Artist Elizabeth Kinahan turns a love of painting and a deep love for animals into incredibly moving artwork—with 10% of the proceeds from each print sold donated to nonprofits dedicated to protecting and rescuing animals.
by New York Spaces
NYS: How and when did you get your start in painting?
Elizabeth Kinahan: I have been drawing and painting since childhood, my family was always really encouraging of art, and if I ever claimed boredom, my mom would suggest things for me to draw. However it wasn't until high school that I begin to really recognize the possibility of being an artist. I had an art teacher my senior year who taught me how to mix the exact color I wanted, and after that I was completely hooked on painting.
NYS: We love the fact that you went from painting flora and fauna to painting these beautiful majestic creatures. What inspired both and what led you to start painting animals?
Elizabeth Kinahan: I grew up in New Jersey, and I was an animal lover from the very start. Though as I started to explore art, I found myself much more focused on the human form than anything else. It never occurred to me to combine my love of animals with my art, I saw them as separate things. In 2005 I relocated to Durango, Colorado, and the world changed for me. Everything about the Southwest inspired me, the landscape, the colors, the people and how they lived. I was amazed by how many families were raising animals. I could drive two miles outside of town and there was a flock of sheep in someone's yard, herds of cattle were prevalent in every direction, there were miles and miles of county roads to explore and I'd always find something that captivated me. There was this deep sense of people's connection to the land that was palpable. There were so many farms and ranches, people growing amazing gardens and raising chickens and other animals, it was a true involvement with one's food source that I never experienced growing up. It was all hugely inspiring to me, but the one thing I couldn't get over were the cows. I started to spend a day a week just driving out into the country to see the cows. I'd bring my camera and when they were close enough to the road to take photos I'd get out of the car and talk to them and take pictures of them. They would stop what they were doing and stare at me, trying to discern if I was a threat or not. I was really moved by the way they would protect their young first and foremost, getting between them and me was their priority. I loved that about them. I went home and painted my first cow painting, and it sold really quickly. I couldn't wait to do another, I had found something that excited me beyond belief, and it was, of all things, cows.
NYS: Your paintings express a story behind them! What are you trying to project to the viewer?
Elizabeth Kinahan: The narrative is so different in each of these animals' cases, but what I am trying to convey above all else is that this is an emotionally intelligent being. She feels joy, excitement and pride, as well as sadness, pain and loneliness. Animals are fully aware, sentient creatures that feel the full spectrum of emotions, and they are deserving of the same kindness and gentleness we would show to our beloved pet.
NYS: We love that you give back with your artwork, tell us how!
Elizabeth Kinahan: I make it a rule to donate 10% of the proceeds from my painting and print sales to nonprofits dedicated to rescuing and protecting all kinds of animals. My love of animals has been the driving force behind most of what I do in my life. When I realized I could make money with my art, and share that money with the individuals who are literally in the field, saving the lives of injured, abused and neglected animals, it was as though my whole world came together.
NYS: What draws you to supporting efforts to rescue and protect both wild and domesticated animals?
Elizabeth Kinahan: The people who go into heartbreaking and/or dangerous situations to rescue animals in need are incredible heroes to me. I don't know if I could do it, I don't know if I could see the situations that farmed animals are forced to live in and be okay. Or see the wolves and bears with their feet locked in a trap and be able to come back and do it again the next day. I think it would destroy me. I truly admire these rescuers and am so grateful for what they do, totally selflessly. There's no money in that. They do it because they know it's happening and they can't just look away. I want to support these people and their amazing work.
NYS: How much have you been able to donate so far to animal causes through your artwork?
NYS: Have you ever been able to visit one of the rescue farms you have been able to help? If so, what was the experience like?
Elizabeth Kinahan: Locally there are a few organizations I've donated to, primarily Annie's K-9 Orphans and Wolfwood Wolf Refuge. In both of these cases, the owner is working around the clock to provide care for the animals. It was great to visit and see the success tories of the animals which were once abused or neglected, who are now thriving, fully trusting their caregivers. It was also wonderful to see the conditions they lived in, habitats with natural shade and shelters, lots of toys, heated water bowls for winter and kiddie pools for summer, soft bedding, etc. The owners take great care in matching up compatible animals for their enclosures, which I greatly admire. Visiting made it easy to see how every single thing helps, from volunteering to walk dogs to donating toys and treats, to simply spreading the word. I know my donations are directly helping animals live better lives, and that's a tremendous reward.
NYS: You truly capture the soul of each animal in your paintings, what is your process?
Elizabeth Kinahan: Ten years ago I was standing in the ditches on the side of the highway with my camera, hoping the cows wouldn't run away when they saw me. Now I have people inviting me to their ranch, wanting to show me their rare breed of sheep, or this year's brand new calves. I learn so much about the animals from these visits, and all of it helps to inform my paintings. I take a ton of photos, and I like to get as close as I can to my subjects. A number of cattle owners have allowed me to go into the pasture with the cows, and sit down in the grass. If you're still for a few minutes, the cows will start to come over. Cows are naturally curious, especially the yearlings. They'll start approaching from all sides, with their heads down low, checking you out. Experiences like this are my favorite part about the process, when I have genuine encounters and connections with the animals. I've held baby goats, had my face so close to nose of a sheep that I could feel her breath on me, had donkeys chew on my camera strap and try to get in my pockets. I've been surrounded 360 degrees by black Angus, so close I could touch them. All of these experiences deepen my love and admiration for the animal kingdom, and they help create a portrait that shows the depth and complexity of each animal.
When I take the images back to my studio, my drawing and painting process becomes this meditation on that animal. What kind of life does he or she have? What experiences shaped her? I think about what I saw and what I heard about her life, did she have babies, where are they? I think about all of these things as I apply layer upon layer of oil paint to each canvas. Oil needs days to dry between layers, so I'm looking at these half-finished paintings all over the place, and remembering meeting each animal. My sheer love of all animals, combined with my experiences with them, helps to create an image that reflects the inherent innocence and personhood I see in each of them.
NYS: Is there a particular animal that you are most drawn to? If so, why?
Elizabeth Kinahan: I am drawn mostly to cows. They were the animal that prompted my turn to vegetarianism as a kid, and in having more and more encounters with them as an adult, I am just always amazed by their playfulness and curiosity. I want to present another side to their story, to show that they are in no way "dumb" or incapable of feelings. And they're certainly not deserving of the poor treatment they so often receive, no living thing is.
NYS: What are you working on now and where can readers find your work?
Elizabeth Kinahan: I am currently in the process of creating a new body of work for a solo show in April at Gallery Flux in Ashland, Virginia. I am also working on several commissioned pieces, and I'm always creating paintings for Studio & Gallery in Durango. I'm one of the owners of &, and I spend a couple days a week painting there and working the gallery. There is always something in the works, large portraits of donkeys and sheep and small lighthearted pieces for fun. And of course I'm planning the next visit to a farm, where I never know who I'll meet, but I know I'll be delighted to find out.
*Interested in more articles like this? Sign up for our Newsletter!