Ginny Eckley and Susan Ennis

Sisters Taming Mustangs

Women needed a combination of bravery and adventure to move and live out West. They soon acquired new skills, such as taming horses and branding cattle. Many were pioneers filled with grit, ambition and great determination. Often women teamed up with relatives and friends, working together to create a new life.

Inspired by the women working together to obtain land, make a living, and survive out West.

Trains Change the West

In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Bill and several grants that gave financial support for the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies. The Union Pacific Railroad built westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific Railroad built eastward from Sacramento, California. These two lines met at Promontory, Utah, in 1869. Travel and trade expanded, as trains provided a faster, safer way to transport goods and people across the country.

Trains made travel faster and safer and more accessible for single women that wanted to explore the West.

Homesteading: Turning a Soddy into a Home

Thousands of women took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 that offered free land in the Great American Plains. Women who were single, widowed, divorced or deserted were eligible to acquire 160 acres of federal land in their own name. Building a home was an important undertaking. If the prairie lacked building materials, such as wood or stone, sod from prairie grass was used to create brick-like shapes that formed the walls of a home.
The inspiration for this piece was discovered while finding historical state and city websites. We enjoyed these sites, as they told wonderful tales of pioneers from 1800’s. Reading about making a sod house, along with amazing photos and stories, provided us with inspiration and knowledge for our designs.

A Homestead Adventure

Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads of federal land, for private ownership. European immigrants risked leaving their homes and countries, to start a new life. A number of immigrants moved from Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. Many died from the long trip over the ocean, contracting malaria from mosquitoes. Americans owe a debt of gratitude to immigrants who built towns, hospitals and schools.


When immigrants came from other countries, they brought seeds and plants with them because they did not know what they would find in the new land. Women sewed packets of seeds in the hems of their dresses and in the brims of their hats and tucked tiny plants in their pockets and in the baggage they brought aboard ships so these items would not be taken away when they arrived in this country.

A Texas Blue Norther …SOLD Will not tour

This is a fast moving cold front, marked by an exceptionally rapid drop in temperatures, strong winds and dark blue skies. The cold front originates from the north, and can send temperatures plummeting by 20 or 30 degrees in minutes. On clear fall days, white clouds rise from the prairie and the storm quickly envelopes the horizon.

One of the most descriptive books about the weather the homesteaders faced is, “The Deadliest Woman in the West: Mother Nature on the Prairies and Plains“ by Rod Beemer. The Panhandle was an expanse of endless prairies that hosted vicious weather extremes. It could be swept by a blistering south wind that licked up all remnants of moisture or by a deadly norther that screamed down out of the Artic. During spring and fall, a body could swelter at noonday in 100 degree heat, and by sundown be shivering in a blinding blizzard; the temperature was capable of dropping a degree a minute when a blue norther ripped across the Panhandle.

Prairie Grasses & Coneflowers

Inspired by fields of tall prairie grasses and colorful wildflowers, we challenged ourselves to bring the beauty and joy of nature, together with art and fabric. The golden background is a thin, striped silk, dyed to capture the warm tones of the prairies in bloom.

The tall prairie grasses are silk-screened in sections. Once screened, everything is hand-painted, adding layers of color. The final printing step was adding two butterflies and a hummingbird.

Susan Ennis and Ginny Eckley

Ginny Eckley & Susan Ennis

The idea of leaving everything you know to explore the West, and stake a claim on 160 acres, is both exhilarating and frightening. Reading and researching about audacious women, who traveled to the Western United States to create a new life, inspired our artwork for this exhibition. People like Kirsten Knudsen, who left Norway and traveled alone to Mountrail County, North Dakota, with dreams of new opportunities. That bold spirit is what influenced and empowered this work.

         With each work, we researched, designed, and tested out ideas to discover the best way to portray the stories of these women. Techniques ranged from hand painting on silk organza, to create a soft atmosphere for “Sisters Taming Mustangs”, to merging digital printing with paint and silkscreens to express the storm in “A Texas Blue Norther”.  Until the work moved us emotionally, it was not finished.  

We have always been awed by nature. So, in addition to depicting brave pioneers, our work includes images of wide open land which attracted these women to the West. Looking out as far as you can see, allows the dreamer in us to envision possibilities. 

         Collaboration made it possible for this story to be told in multiple voices, much like the women who came to explore and discover. Some were single, others widowed with children to support. As Louise Karlson said, “I heard about the homestead land one could get, and I thought here is my chance!” Many homesteaders found time to enjoy music, art and literature. Anna Zimmerman played accordion, violin, harmonica and guitar. It was great to learn how art and humor was important to them, much as it is to us today.

Our goal in being a part of this exhibition was to educate and inspire. Fourth grade memories of the Homestead Act were dulled by time, and we were impressed to learn of women from Canada, Europe, and the US, who risked everything for the opportunity to homestead. Their ingenuity and endurance inspired and encouraged us.

Ginny Eckley & Susan Ennis

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