K. Henderson finds endless inspiration in a house full of old things
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the April 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
K. Henderson describes her rural southern New Mexico home—with its wall-to-wall shelves full of vintage toys, games, postcards, marionettes, books, and more books—as a whole-house cabinet of curiosity. Within that environment, in the “happy place” of her small studio, porcelain cowboy and Indian figurines line up near colorful stacks of midcentury board games, while tin cats, ducks, bumblebees, and clowns crowd around sturdy toy cars and faded wooden alphabet blocks.
This is what happens to a still-life painter with a passion for old things, especially someone from a family that never threw anything out. And especially when the artist is a self-proclaimed thrift-shop scrounger and eBay junkie with an eye for the most weathered, well-loved version of anything she finds. As she puts it in the direct, concise manner of someone focused and self-assured in both life and art: “I collect.” Then she smiles and adds, “Things come in, but they don’t go out.”
Which is not quite true. They go out, but in a different form. Henderson (who uses only her initial as her first name) is known for her exquisitely detailed still-life paintings inspired by her collections. Some feature a single item, while others contain arrangements around themes that call up vivid memories, especially among viewers of a certain age. She also creates still lifes spotlighting shiny, reflective objects, and others depicting delicious-looking food. But contemporary realism constitutes only about half of what this prolific, widely collected artist produces. For years she has also painted more traditional still lifes incorporating American Indian artifacts, as well as figurative imagery inspired by old photographs of Indians. In the latter, the face paint and headdresses are historically accurate, as are glimpses of clothing and shields. Yet Henderson doesn’t think of these captivating, intensely expressive images as portraits. With contemporary Native people—often friends—as models, these works frequently focus close-up on a visage or head and shoulders against a flat background hue. For the painter, they are primarily a means of conveying the emotional eloquence of the human face.
Like much of Henderson’s art, her American Indian-inspired paintings reflect the influence of growing up in Oklahoma with part-Cherokee ancestry and a lifelong, intimate connection to material relics from earlier eras. Her grandparents on both sides owned old-fashioned mercantile stores. Her mother, raised near the Osage Indian reservation, inherited a family collection of found artifacts and historical odds and ends dating from well before 1907, when Oklahoma became a state. As a child in Tulsa, Henderson remembers being especially fascinated with the old family Bible. Like most in its day, its pages contained carefully kept family records documenting births, weddings, and deaths extending back for generations. Henderson’s father was a chemist and an amateur photographer with a creative bent. Among his hobbies was casting lead toy soldiers, armies of which the artist, naturally, still owns.
Although she spent more time reading than drawing when she was a child, as a teen, Henderson expressed an interest in art. Her parents supported her choice, paying her way to the Tulsa Art Students Academy, where she received solid foundational instruction. After a year, however, she left the school. “They tried to get me to do landscapes,” she explains. “I had totally no interest in it.” Instead, she headed to San Francisco for another form of creative challenge, attending the Louise Salinger Academy of Fashion and working in a costume shop. After four years, city life lost its shine, and she returned to Oklahoma and fine art. In Muskogee she soon began entering local and regional art shows and attracting the attention of galleries. Since the 1980s, her work has been featured in solo and group shows in museums and galleries and received numerous regional and national awards.
Not surprisingly, the earliest subjects to find their way onto Henderson’s canvases were equestrian and Indian related, along with still lifes with western and Native American themes. As an art student she worked in oils, while in Muskogee she was drawn for a time to the immediacy of pastels, pencils, and colored pencils. But a yearning for richer, brighter colors and the ability to capture more detail led her back to oils. It soon became her only medium as she continued painting still lifes and Indian figures, endlessly inspired by the possibilities in her ever-growing collections.
At some point Henderson’s restless creativity began to seek a new spark. She found it initially in variations on imagery of cowboy and Indian figurines and toys. “I segued into other vintage, made-in-Japan Indians,” she relates. That led to incorporating a range of colorful mid-20th-century toys and board games, which eventually opened the door to other still-life subjects in a contemporary realist style. “When I started that, I could go back to American Indians with a new perspective,” she says. “Switching back and forth keeps both fresh.”
These days Henderson’s painting time frequently extends well into the evening, six days a week. The pull of the studio is so strong, in fact, that weeks can go by when she doesn’t step foot off the wooded, 45-acre property where she lives with her husband in a solar-powered, off-the-grid home of their own design. A mile off the road, their home is 50 miles from Alamogordo, NM, the closest town of any size. In the studio, an easel generally holds a rotating group of four or five paintings in process at once. When she is ready to begin a new piece, Henderson peruses her collections. Often she chooses a central article and then scouts around for objects that match her chosen theme.
For STRAIGHT ARROW, she started with the box for a board game that was spawned by a 1940s radio show of the same name. She added pieces from a Lone Ranger game and a toy Indian headdress with colorful feathers. “Arranging is the most fun part,” she says. “I included extra [things] not from the Straight Arrow game but that are interesting. I’m not a purist.” Once the components are positioned, Henderson takes photos and assesses the results. “When you photograph [the arrangement], it looks different. It turns into a two-dimensional image, and there are things that pop out that might need changing, like a shadow that needs to move,” she explains. While the final photos become her primary source for painting, she also keeps the actual items at hand for reference.
With still lifes of food—usually consisting of something she has made herself, since the closest grocery store is an hour and a half away—Henderson often photographs her subjects outside. She remembers working with strawberry shortcake layered with ripe red strawberries and cream. She set up the cake outdoors and took dozens of photos from all angles. “After it’s been in the sun for a few minutes, the whipped cream starts to change,” she says. “A lot of the time I’ll just let it melt and twist and take on a life of its own.” Eventually the cake was eaten and enjoyed. And the resulting artwork, a 36-inch-square portrait of a single slice of cake against a white and black background, is so striking and realistic that it appears ready to be eaten as well. “I like doing food because every-one eats,” Henderson says. “Everyone can relate to food.”
She also chooses subjects for the intrigue of the technical challenges they pose. BEACH, for example, is a simple composition featuring two vintage postcards and a red paper cocktail umbrella thumbtacked and taped to a weathered wood surface, perhaps an old wooden door. The colors and postcard imagery create a cheerful, seaside feel. But for the artist, it’s all about the background. “I wanted the wood to really look like wood,” she notes, and then adds, “Of all the paintings I’ve done, that’s one of my very favorites. It just pleases me.”
As much as she loves being artistically inspired by earlier times, Henderson also enjoys actually stepping into the past, in a sense, as a member of the Single Action Shooting Society. She and her husband regularly attend gatherings of the international organization dedicated to preserving the history and shooting skills of the Old West. Competitors adopt the dress and persona of 19th-century figures while engaging in multi-step shooting matches with replica period firearms, from black-powder guns to rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Henderson’s character and costume, which she designed and created, represent a refined 1880s lady with petticoats and full skirts. Although she has earned more SASS awards for costuming than shooting, “It’s fun,” she says. “It’s a bunch of fun people playing cowboys.” At the same time, she considers her studio time as much fun in a different way. “I enjoy it. It amazes me when artists have to look hard for inspiration,” she reflects. “I’m going to have to live to be 400 years old to paint everything I want to paint.”
Cavalier Galleries, Greenwich, CT; Lovetts Gallery, Tulsa, OK; Hueys Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Gallery Piquel, New Hope, PA; Warrior’s Work Gallery, Hill City, SD; Mountain Trails Gallery, Park City, UT, and Jackson, WY; Chasen Galleries, Richmond, VA; CK Contemporary, San Francisco, CA; Red Willow Gallery, Tubac, AZ; Heritage Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Spirits in the Wind Gallery, Golden, CO.
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