Tri-State country was well represented in Fort Worth, Texas, as the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame launched the exhibit “Tough by Nature, Portraits of Cowgirls and Ranch Women of the American West” on Thursday, May 9. National Cowgirl Hall of Fame Honorees Georgie Sicking from Kaycee, WY, accompanied by Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns of Newcastle, WY and Jonnie Jonckowski from Billings, MT, attended the opening of the exhibit where Sicking and Jonckowski are featured.
Continuing through Sept. 9, the exhibit showcases 65 of Lynda Lanker’s drawings, paintings, works on paper, and prints, “which document a vanishing way of life that affirmed the role of women in the economy and ecology of the American West.” Lanker’s portraits are touted for revealing “the ruggedness, beauty, and cultural tradition of ranch life and the resilience, character, and quiet strength of the extraordinary women who gain their sustenance and livelihood from the land.”
Pat Riley, executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, commented, “These inspiring portraits of these extraordinary women reveal their strong sense of self-reliance and confidence.”
Eight of the 49 women featured in the exhibition are Honorees in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame: Reba Perry Blakely, Linda Mitchell Davis, Ruby Gobble, Gretchen Sammis, Jonnie Jonckowski, Georgie Sicking, Mollie Taylor Stevenson, Jr. and Jan Youren. Riley concluded, “They personify our mission to honor the women whose lives exemplify the courage, resilience, and independence that helped shape the American West.”
In addition to Georgie and Jonnie, other featured Honorees Jan Youren from Kansas and Mollie Taylor Stevenson, Jr. from the Houston area were on hand for the Exibition opening.
Lynda Lanker was understandably excited to see this large and amazing array of her artwork exhibited inside the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and commented, “... many of the female cowhands and ranchers ... were doing the same work as the men but they had mainly been portrayed as rodeo queens in tight satin shirts with lots of sequins and fancy boots. I wanted to go deeper and show the true women instead of the stereotype.”
Beaming as sizable crowds of people “oohed” and “aahed” over her art, Lanker added, “I hope people come away from the exhibition feeling the ruggedness, the beauty, and the cultural tradition of this life, for this ranch life, long romanticized, is harsh and makes one tough by nature. What these women and their families are doing is admirable. They have made an indelible imprint on the American landscape.”
The Cowgirl Museum’s gift shop offers Lynda’s beautiful 132-page coffee table book “Tough by Nature,” which tells the stories of these remarkable women in their own words. American novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Larry McMurtry wrote the book’s foreword; Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a 2002 Honoree in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, wrote the introduction; and celebrated poet Maya Angelou wrote the afterword. Published in 2011 by Oregon State University Press, the book was made possible by The Ford Family Foundation and other generous donors. People attending the Exhibition opening were privileged to have their books signed by the author, as well as the visiting Honorees who are featured in it.
The Hall of Fame’s Board of Director’s were on hand for the Exhibition launch – along with a Design Team from France, currently involved with planning a ‘facelift’ for the Museum. The entire group gathered for lunch with Lynda (the featured artist) and the honorees.
Amazingly, Lynda originally intended to portray only Oregon women – and to use only visual art, not words, to do so.
“I was only thinking ‘pictures on a wall,’” she said, confessing, “I was a terrible interviewer.” She credits her late husband for reminding her “there are cowgirls all over,” and for designing and putting together the book – even after she told him, “I’ll buy you a tape recorder,” when he said she had to write about her subjects.
“Because of him we have the book. I owe him so much ... 20 years of rough roads,” Lynda recalled, misty-eyed.
Lynda chuckled about her early off-road travels, saying, “I was naïve. I liked my comforts, and Melody Harding told me the harder life is the better she likes it. When I asked if they had many snakes she said, ‘I just moved from Big Piney and I killed 27 rattlers this year.’”
Lynda asked, “Did you shoot ‘em,”, and Melody said, “No, I knocked ‘em in the head with the honda on my rope.”
Lynda said, “Right then, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.”
When asked to state the most difficult thing about the project, Lynda replied, “I guess knowing when I was done.”
She commended the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and National Cowgirl Museum for providing ideas, resources and facts; along with friends who sent her stories and news clips about amazing Western women.
Cowgirl subjects present were asked how they decided to participate when first approached by Lynda. Mollie Taylor-Stevenson of the American Cowboy Museum and Taylor-Stevenson Ranch in Houston, TX, said she “thought it would be beyond anything I could imagine.” After viewing the Exhibition she added, “Lynda has depicted each of us as though the picture was moving!”
