Elizabeth Kinahan, Durango animal portraitist, is ‘drawn to protect them’

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Elizabeth Kinahan is a local oil painter and co-owner of downtown gallery Studio &. Her gentle, musing work depicts the plant and animal life of the American West. The protection of both wild and domesticated creatures is top priority for Kinahan; she donates a portion of everything she makes back to animal rescue organizations. Kinahan’s new show “A World Apart” is hanging at Studio & until Sept. 4. We spoke with Kinahan about why she paints so many docile farm beasts and why Studio & is an essential part of Durango’s art scene.

What made you settle on the agricultural animal subject matter?Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, I didn’t see farm animals at all. When I moved out here in 2005, I was taken with the cattle, donkeys, horses – all the things I would see driving by. I’ve always loved animals, they’ve been my purest passion and first love. I quit eating meat when I was 12, when I figured out what meat actually was. I felt this incredible connection to the cows out here; these are animals I had never really met or spent time with. I’m drawn to understand them because I’ve been drawn to protect them. I think they’re beautiful, with their big eyes and curiosity. When they’re young, they’re so playful. I started painting them about eight years ago, and as soon as I did the lightbulb went off.

Do you ever paint exotic animals?I do. But I also need my own photographs, for the most part. I need a photo that is copyright free, so I go out and take my own to work from. And I don’t have access to too many exotic animals, but I really would like to do more traveling. The African animals, without a doubt, are something I would love to have the experience of spending time with, photographing, and bringing back to the studio.

What’s your favorite animal to paint? Cows. I love when I get to go out and actually meet the animals. When someone invites me to their farm and says, ‘We’ve got these three goats, you should see them, they’re ridiculous.’ Or, ‘I can’t wait for you to meet my guard donkey, she’s so sweet but fierce when there’s a bear.’ Hearing these stories and then meeting and photographing the animals adds more sentiment and passion to the rendering of them. Why is it OK for some animals to lay dead on the side of the road, and some to get sent to a slaughterhouse, but then there’s animals we’d never do that to? Why do we have that discrepancy? That’s the underlying point in my paintings, without getting too politic-y.

What’s the hardest animal to paint? Birds. They seem so simple, and I think that’s what I struggle with. Cows have these really neat fur patterns in their faces, and I get lost in the details in a good way … the highlights and shadows in clumps of fur. But for some reason with feathers, I just get lost in a bad way.

Do you ever paint people? I do. Four years ago I had two different series, portraits of local women and portraits of local men. They’re not online, because I was getting a lot of commissions for portraits, and it was taking up a lot of time. So I took them all off my website, like, ‘I don’t do this!’ But I still have a lot of portrait commissions I’m working on. It’s just not where my passion lies.

Why is Studio & an important part of Durango? It’s a hub of local artists and art collectors who are looking for something a little different. We enjoy showing emerging artists and young artists, and artists who are doing something atypical you might not find in the other galleries. We enjoy the ability to light up our front window at nighttime and have a dance performance. We can do that and it’s interesting, different and nobody else is doing it. It’s important for Durango to see there is art for art’s sake still happening somewhere. And we’re artist-owned and artist-run. We’re not in for the profit. We want to be as fair as possible with artists, and make sure they’re able to get the highest percentage for their art that we can accommodate. It’s important to have a place that isn’t just trying to make a dollar off an artist. We’re trying to give dollars TO the artist.

In your experience, what’s the difference between living/making art here and doing it in other places? I find Durango incredibly supportive. That’s something I haven’t found in the two other places I lived, New Jersey and North Carolina. I was supported by family and friends who were trying to buy my art, trying to commission me for things they thought their daughter or grandmother would like – but I didn’t know how to break into the art market, and I didn’t have a strong, cohesive body of work. I was painting a little of this and a little of that. Durango is the first community I’ve been a full-time artist. It isn’t just my friends who are buying my work here, it’s strangers. I’m grateful this community does value the local product, keeping your money local. That’s part of why I never want to leave! It’s been good to me, and I’m so happy here. I also feel, having a lot of my friends being artists as well, there’s no sense of competition. There is the sentiment of ‘high tide rises all boats,’ not ‘I just want my boat lifted.’

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold


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