Building the Foundation for a Western Artist – EWC Alum Follows New Career Path after Taking Community Education Course
By Olivia Wieseler
Often, while Julie Nighswonger sits in her home studio sketching the groove of a horse’s nose with a fresh charcoal pencil, she is humbled by the path her life took. She had never considered making art into a career. In fact, she originally went to college to be a veterinary technician; though, she admits in hindsight, she is not entirely sure how she settled on that.
“I really don’t know where the vet tech came from,” she said. “…I think I [just] loved Wyoming.”
Born and raised in Minnesota, Nighswonger had originally planned to go to North Dakota State University for design, but after a summer working on a dude ranch in Wyoming, she decided she couldn’t go anywhere else. Thus, she switched to vet tech and packed her bags for Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington.
Still, she had that creative side in her, and it showed. While attending EWC, she traveled around singing with the choir, having obtained a scholarship to do so. Upon graduation in 1984, she worked at a flower shop, before starting her own embroidery business.
She embroidered out of her home for several years before opening a storefront in downtown Torrington. She did this all while raising a family, something she hadn’t expected for her life either.
“A friend of mine asked me to go to a Community Ed class up at the college [EWC],” she said. “…There was a new teacher in town that was an artist, and she was doing this watercolor class—a little six week watercolor class.
“That’s kind of when I got hooked.”
“[They] told me that if I wanted to get better, I just needed to draw,” she said. “Keep painting, but then draw more.”
So that’s what Nighswonger did. As her drawings got better, she began entering them into art shows, and traveling further and further to do so. She met many artists, learned new techniques, and discovered more places to share her artwork.
“Once you start traveling away like that, you just start learning about all these other shows. … I’ve met so many wonderful people along the way,” she said. “Most artists are very giving and they’ll share everything with you.”
After about five years, she decided to try a new medium — oil painting.
It wasn’t long after she started painting that she realized this was the path her career needed to take, much to the surprise of her husband and family, though they supported her.
“I had [the embroidery business] for five years, and then I sold it. I needed to add more employees and add more machines, and I just wanted to draw and paint,” she said. “My husband might have thought I was a little crazy. … Something is established and working well, and then [I] go to something like, ‘I’m gonna be an artist.’”
“But you know, it worked out. … He supports me quite well.”
Nighswonger now makes a living as an artist full-time. And, though she never became a vet tech, what she learned at EWC during her years in the vet tech program has still served her today. Nighswonger’s artwork consists of horses, cattle and other animals often found on the Wyoming range. Her knowledge of animal anatomy informs a lot of her work to make them much more realistic.
What’s more, Nighswonger still makes use of EWC to this day, taking many art classes and workshops that come to the college. She credits EWC, along with other workshops she’s taken and books she’s read, for all that she’s learned about art.
“I don’t believe in ‘self-taught,’” she said. “…and I will never know everything I need to know.”
As the EWC’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award winner, Nighswonger said she is grateful for all that EWC has taught her, both right out of college and in her adult life. For her, it provided the perfect place to lay the groundwork for a dream career.
“You have to start somewhere to dream big and get a good foundation,” she said. “And EWC will give you a good foundation.”
For more information on classes at EWC call 307-532-8230 or visit ewc.wy.edu.
For more information on EWC’s Communication Education Classes call 307-532-8323.