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Female dairy artists bring out cows’ personalities in paintings

Holly Drankhan Published on 18 November 2014
Valerie Miller

If the pictures by Valerie Miller, Emma Caldwell, Bonnie Mohr and Lisa Rasmussen were each worth 1,000 words, bovines could at last speak. While their vocalizations still remain untranslatable, the subjects of these artists’ paintings possess a personality all their own.

Lisa Rasmussen

Whether it’s Miller’s patch-eyed Jackie who “dreams of open spaces and loves the West” or the always-reliable Tina Mae by Rasmussen, each cow provides viewers with a whimsical, yet genuine, view into the dairy industry through the window of each woman’s unique personal experiences.

Editor's note: The online version of this article from our Nov. 25, 2014 print issue features additional responses from Bonnie Mohr, a well-known dairy artist in Minnesota.

About the artists

  • Valerie Miller grew up near family dairies in the same town where she now lives and works – Waukon, Iowa. Miller knew she wanted to be a painter since kindergarten, later pursuing an art degree from Bradley University and a business degree from the University of Iowa. As the owner and operator of Steel Cow, Miller paints individual cows – all of which she has personally encountered on travels around the world – on canvases and large-scale murals. The artist provides each of her 37 “girls” with a vivid personality against a solid backdrop.
  • Emma Caldwell began her artistic explorations as a child in Ontario, drawing with her father after he finished the morning chores in their 45-Holstein tiestall barn. After being diagnosed with two learning disabilities, she found that art became a release from the struggles encountered at school. The young artist graduated this year from Queen’s University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Learning about many facets of the agricultural community through her time with 4-H, Caldwell paints all manor of livestock with accuracy and energy.
  • From the age of 14 to 18, Lisa Rasmussen was the principle milker of the 125 cows on her family’s farm in the foothills of Mount Rainier. Taking an interest in the quality of milk products, Rasmussen obtained a degree in food science and technology and human nutrition from Washington State University. It was in college that the Washington resident began to use cartooned art as a source of comfort during trying times. Summers at arts and crafts shows steered her toward a career in art. With illustrations in seven children’s books and a host of personalized products from mugs and aprons to holiday cards, Rasmussen paints a variety of animal life – but cows still remain her favorite.
  • Bonnie Mohr, lovingly known as the “cow lady,” is a self-taught artist who filled her evenings and weekends with painting while studying dairy production and agriculture communication. Now Mohr crafts much of her work in an above-garage studio overlooking her family dairy farm in Glencoe, Minneosta. With the task of raising five children, the mother learned to take advantage of early morning studio time, enjoying the tranquility “while the rest of the world is still waking up.” Although she will drop her paintbrush to lend a hand if she notices any renegade heifers or other commotion out the window, Mohr dedicates herself to capturing realistic images of bovines and the rural America she knows and loves.

What mediums do you prefer to use and why?

MILLER: I paint in acrylic on canvas because I enjoy how quickly it dries and the fact it can be cleaned up with water and soap. I also enjoy the texture of the canvas.

CALDWELL: I use both acrylics and oil paints; it just depends on the project. I prefer oil paints over acrylics. The first time I tried oil paints, they just clicked with me.

RASMUSSEN: I chose watercolors because I had a teacher in third grade who taught me how to do them, and she was really good with them. It was something that could be picked up at any time, and I didn’t have to worry about my paints drying. You just re-wet them.

MOHR: I chose oils, just because I knew the masters had painted in oils, and I loved the rich color pallets and effects that you could achieve with oil. Over the years, I have learned some of the different techniques and methods one can use using various brushes, mediums and canvas textures, but it has really been a lifelong learning curve.

What inspires your work?

MILLER: I look to actual cows for my inspiration and go to family’s farms, friends’ farms and other farms for my inspiration for my paintings.

CALDWELL: I am constantly inspired by the joy farmers have for their work. When I see someone’s eyes light up as they talk about a certain cow, when someone posts a picture on Facebook of a heifer they are excited about, when the felfie became a trend … these things make me happy to get to work.

For inspiration, I look to social media and go on farm tours. I am inspired by other farmers’ individual experiences and their passion for sharing their lives with the world. On the other hand, I am interested in consumers’ perspective as well. Food is such a personal issue, and I find both producers’ and consumers’ passion for it to be a huge motivator for myself.

RASMUSSEN: My inspiration is probably more things that I go through. I try to bring out some humor and make it not as bad as what it is. I keep thinking after all these years I wouldn’t have tons of struggles, but whenever there is a big, huge struggle, I probably go to my painting table and think of something brighter, cuter and happier. Instead of getting mad at the world, I try to laugh at it.

MOHR: My upbringing has definitely played a major role in who I am, what I believe, and now, of course, reflected in my artwork. I still believe that you know the heart of a person by their presentation and mine is most obvious in my paintings. I paint the things I know, the things I have experienced, or the things that I am in love with. Thankfully, there are a lot of other people who enjoy the same things and have supported me through my career, enabling me to make a living as an artist. What a wonderful thing!

