Her West: Alberta painter presents Western art, history through the eyes of the cowgirl

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Alberta artist Renee Gould first presented her art at the Calgary Stampede in 2023. She was influenced by a historic book her neighbours had put together near Consort.

In 2016, Patrick Gilmer and Diane Maull self-published the book Big Gap Ranchers Roundup and Other Legends of the Neutral Hills, which had them gathering stories and photographs from their neighbours to trace the history of a rodeo that began in the 1900s. It inspired Gould to create a series of paintings that she sold at the Calgary Stampede Art Show, drawing on the history, stories, rugged landscape and real cowboys who competed more than 100 years ago.

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But Gould couldn’t help but think something was missing.

“It was mainly male and, in Western art, it’s mainly male, it’s only the cowboy,” she says. “So, as a female out here, what is my story? How do I relate to it? Yes, I’m often with my kids. I find myself taking care of the kids in the kitchen, but I’m also out there on my horse and I’m also helping them round up the cattle. It’s not like that has been displayed in Western art and in Western culture. It’s not necessarily talked out.”

For the past nine years, she has lived on a sprawling, 10,000-acre farm near Consort. Her husband, Craig Gould, is a fourth-generation farmer who oversees an operation that includes cash crops and 350 head of cattle. But Gould has always been a country girl, growing up on a decidedly more modest 100-acre homestead in Millarville. She trained show jumpers for years and was an avid polocrosse player, competing across the U.S., France, Australia and South Africa.

When preparing for her Calgary Stampede showcase this year at the Western Oasis, which begins July 5, she decided she would give Western art a bit of a spin, turning her series into a “celebration of cowgirls.” She called some of her girlfriends — all cowgirls from the area — and organized a photo shoot to chronicle life on the ranch, offering a new set of photos on which to base her oil paintings.

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“There was some roping, and we also did some fun ones with shotguns and whatnot,” says Gould. “It’s been the story of myself and my neighbours.”

Renee Gould
Mischief Managed, an oil painting by Renee Gould. cal

Around the same time, a family member began a Facebook page chronicling her own history, offering a glimpse of the lives of her great-great-grandparents and their children, who lived in Vermilion. There were photos of her great-grandmother wearing woolly chaps and a long braid.

“I didn’t know she was a horsewoman extraordinaire,” says Gould. “When I picture her, she is this frail old lady who drank a lot of tea. To find a picture of her in these bad-ass chaps and a cowgirl hat, that was a really good find.”

In the series, Gould puts the cowgirl in the centre of her art, presenting her as the backbone of farm life both historically and in modern times.

From the age of 16 to 22, Gould trained horses before studying art and education at the University of Lethbridge with the ambition of becoming an art teacher. Now the mother of two children — aged four and five — she still teaches occasionally but is kept pretty busy on the ranch. The work she will present at the Calgary Stampede has been finished for months.

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“I paint in the winter pretty hard, waking up early and painting for three hours,” she says. “If the kids go to daycare three days a week, then I also have those eight hours. My Stampede work has been done since February. It’s because I know that in March, we’re going to start calving and in April we are going to be calving. In April and May, my husband is going to be seeding.”

Becoming a Western artist — and exhibiting at the Stampede in particular — has been a full-circle experience for Gould.

Renee Gould
Prairie Queen, an oil painting by Renee Gould. cal

Her mother’s cousin is renowned artist Jody Skinner and Gould and her family would visit her booth when she was a child. Gould began painting professionally when her first child was born. She said the cowgirl art was a way of personalizing her heritage.

“In Canada, First Nations have such strong traditions even though there is a lot of horrible history there,” she says. “But, as a white girl, what is your story? What is your history? Where do you come from? I wouldn’t say that I knew that before moving here and seeing and hearing all my neighbours. They know each other and they know each other’s great-great grandfathers. We’re related to everyone. It’s kind of a funny joke but it’s real out here.”

Renee Gould will be part of the Calgary Stampede Art Show in the Western Oasis on Stampede Grounds from July 5 to 14.

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