Laney Hicks paints her quiet vision of the West

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Laney Hicks is a young and talented Western artist who does not paint cowboys and Indians.

Actually, it is not as unusual as one might think. Other forms of Western art, such as the wildlife painting in which Miss Hicks excels, have been eclipsed temporarily by the tremendous - some say faddish - interest in cowboy art that has sent prices of canvases by living artists soaring into the six-figure range.

But at least some Western art authorities argue that cowboy art has an intrinsically limited appeal and that the bottom will soon fall out of this market, making it easier for talented Western landscape and wildlife artists to gain the recognition they deserve.

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Steve Cotherman, the art director at the Wyoming State Museum in Cody, ranks Laney - as she signs her work - as one of the two outstanding wildlife painters in the state.

''I expect the cowboy (and) Indian market to turn around soon. When it does, people will turn naturally to landscape and wildlife, and artists like Laney will benefit,'' the Wyoming art historian says.

In many ways, Miss Hicks's work is the antithesis of cowboy art: It is tightly focused, rather than panoramic; quiet and gentle, rather than raw and dynamic. Though representational, her watercolors have an almost Oriental balance and style. She portrays mourning doves, snowshoe rabbits, foxes, and sandhill cranes rather than grizzly bears and eagles, the standard fare of the Western wildlife school. In her best works, Miss Hicks's love of the animals she paints seems to invest the painstaking detail of her portrayals with a special glow.

''I'm a quiet painter,'' she acknowledges. ''I like balance and harmony. All my animals are healthy. I suppose it's a reaction to all the chaos and brutality in the world.''

The stillness in her work reflects her personality. She is slender and graceful; her quiet voice and steady gaze, her ready acceptance of long silences , convey an impression that she feels more at home alone in the woods and fields , and in small tete-a-tetes, than in the noise and bustle of a big city or in large gatherings. Her mother recalls a time when her daughter moved to Los Angeles for an illustrating job. She called home the day after she arrived. Job or no job, she simply couldn't stand living in the heart of such a metropolis.

This quality in her work is an asset, judges Don Pierson, owner of the El Prado Galleries in Sedona, Ariz. His gallery has grossed over $2 million in sales this year. Even if customers like a painting that portrays violence, they are less likely to buy it because they don't think they could live with it, according to Mr. Pierson. The most salable are works of art that can ''inspire people, add emotionally to their lives,'' he is convinced.

Pierson considers finding future painting ''stars'' as the most challenging and enjoyable aspect of his job. He recently selected Miss Hicks as one of 14 promising young artists to attend a workshop on successful career building.

''There is no doubt about it. (She) has talent and a potential market worth exploring. Her watercolors have a special touch,'' he says.

A Colorado native, Miss Hicks attended Denver University in the 1960s and received a bachelor of fine arts degree. ''Because the art department was totally abstract at the time, I majored in advertising and book illustration,'' she recalls. But it was not until after she graduated, while illustrating high school biology texts in Boulder, Colo., that she mastered the technical aspects of painting.

After leaving that job, she spent three years as a free-lance artist and book illustrator. Next she took a job as a regional representative of the Sierra Club , based in Wyoming. As the first professional environmentalist in the state, she was freqently the object of considerable controversy. ''It was a 24-hour job, so I didn't do any painting,'' she says of the seven years she served in this capacity. ''But it was a valuable experience. I grew up a lot. I learned to work with people and groups. The travel was invaluable: I visited a number of places and met a number of people who have since become the object of my painting. Actually, my environmentalism is an extension of my art. Environmental quality is closely associated in my mind with art, aesthetics,'' she says.

Miss Hicks left the Sierra Club four years ago to concentrate full time on painting. She settled here in Dubois, a small town flanked by the Wind River Mountains to the south and the Absarokas to the north. Eagles nest in the rugged cliffs. Otters play in the nearby river. For several years, she lived in a remote cabin that in the winter was only accessible by skis or snowmobile. Recently, she moved back into town.

Trying to build a career as a Western artist has been an uphill fight, she says. A meticulous worker, she completes about 25 works a year and sells them for $300 to $3,000 each. But to establish a reputation and to sell one's works requires considerable effort beyond composing and painting. In the last few years she has spent a great deal of time preparing for art shows and traveling the highways and byways of the Rocky Mountains in an old pickup truck to promote her artwork in places such as Cody, Wyo., Billings, Mont., and Scottsbluff, Neb.

''Distribution is the hard part,'' she says with a grimace. ''I've been going to a lot of shows lately. I like meeting people, but . . . I don't feel like I have enough time to spend painting! I do feel fortunate that I have at least been selling enough to cover the costs of participating in the shows, which isn't true for a number of people.''

The results of this effort have been to give her a solid reputation in the northern Rockies. She has won a number of awards, including two firsts and a ''best of show'' at a recent Wyoming Audubon art show. She has also been selected to participate in several national and international environmental wildlife exhibitions.

Of course, achieving national prominence depends on considerably more than just talent. ''Becoming a famous Western artist depends as much on your personality as on talent,'' Mr. Cotherman maintains. ''In this day and age, quieter artists like Laney are going to have a harder time,'' he says.

Recently, Miss Hicks tried her hand at portraiture. ''I was nervous about it. I thought it would be a lot harder than doing animals. But I found it wasn't all that different,'' she says.

Her reason for venturing into this area, she explains, was a feeling of responsibility. The traditional Western way of life is rapidly vanishing. Rather than trying to reconstruct the past, she feels that today's Westerners deserve to be documented. ''It seems like an important thing to do, and there are not many who are,'' she observes.

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