Linda St. Clair | Expressive Eyes

By Gussie Fauntleroy

It’s not much of a stretch to take in one of Linda St. Clair’s paintings and then imagine her as a young child on a Tennessee farm, standing next to a field with her small hands on a split-rail fence. As the little girl gazes at the large gentle eyes of a cow, she wonders what the cow is thinking and what it’s like to be a cow.

Those same kinds of thoughts might pass through St. Clair’s mind today, although now her deft hand is in motion, wielding a brush full of paint. The 57-year-old artist works quickly, alla prima, completing each painting—even large ones—in a single session.

As years of experience guide her hand, St. Clair’s thoughts might turn again to the life of the horse or cow whose image is emerging on canvas. What feelings are shining through this animal’s expressive eyes? What might be the experience of a creature so different from us, yet whose portrayal can create in the viewer a sense of unexplained kinship and warmth?

St. Clair’s vibrant portraits of animals—barnyard, domesticated, or wild—are exhibited and collected around the country as well as internationally. They have earned the artist such honors as the Grumbacher Gold Medal (twice) and a place in the permanent collection of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI. She is also a member of the Society of Animal Artists in New York.

Yet painting was a relatively belated endeavor for St. Clair, whose post high-school years followed the trajectory of traditional expectations in the rural South. Only later, in her 40s, did she circle back to a life immersed in both animals and art.

It is early summer 2009, and St. Clair and a longtime artist friend are driving through a southern Colorado valley, on the lookout for subject matter to photograph and later paint. They come across a cattle pen holding a cow and her very young calf. As the artists slow to a stop, the rancher greets them. He says, sure, be happy to let you take pictures of the calf, which is only six hours old. He leads them into the pen and invites them to touch the newborn animal’s downy-soft fur. Later, back in her Santa Fe studio, St. Clair will render that softness through rich colors and quick strokes. If cow and calf are both in the painting, its essence will speak to the universal experience of motherhood, albeit in tender bovine terms.

The artist is proud of her own offspring, a son who is a photographer and computer programmer in San Francisco. Yet she acknowledges that her painting career might have happened sooner if she’d lived in a less conventional era at the time she was ready to trade in farm life for a taste of the larger world. Her career choices, according to her high-school guidance counselor, were limited to secretary, teacher, or nurse.

None of these appealed to the sensitive, creative young woman who had just discovered an inherent love of art. She dreamed of moving to Atlanta and studying interior design. Instead, she fell in love, married, stayed in Tennessee, and had a child. By 27, she was divorced.

Living in Nashville with her little boy, she met a neighbor who was an illustrator and fine-art painter. Soon she and Dean St. Clair were married and set off on a decades-long adventure together, supporting each other’s love of painting and eventually both devoting themselves full time to fine art. In 1983 the couple moved to Santa Fe so Dean could try to establish his art career. Linda was not yet painting, but enthusiastically absorbed the artistic environment around her. “I went to galleries, read Southwest Art, even memorized details about other artists’ lives,” she laughs. “I was smitten with the art bug, but still too scared to pick up a brush.”

When the St. Clairs moved to Dallas a few years later, Linda began working in marketing, selling artists’ services to ad agencies and other businesses. She established her own marketing company, which she ran for seven years. On weekends and at night, however, she gravitated to her husband’s studio, finally allowing herself to learn to paint. She took workshops with well-known artists, but her most important instructor was close at hand.

“Dean was from the old school of illustration, where you really knew how to draw, you really knew perspective,” she relates. “I’d be working on a painting and I’d know something wasn’t right with it, but I didn’t know what. Dean would look at it for about 30 seconds and say, ‘That eye needs to move a little to the left.’ He was by far my greatest teacher.”

Animals first entered St. Clair’s art when she painted a flamboyantly hued rooster from a photograph Dean had taken. Then, as now, she was elated with the opportunity such a subject provided for expressing color. The rooster painting “sold right off,” she remembers. “So I thought, Oh! I’ll do another one. Then I said, I think I’ll try cows. Each type of animal came to me one at a time.”

These days, the creature most commanding St. Clair’s attention is the horse. For a few years prior to Dean’s passing—he died from an illness in 2003—the couple lived on 80 acres in southern Colorado and owned horses. Dean was a North Carolina native who’d always yearned for the western lifestyle, and while Linda rode with her husband, she otherwise wasn’t very involved with the horses. After he died she shied away from equine subjects in her art, the pain of losing him still too raw.

In recent months, however, she’s been spending hours each week in the company of horses. Settled in Santa Fe since 2004, she volunteers with Santa Fe Equestars, a non-profit organization that provides therapeutic riding and other equine-related activities to people with special needs. Often as she’s grooming a horse or just near one, she’ll find herself stroking the animal’s head, exploring bone structure with her hands, or studying the horse’s eyes, envisioning them rendered in paint.

Horses also intrigue the artist with their inherently paradoxical nature. Visually serene and seemingly harmless when seen grazing in the distance, up close they are powerful, large, and capable of inflicting injury, even if unintentionally. Likewise, the juxtaposition of opposites is an important element in St. Clair’s art.

“I love the yin-yang of painting,” she explains. “I love contrasting very transparent, thin paint with thick, textured paint; the contrast of warm and cool colors, narrow and wide strokes, dark and light.” She adds: “I don’t like to draw, but I love to sculpt form with paint.”

In the past couple of years, influenced in part by the broad range of artistic styles to which she is exposed in Santa Fe, St. Clair has begun exploring a greater variety of approaches in her own work. In some cases, increasingly loose brush strokes and bold color convey the illusion of detail, as in KING CHARLES, a full-frame portrait of a rooster.

In LEAP OF FAITH, which depicts a rabbit in mid-hop, the cropping and composition also suggest a more contemporary perspective than much of the artist’s earlier work. And in paintings such as WHITE ON WHITE, her interest in abstraction reveals itself in edges that become lost in the absence of contrasting tones between background and subject.

Paintbrush moving energetically, St. Clair stands in front of an easel in her 600-square-foot studio, located in a low-rise complex of studios and work spaces in a semi-industrial section of Santa Fe—a place where I can be really messy,” she says with a smile. She drives to the studio each day from her light-filled, contemporary home just northwest of town.

Reflecting on the ongoing evolution of her art, St. Clair notes that one thing hasn’t changed: her spontaneous approach to painting. With a strong understanding of the fundamentals—color, composition, value, and tone—she allows all of that to fly out the window of her conscious mind as she works. “My best paintings come when I don’t think about it,” she observes. “Later I might think, maybe I need to shift this or that, but if I’m too involved in the thinking process, I lose the spontaneity.”

She is happy to lose the creative hesitancy she once felt, to be free of the fear of stepping out in new directions with her art. The simple message in a fellow artist’s note to himself, taped to the top of his easel, resonates deeply with St. Clair: If not now, when? After losing her husband and artistic partner unexpectedly, she became more aware of the value of living fully each day. “I think it freed me up to take risks with art,” she muses. “This isn’t a dress rehearsal. Everybody isn’t going to like what I do, but it’s worth it to move up to the next level.”


Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ; Kneeland Gallery, Ketchum, ID; Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; Art on Main, St. Helena, CA; Austin Galleries, Austin, TX; Pitzer’s Fine Art, Wimberley, TX; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC; Aaron Gallery, Washington, DC.

Western Visions Miniatures & More Show & Sale, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY, September 12-27.
Jackson Hole Art Auction, Center for the Arts, Jackson, WY, September 19.
Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY, September 25-26.
Heart of the West Art Exhibition and Sale, National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, TX, October 2-25.
Miniatures & More, Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, October 24-December 6.

Featured in October 2009