Growing up on a dairy farm, my parents instilled into me the values of hard work, the rewards that come with it, being responsible, sharing and working together as a family, having fun along the way and having God in your life. These are the same values that I now share and teach our children on our dairy farm.

Who is your intended audience? What kind of feedback have you received, and how have you incorporated it into your work?

MILLER: I paint cows, so people who like cows are my intended audience. Sometimes I will add a new breed of cow to our lineup of “the girls” if I get enough requests.

CALDWELL: My intended audience is anyone who is proud of the past and wants to embrace the bright future of agriculture.

RASMUSSEN: The fairs are great because I get the farmers, the 4-H and the FFA kids who all like or want or need something to represent their farm or animals. So every year, I work really hard on coming up with new things for them. Those customers also inspire me and keep me thinking of new things, but I listen very well, and when they ask a few times, I usually have it the next year. So those people are my intended audience and also the kids and grandmas who are buying for their grandkids.

MOHR: People who love rural America and have a big heart for animals and the beauty of the farm and country roads. People who see the same "real and wonderful" things I do – a newborn calf, the autumn harvest, robins in the spring – and have an appreciation for the good and wholesome things in life.

Emma Caldwell

How have your personal experiences shaped your artwork?

MILLER: For me, as well as most I imagine, art is personal. I love cows and animals, so for me I paint what I love – and that is animals.

CALDWELL: My life growing up on a dairy farm was filled with positive people who were passionate about their work. I think because of this, my work is reflective of this positive attitude toward agriculture. I have always wanted to share with people the beauty I have found in my life growing up on our farm.

However, going away to school and taking trips to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair with my 4-H club have taught me that nearly everyone has a very different idea of what is beautiful in agriculture. These experiences have motivated me to share my view of agriculture more than ever.

RASMUSSEN: I think out of all the bad days and the hard times was when my characters or animals really came to life. It was like they were talking to me and smiling at me to cheer me up and make me feel like it was all OK and that I would get through it.

What aspects of dairy do you hope to capture with your paintings?

MILLER: I try to capture the essence of the cow in my paintings and celebrate whatever animal I am painting on at the moment. Art is important to the dairy industry in the same way that art is important to any person. The dairy industry is no different.

CALDWELL: The dairy industry is constantly striving to be more sustainable, efficient and cow health conscious. We know that a stronger, comfortable cow equals a profitable, longer-lasting, happy cow. I think it is so important to highlight these aspects because they are worth celebrating.

I think that biosecurity and good herd management are beautiful things, so I keep ear tags in my paintings. I condone the hard work of generations of breeders by painting stronger, healthier, happier cows. I want to romanticize the future of farming.

I hope that everyone can take away some excitement from my artwork. Whether it is visually exciting, or pride that can be found in their own work, or simply that it made them feel.

Art is a mirror to our culture. It reflects our ideals, morals and our mood. It is a window into our lives. We can communicate our love, passion and pride for our community in a way we cannot put into words. Art is important to the dairy industry, because agriculture is our culture. Society’s impression of our industry is changing, and consumers are ready to listen. I am ready to show them my love of agriculture.

RASMUSSEN: [I feel] the family farm is gone, especially in dairy. There are a lot of family farms that do goats and sheep, but to find a family dairy farm anymore – there are hardly any. These kids grow up not knowing where their milk comes from or the value a cow is, and I hope I can educate them somehow about what a wonderful animal it is.

MOHR: There is nothing pretend or superficial about my work. I paint what I see and what I love. For my audience, especially dairy farmers, we all want to see the genuine beauty and the true rendition of good cows and strong personalities. I want to capture the essence of pride, ownership and love of animals, and trigger heartstrings where passion runs deep about caring for our livestock. It is who I am, and I think we all feel the same way about the passion we have for our animals. Really, I just hope people take away a good feeling, a sense of happiness and feel joy from my work; that's the best compliment I could receive from my work.

How do you choose to personify subjects that cannot speak?

MILLER: I get a kick out of naming “the girls” (what we call my cow paintings) after my family and friends. For example, Greta is named for my sister, Arlene for my grandmother and Ali for one of my good friends. I also enjoy giving the girls bios and imagining what they love to eat, what they would like to do when they grow up and what their passions are.

CALDWELL: It is in the eyes. Everything else about the painting can be off, but the eyes have got to be right.

RASMUSSEN: I have always put kind of human characters and personalities with the animals because it is what personalities I would have liked to see out of my human companions that I never saw. But animals always have more compassion and true love than what my human friends had.

I can also say that I was so emotional when my dad sold the cows and when seeing some of the tragedies or things that happened to the cows that were inhumane. Showing the rest of the world how joyful and loving and kind this animal is gives me a lot of gratitude.

MOHR: The environment you place an animal in sets the stage for the painting. Beyond that, I think you capture the spirit and essence of something in the eyes, head carriage and other little things like position of the ears and small details that make each one an individual like whiskers, hair coat and facial expression.

What is a piece that you are particularly proud of and why?

MILLER: I put all of my efforts and experiences to date in each painting and try to make each painting better than the last.

CALDWELL: I am particularly proud of “Show Potential,” a painting I did for my third-year final at Queen’s. It is one of my biggest pieces, at 5 feet wide and 3 feet tall. It depicts three heifers lying down. I am proud of it because I think I was successful in depicting an image that is positive about one of the realities of farming.

RASMUSSEN: I had one cow as a kid I could always count on. Her name was Tina Mae. She was my show cow, and she always came to me when I would go out to the field. She would turn her head around and look at me when I was herding them in to get milked and looked at me in a way to make sure I was there and OK. Tina Mae is my logo cow; I have a copyright and trademark on her, and I really protect her from anyone trying to steal her.

MOHR: “The Beautiful Cow.” I believe I captured both the inner and outer essence and beauty of the dairy cow. Those cows look like they are in cow heaven. They are so peaceful – the look I captured exemplifies that they are happy, well taken care of and loving their life too. As dairy farmers and stewards of the land, that is our job … to take care of everything we’ve been given. The look on their faces say that they are joyful and happy; they are basking in the sunshine in a lush pasture on a warm summer day – if there’s a cow heaven, that’s it right there! I also wrote a verse for this painting, which summarizes my, and I believe most dairy farmers', passion for cows, and why we live this lifestyle.

The other reason this piece is so special to me is because I donated this original painting to the Holstein Foundation, which ended up raising almost $20,00 for them at auction. It was my opportunity to give back for the gifts I’ve been blessed with and the wonderful life I’ve had. I think from time to time, we all need to give back, and that’s why “The Beautiful Cow” makes me especially happy and proud.

How do you determine a completed and successful work of art?

MILLER: For me, a piece is done when I know it is done. It’s not something I can really define. If I am happy with how it turned out, then it is a successful painting. I don’t judge my paintings based on how many prints of that image I have sold – for me, it is judged based on my feelings toward the finished painting.

CALDWELL: A successful and completed work of art to me is one that has a presence of its own; it has energy. I like it when a piece draws you in and has something that keeps bringing you back. That doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be as realistic as possible. I don’t think a painting needs to be lifelike to feel like it is alive.

RASMUSSEN: I determine if a piece is ready just by if it speaks to me. I don’t spend a lot of time touching up or making sure I’m in the lines. I just feel that it is the whimsy that people enjoy, and for the most part, aren’t so concerned about the small details. I could spend months on a piece if that were the case. I like to create something that everyone can afford, and that is probably why I have stayed in business 32 years.

MOHR: The more people who purchase your work, especially particular pieces, the more accepted and successful you feel it is. I however have some paintings that are not my best sellers, but touch me in a different way and are a favorite. For example, I showcased my new book, Once There Were No Cows, at World Dairy Expo this year. It was a nerve-racking event, just from the perspective that it was new and I wasn't sure how it would be perceived. By the end of the show, I was relieved and very happy with the strong sales and wonderful reception it had received. That is what every artist hopes for, I think.

cow artist bonnie mohr

What obstacles have you encountered in pursuing your career?

MILLER: At the moment my biggest obstacle is balancing work and family – spending as much time as I can with my husband and two-year-old while spending enough time painting and working on and running my business.

CALDWELL: I’ve been extremely lucky in that I have such a supporting family and friends who have gone above and beyond in supporting my career. Most of the obstacles that I have encountered in my career are all mental and have been put there by myself. I am hugely critical of myself; I set impossibly high goals and am crushed when I do not reach them.

Another obstacle I have met and still struggle with is that I don’t know many other artists who do what I do. I don’t really have anyone to compare notes with. It’s difficult to judge what the next steps in my career are, if I’m following the right path, what realistic business goals are, etc.

RASMUSSEN: The last eight years have been the hardest for an artist. Since the recession started, the art market has been really challenging, and I have seen it everywhere. Everyone has a camera and knows how to tweak their photos or thinks they can copy art.

The younger generation doesn’t appreciate the art or the time that goes into it as much as the older generation. Yet the older generation has their walls filled and no longer are buying much art.

What advice would you give aspiring artists?

MILLER: My advice for any young artist is to learn as much as you can about everything. You can never know too much and never stop learning.

CALDWELL: I would say, to keep it simple: “Work hard and be nice to people.”

RASMUSSEN: My advice to any young dairy artist is to not have high expectations. Find a second career to fall back on. Diversify and don’t just sell prints or originals. Some of those other products cost a lot, but find products that are not too expensive to make that you can make a profit off of. There are so many things that I have learned in the last 32 years that I could add, but it is different for every artist. Find your niche and don’t copy anyone else. Make it your own. PD

Holly Drankhan is a senior at Michigan State University with plans to attend vet school. She is a 2014 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO 1:Valerie Miller gives each of her paintings, or “girls,” a name and an individualized personality.Photo courtesy Valerie Miller.

PHOTO 2: Emma Caldwell says that for her, a cow painting really comes alive when she gets the eyes right. Photo courtesy Emma Caldwell.

PHOTO 3:Lisa Rasmussen’s logo cow and a consistent source of inspiration is her childhood favorite, Tina Mae.Photo courtesy Lisa Rasmussen.

PHOTO 4: Bonnie Mohr sees her intended audience as people who love rural American and have a big heart for animals. Photo courtesy Bonnie Mohr.

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