Jonnie Jonckowski said she figured “Any book with us in it is gon’na be good!” She chuckled about how long it was between the time Lynda originally contacted her and the book’s release last year. She said, “I’d call everyone every 10 years and say, “Ever hear from that gal that took all those pictures one day?”
Seeing the completed work at last, Jonnie was awed by the “depth and emotion” Lynda’s art conveyed, saying, “She captured our eyes, our skin, our texture like no one ever has.”
Georgie Sicking is happiest about Lynda’s book because, “It puts Western women in history where they belong – as part of the living, the action and the work; rather than as they are usually portrayed, wringing their hands and walking the floor in a cabin while they listen to the wind blow.”
During the “Saddle Your Own Horse Series – Conversations at the Cowgirl” on May 10, visitors to the National Cowgirl Museum were privileged to hear Jonckowski, Sicking, Stearns, Stevenson and Youren articulate their own “tough by nature” stories, speaking of their lives, their past, and what they do today.
As competitive roughstock riders, Jonnie and Jan constantly pick at one another, razzing and ragging, giving the audience giggles. Jonnie declared, “Jan started way younger than I did ... she had a diary to write down her winnings in.”
Jan confessed she was only 11 years old when she started rodeoing, but said a fire in the house consumed her diary. She remembered riding four head of broncs and bulls at Emmett, ID, back in 1955, “getting paid $54 for 32 seconds of work,” and figuring she had the world by the tail from then on.
Jonnie started “nearly 26 years later” and lamented she only “earned about the same amount of win money.” An accomplished track star, she yearned for – and prepared for – Olympic competition. She qualified for the ’76 Olympics in Pentathlon only to have an injury keep her out – and Jimmy Carter keep her out the next time.
When Jonnie “burned out on triathlons and body building” she remembers seeing a poster about an All-Girl Rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana. So she went “to the local cowboy bar, looking for someone to teach me how to ride bareback broncs in two weeks.” She found an unemployed truck driver who was willing. When she “picked the riggin’ up upside down” he knew he had some teaching to do. Yet, after discovering her strength and athleticism he confidently assured his buddy/co-coach, “Jonnie can hold onto anything ... unless she draws that old bay.”
You guessed it – they ran the bay under her, on a muddy day, and she recalls, “I didn’t even know enough to nod my head, but my mind kept saying ‘Be ready, they’re gon’na open that gate any second.’ When the whistle blew my body was pretty much even to the ground, but they gave me 58 points. I was in Red Lodge, home of those Greenough girls I admired so much, and I qualified a bareback!”
Then more guys called and said, “You should ride bulls.” The rest is history. A quarter century after qualifying for the ’76 Olympics Jonnie had ridden bulls “all over – from Mexico to Europe.”
Jan Youren claims one reason she started so much younger than Jonnie is that her brother had a disease of the hip joints so she had to break all their horses. That gave her a strong foundation, and when her Dad put on the first all-girl rodeo ever in Idaho, he entered her in every event!
She quite proudly also lays claim to the “most broken bones in one day.” This dubious title was earned in Miles City, MT, when the pick-up horse ran over her on the arena floor. He broke her shoulder blade, five ribs and her collar bone “in more than one place.” She thinks that’s the only time she was “packed out of the arena.” When she was very young her dad admonished, “Always get up and get yourself out of the arena ... you can die behind the chutes.”
Jan says she danced a lot after rodeos, because “I’m not tough enough to just lay down and hurt, so I went out dancing to get my mind off the pain.” She’s broken her back twice, with a total of seven broken vertebrae ... broke her nose 14 times ... and today she declares “the hot tub sees a lot of me.”
Once, when she thought she had a blood clot in her leg, she decided to turn her bull out – until her 8-year-old incredulously gasped, “You’re not gon’na turn him out??!”
So she didn’t. The bull threw his head and hooked her, but she ended up winning third. The child enthused, “Now aren’t you glad you rode him, Mom?”
Jonnie recommended that everyone look up “Just for the Ride” on YouTube. The interesting story behind the film is that a college senior, Amanda Mickeala filmed one of Jan Youren’s rodeo schools and rode bareback’s there, for her Harvard thesis.
It’s apparently quite a show ... as was the National Cowgirl Museum’s May 9 and 10 event ... unquestionably enhanced by a few colorful cowgirls from Tri-State country. The Stock Yards District was even livened up as Rhonda Stearns and Jonnie Jonckowski pushed 92-year-young and legally blind Georgie Sicking long distances over the cobblestones and railroad tracks in the hotel’s wheelchair, to enjoy the local cuisine and night life. F