The Secret Life of Cows

By Paula Garrick Klein

painted portrait of 3 cows

Exhibition Open: 3/11/2022

Location: Holstein Gallery

Paula Garrick Klein, an observational portrait painter, focuses on the last operating, small beef cattle farm in her suburban Pittsburgh neighborhood. In The Secret Life of Cows, she paints each portrait with the same intent that she brings to all portraits. Mesmerized by their actions and behaviors, Paula feels that, “each animal is recognizable as an individual, soulful and spirited, symbolizing a network and culture we can only imagine.”

From Paula:

I have painted from observation for more than forty years – portraits and still life – which has allowed me to navigate aesthetic challenges and opportunities that range from pure exploration of light, color, pattern and texture to work that has more complex personal meaning.  

Throughout my career, I have painted portraits and self-portraits from observation and from photographs and drawings. My intent is not only to paint a likeness but to capture the soul and humanity of each individual. 

While my practice is primarily painting, the printmaking processes of monotype and intaglio has allowed me to represent a variety of themes and subjects that range from the personal and autobiographical to the symbolic and mythological. My prints echo my artistic process of drawing and painting.  I add layers of shape, color and pattern, and then manipulate, exaggerate, and animate marks.

As a major part of my practice, I have focused my work on paintings and prints, inspired by the last small working beef cattle farm in my suburban Pittsburgh neighborhood.  Once this area of rolling hills and valleys was populated almost exclusively with small family owned farms.  Though initially unseen, I knew the cattle were close by.  On hot summer nights, I could hear them and smell them.  In 2009, when the field closest to the main road was filled and seeded, the small herd appeared from the valley below to graze, portraying a soothing domesticity juxtaposed within the modern suburban landscape.  For a city girl who grew up with asphalt, concrete and a postage stamp yard, this was truly a novelty.  

My fascination with the cattle grew.  Whenever the cows are in the field, I photograph them.  Usually, they ignore me, but after they get used to hearing my voice, a few of the more curious animals come to the fence and pose.  Often they follow me as I walk along the road.  I am mesmerized with how these animals behave, how they sit, stand and move together.  I watch how the mothers care for their calves, protect them, feed them and shield them from others.  Through each new season, I observe and paint the newborns, then as they grow, and later as mothers with calves of their own.  They tell me stories.  

Using these photographic references, I paint a growing body of work that transcends the “cow in landscape” genre with its traditional art historical references and broad archetypes.  Instead, I use the field, valley and hills as a backdrop for intimate portraits of specific animals that I observe and try to understand.  I paint cow portraits with the same intent that I bring to all portraits. I capture the unique physicality and personality of each cow that I paint.  Each animal is recognizable as an individual, soulful and spirited, symbolizing a network and culture we can only imagine.

The cattle on this small farm provide me with artistic challenges as well as a personal source of symbolism, calm and comfort that taps into my own need to connect with nature, earth and motherhood.