. She’ll often paint at night, too, when ranch affairs take more sunshine time.

“I’ll often have a number of pieces started, just basic ideas, then I will go back and focus on one or two to get them in frame or ready for the foundry,” Rigden explains. She maintains two art studios in different ranch buildings, and she seldom paints “en plein air,” where she completes everyday ranch work. “The ideas come from my experiences outdoors; I complete them indoors,” she says.

Rigden’s affection for her ranch animals is an essential aspect of her ability to accurately portray them.
Completing a bronze can take up to three months or more from conception through clay or wax mold to casting. But, each piece features a special twist: “Say I’m doing a series of 15, which is usual for me,” she notes. “I’ll often change each of the pieces in some small way—a slightly different mane, for example. That way, each is unique, much like every animal.”

Rigden has been widely published, profiled and exhibited and is affiliated with the highly regarded American Academy of Equine Art in Lexington, Kentucky. And, for 23 consecutive years, she has been invited to the prestigious Prix de West show at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. “It’s very gratifying to be included in such a great group of artists every year,” she says with characteristic humility.

The Desert Caballeros Museum in Wickenburg has displayed one of her major bronzes, a life-sized foal, “Wide Awake,” since 1991. She’s also shown at the museum’s “Cowgirl Up! Art from the Other Half of the West” since the annual exhibition’s inception in 2006. “She is one of only nine artists from across the country who’ve been invited by the selection committee every year,” says Mary Ann Igna, the museum’s deputy director and curator. Among Rigden’s many awards at “Cowgirl Up!” was a first-place for sculpture.

Rigden’s everyday experience with horses and cattle helps her to depict subtleties of movement, moods, personalities and psychology—aspects that only someone who has raised and cared for the animals since childhood can best understand.

“I’ll watch the way a steer or horse moves,” she explains. “Riding a horse, you see how they think, and that allows you to be one step ahead. Same with a steer. If you don’t have an idea of what it’s going to do next, it can pick up and bolt in the dust.”

“Safe Place” (bronze, 6"H by 12"L by 10"W) is a vignette of a cow and her calf.
This ability to convey vignettes true to ranch life—with power, grace and accuracy—is a hallmark of her work. In one of her well-known bronze pieces entitled “Taurus,” a longhorn bull stands defiant in sinewy presence. In “Safe Place,” a longhorn cow sits alert, watching over her calf that’s ensconced beside her. In yet another named “Mustang Mama,” a mare and her filly walk together, the younger in its mother’s protective shadow.

“One of the things people often say about my work is that it has balance,” Rigden says. “What they mean, I think, is that the animals I depict appear fluid, not static—in one position and ready to move on to another.

“I don’t try to romanticize them,” she adds. “I believe the gracefulness and form of the horses and cattle speak for themselves. And, if I can capture that in my work, then I’ve captured their essence—as if you were seeing them here right on the ranch.”

“My Kingdom for a Horse” (bronze on a granite base, 13"H by 9"L by 6"W) was inspired by the discovery of Richard III’s remains beneath a parking lot in England in 2012. Rigden imagined a powerful medieval war horse that the king might have rode into battle.

“Study of Two Horses” (oil, 8”H by 16”W) celebrates Rigden’s own horses, Slewpy, foreground, and Luna.

White Stampede and black-and-white Hoodoo are just two of Rigden Ranch’s many longhorn steers.

“Mustang Mama” (bronze, 10"H by 13"L by 5"W) depicts a recurrent ranch theme of mother with her filly protected beside her.

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