In the last quarter of 2018, I hoisted a pristine white, medium/large canvas onto the easel and set about bringing to life an image that had been nudging me for more than three years. Viewers of my art frequently ask how long it took me to create particular paintings? In this case, the process actually began with a wild ride on a hot summer morning, more than three years earlier.
“Valentine” was part of a herd of longhorn cattle that I was invited to visit in early August 2015. Grazing on a parcel of pastureland, somewhere around 24,000 acres in size, with only the perimeters fenced, I was told that the cows might be just about anywhere. However, the ranchers had a good idea of where to look first. Besides, it was only mid morning, and we had all day.
They piled their dogs and me into the cab of a flatbed diesel ranch truck, and down the dusty lane we roared, twin smoke stacks spuming. Through arroyos I feared would turn us on our top; but no, up the other side we stormed, rooster tails of dirt spewing behind us. Caught between terror and fascination, I was watching our back trail from the extended side view mirror, and shaking my head at the craziness of the adventure. Every so often, one of the blue heelers, that were crammed into the open window alongside me, gave my face a hearty lick from jaw to cheek bone. Then the truck would launch itself, grill-first into another arroyo, the dirt would billow up all around us as we churned our way across, and I could feel rivulets of dog-spit-and-mud forming on my skin. So much for being a glamorous cowgirl photographer.
Roaming through that expanse of untouched, undeveloped ranch land made my heart thump with unexpected joy. I imagined it looking very much the same in the mid 1800’s, when this part of the country was still being settled. The missus pointed out surviving mounds of field rocks and melted adobe bricks, yelling over the diesel and the dogs that homesteaders had once briefly claimed this part of the world. I stared where she directed and could almost see the ghosts of those long-gone pioneers. Some of their wagon ruts were still in evidence, the earth hardened nearly to stone from years of use.
The first bunch of cattle we came across was right where my hosts had predicted they’d be; hock-deep in gritty mud beside an earthen watering tank. One that existed only when monsoon rains were frequent and plentiful enough to keep the natural depression filled with life-saving moisture. Stopping the truck with a lurch that sent furry bodies smacking against me, the rancher jumped out and ran around to the flatbed, grabbed a gunnysack filled with “cake” and began tossing it on the ground. The herd ambled over to us fairly quickly. I stepped back with my camera clicking, careful of the horns, capturing multiple images of those gorgeous bovines. Busy going with the cake, they paid me no mind.
It was as I turned in a slow circle, intent on soaking up the ambience of being there, plunked down in a field of abundant native grasses, surrounded by sleek-coated longhorns, that I spied “VALENTINE”. A youngish heifer, I was later told, she had been gentle and sweet from the time she was on the ground at birth. We gazed at each other, she and I, for several moments, as a thrill shot through the middle of me. Her eyes were so soft and calm and peaceful. I knew right then that someday I would paint her portrait.
The watercolor study was created shortly after I visited those cattle. At the time I painted it, I thought that would be as far as it went. A few years later, I found myself wanting to say something more about that beautiful spirit in the form of a longhorn, something about how I realized that she was a “sign” to me. One of encouragement, a reminder that sometimes we find emotional/moral/spiritual support in the most unexpected places, in the midst of the most curious circumstances, and from the most surprising sources.
Perhaps I had needed to live just a bit longer in order to allow the message of a creature, with a perfect white heart on her head, to get through to me. Maybe that message is as simple as it gets: whatever I focus on, becomes the truth of my life.
The small study found a home with a collector in Texas not long after I painted it. Now, in answer to the question about how long it took for me to create the oil painting of the same subject: I finally signed the canvas at the end of January 2019, after logging well over 200 hours studio time.
Below are several more photos of closeup details of the painting, including the gallery-wrapped edges that are painted around all four sides, making additional framing unnecessary.