Press "Enter" to skip to content

Westcliffe’s Sarah Woods saves wildlife

Article by Leah Lahtinen

Local Artists – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Being an artist is not a very practical way to earn one’s living. It may be fine for those who don’t have to live in the real world, who can exist on whimsy, and who only need to eat when inspiration strikes them. But souls raised on rules, order, and common sense have a tendency to see whimsy and inspiration as quirks in an otherwise practical nature, and thus go on to follow more prosaic paths.

And that’s exactly what Sarah Woods did. At least, that’s what she meant to do. Sarah grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, in a family full of teachers, and even though she had a love of art and of nature, she believed that the best way to make use of that love in a practical way, was to become an art teacher. So she tried. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Wyoming, and she even taught a year in Nebraska. Then she married Randy Woods, and he encouraged her to do what she could do better than anything else she had ever done — to paint.

Cautiously, Sarah took up her brush and became a wildlife artist. She painted more and taught less, but still kept her feet on the ground as a substitute teacher.

Woods put on a couple of one-person shows. In 1986, she entered a contest sponsored by the Wildlife Art News — she and 500 other wildlife artists. Thirty of the 500 entries were printed in the magazine to be voted on by the readers, and Sarah’s drawing, “On the Ledge,” depicting a pair of Rocky Mountain goats, a nanny and a kid perched on a rocky outcropping, won first place.

Wildlife Art News featured Sarah in an article and launched her success. “It gave me credibility,” says Sarah, remembering. “This takes so much hard work, you have to love it and believe in what you’re doing.”

As she grew in confidence, Sarah also grew as an artist. “In the beginning,” she says, “I was excited to paint detail, to know everything in detail. I liked that part of it.” It gave her a sense of control that she didn’t have in the broader scope of her career. Sarah says she relied on detail to carry off parts of her painting that might not have been strong enough to stand alone.

Now, she stands more firmly on the basics of all good art — composition, bold, vibrant color, and especially lighting. Sarah is most taken by strong early morning or clear late afternoon light, which she feels is a particularly Western phenomenon. “When I lived in New York, the most exciting thing about coming home to Wyoming was the light,” she recalls.

To further foster her artistic growth, Sarah has also studied painters she admires, like Jan Vermeer, a sixteenth-century Dutch artist who painted mostly interiors, with “elegant, beautiful side-lighting,” she says. Other inspirations are Andrew Wyeth and Carl Runguis, another wildlife painter.

Runguis paints so that one can feel the shape of the animal in his painting, enjoying not only the animal but also its spatial quality, “the planes and shapes of that animal, the way the light and color play on it.” Sarah has also learned to appreciate the little things that she sees every day on walks or driving her daughter Lauren to school.

But her greatest satisfaction comes from working with wildlife, being able to contribute to the conservation and environmental movements in meaningful ways. She has done prints and cards for at least ten different groups, estimating that her work has generated a quarter of a million dollars in revenue to help make a difference in preserving the wildlife she loves.

Her paintings are shown in both Jackson Hole and Aspen. The Wet Mountain Trading Company in Westcliffe carries prints of all of her work, as well as some originals.

Living in the Sangres has given her art veracity, Sarah maintains. “Without constant exposure, it becomes obvious in your work. It has to be part of what you see and do every day, so you can feel it in your soul.” Living in the midst of nature has also allowed her to loosen up, to paint more from her heart and not just from her head.

Leah Lahtinen lives in Gardner and often writes for the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe.