Those lips, those eyes. Those noses, too. They are what compel painter Elizabeth Kinahan toward her favorite subjects: cows and other livestock. The New Jersey native moved to Durango in 2005, getting a job in an arts store that immersed her in the town’s art community. And she was immediately attracted to the cows she saw everywhere. “I think it might be that they stare,” she says. “And anytime you can look into the eyes of another living thing, you have this true moment of connection.” The lifelong animal lover gives a portion of the sale of her paintings to people advocating for better treatment of animals. “They are such heroes, and giving to them makes the painting take on a deeper meaning for me. It’s fulfilling in so many ways.”
What prompted a Jersey girl to move to Colorado?
In 2000, I drove from the East Coast to California. When I got to Colorado and saw the mountains and the red rocks, there was an immediate familiarity. I’d never felt connected to a place that way. Five years later, when I decided to move West, I happened to pass through Durango on an August day when the town was having its annual arts festival. I just looked around and said, “This is it. I’m never leaving.”
How did you start painting livestock?
When I arrived here at age 24, I was instantly taken by the livestock that are ubiquitous here. I’d grown up in a New Jersey suburb, and I had seen a cow maybe twice in my whole life. I immediately loved them; every time I saw one, I’d have to stop my car and run to the fence to whistle and sing to get them to come over. Mostly, they’d run away, but some would just stand and stare.
Cows are special, aren’t they?
They are. I was so attracted to their big eyes and contemplative look. When I was 12, and my parents told me where the meat on our table came from, I vowed to never eat meat again. So I felt like I had been fighting for the rights of cows long before I ever met them. I just feel so connected to them, and so intrigued, so I started photographing and painting them. And the first time I painted a cow, I had this overwhelming sense of joy that I had never had painting flowers or human portraits. As soon as I painted a cow, I knew I was home. They are the only subject that I cannot get enough of.
But you paint other livestock, too—donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens. How do you find your subjects?
Sometimes I just write a farmer when I like his animals. There was one flock of sheep near here that I have loved for years, and I would always stop to take photos of them. Finally, I wrote a letter to the homeowner and enclosed one of my paintings. I said, “I’m the girl in the blue Subaru always looking at your sheep.” And she called me immediately and said, “Come over any time.”
How close do you get to the animals?
I often go out into the pastures and sit down with them. Cows are very curious, especially the yearlings, and they will come over and start investigating you, if you sit very still. I love that. Within a few minutes, I am surrounded by cows inching closer and closer, like dogs investigating a new toy. And to be in the middle of a flock of sheep is fantastic. They want to get as close to you as they can, to smell you. I think there’s nothing more exciting than having these shared experiences with animals.”