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Animal Magnetism

Narrie Toole is drawn to paint in order to share the essence of noble creatures, and a noble way of life.

By Donna Clayton Lawder


"I don't think 'soul' is too strong a word to use. Some people don't think of animals as having souls. Maybe 'presence' or 'spirit' is more what other people would say," says oil painter Narrie Toole.

Artist Narrie Toole in her studio.
(Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

Throughout her home and in her cozy sunny studio looking out into the hills of the Mimbres Valley, she is surrounded by canvases of horses, cattle, antelopes–animals that have touched her life, the animals of the ranching life she grew up in and loves. "To me, it's a soul. And that was hard for me when I was handling cattle. But that's how I would say it, and that's what I'm trying to share with other people."

Her love of animals is apparent by sheer numbers alone. Her two dogs–a tiny black Japanese shiba inu named Chee and Bear, a recently adopted blue heeler-border collie cross–vie for attention. Chuck, a huge, fluffy ragdoll cat with Siamese-type colors, is curled up on a footstool. Chuck opens a sleepy eye at the panting and yapping, gives a stretch and goes back to snoozing. Two more cats are somewhere around, Toole says. One particularly likes sleeping in one of the closets. And her horses are boarded just up the road.

In the hills outside her home animals of the wilder variety roam–deer, javelina, coyotes, mountain lions, jackrabbits. They are a part of her life, as well.

Toole and her husband, Dave, moved to the area from Colorado two years ago. After finding some rural properties online, they went driving and exploring. Toole says, "One day I drove into the Mimbres and I knew I'd found home. I called Dave on my cell phone and said, 'This is it!' I've always lived in the country, and I knew what I needed to feel at home. It's this land."

Toole, this issue's cover artist, immediately found a home for her artwork, as well, at the Anderson Gallery on Broadway in Silver City. When that gallery closed just a month later in December 2005, she moved her work around the block to Bob Swisher's Last Day In Paradise, a bookstore and contemporary Western-themed gallery. There she enjoyed a year of "great success," she says, selling "about a painting every three weeks" as well as picking up commission work.

Currently, she shows locally at JW Gallery in Hurley, where owner-artist Joseph Wade focuses on regional art and artists, and the seasonal Hearst Church Gallery in Pinos Altos. She also shows in The Courtyard Gallery in Buena Vista, Colo. Her works have been exhibited in the Arizona and Ruidoso Cowboy Symposiums and numerous juried shows. She has sold to businesses and individuals across the country and in Canada, England and France.


Toole grew up on a wheat farm on the Kansas-Colorado border, with most of her adult life involved in ranching and farming, as well. She earned a degree in art education from Kansas State University, studying pottery under Angelo Garzio.

"He inspired me to become a really good potter," she says. She owned and operated her own company, Chicken Coop Ceramics, producing wheel-thrown high fire reduction stoneware and porcelain for 16 years, marketing her pottery throughout the United States. Overlapping with that experience, Toole also professionally handled cattle for more than two decades, including managing her own herd for 16 years.

While working at a veterinary clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., shortly before her move to New Mexico, she was inspired by a fellow artist to get back into art full time. This time she chose oil paints for her artistic outlet, and began painting the animals and scenes so dear to her, images she'd sketched and photographed over many miles of dusty trail and pasture through the decades of her ranching life.

"My work has been described as 'impressionistic western,'" Toole says of her painting style. "I have no desire to make a photographic image. Yes, the animals are realistic, but what I'm trying to capture is their spirit. I want to convey how it feels to be among them."

She leads the way down a hall in the warm, well-lit southwestern ranch house. "The first thing we did was haul out trash," she says with a laugh of the restoration/renovation project that is keeping her "retired" husband Dave more than a little busy. She pauses to point out a striking photograph of a bull. "That's Medicine Man. He was one of my bulls," she says. "He was a champion," she adds with obvious pride and affection. On the facing wall is her painting of the bull; brushstrokes of tan and blue bring a heightened animation to the bovine face. Something different is brought out in the eyes, something one might call "soul."


Toole says she uses an intentionally limited palette. "I like the colors to be clean," she explains. Her process involves starting with a complimentary underpainting in a warm or cool wash, the remnants of which in the final painting outline and bring out the focal image. A large painting of her horse, Mouse, has a cool dark blue-purple background. The animal itself is painted in light grays and blues, with touches of pink that add a feeling of movement and light. Around the horse's edge, the remainder of a deep red wash electrifies the image, almost seeming to illuminate the noble equine from behind.

In "Horsin' Around," four horses–two light, two dark–seem almost unaware of their observer, turned as they are mostly away from the camera. The tiniest specks of light in the ebony background could be stars, giving the feel of spectral horses in the heavens, or perhaps just elegant creatures in their own universe.

"I don't want to be pigeonholed as a 'horse artist'," says Toole, leading the way into her studio. "I love all animals. I paint all kinds, and here's the proof," she says with a laugh, gesturing to two canvases in her studio. On the wall hangs a smaller painting of a jackrabbit, a visitor to Toole's back deck. Swirls of brown fur and strokes of gray and white capture the sense of motion in this creature nearly always on the move.

"I really have to take a lot of pictures to capture some of them," she says of her animal subjects. "Jack rabbits are really unusual creatures. I mean, have you seen one? The way they're put together!"

Facing from another wall is "Scarlet the Pug," a commissioned piece she is working on. The remnants of an almost electric blue underwash outline the tiny black dog, making it stand out from the dark background.

And on a nearby easel is a larger painting of three antelope, the background a brilliant, yet at the same time ominous, swirl of red, rust and gold. This is "Spring Blow Out," and Toole explains that the antelope are out in a springtime windstorm, the dust all around swirling, nearly blotting out the sun.

"'The Debutante' is another painting I've done of antelope," she says. "It's a mother and her baby, and it seemed like the mother was taking her baby girl out into the big world for the first time. When I came across them, I thought, 'Oh, the little debutante!" She describes the mother antelope's watchfulness and the little one's wide-eyed wonder, then pauses, adding, "It was such a moment."

The light shines strong and bright through the studio's high windows, and Toole looks out into the valley and at the hills surrounding her. The name of her studio is Estudio de la Montura, "Studio of the Saddle," with the image of a saddle for her logo. It is a doubly apt name, illuminating both the tenor of her work and referencing her studio's placement on a "saddle" of the Mimbres mountains, overlooking the Mimbres and Galinas River valleys.

"We've got all sorts of wonderful wildlife," she says. "I've seen deer and javelina. I've found puma tracks." She mentions she'd like to get pygmy goats, perhaps, but will need to build a safe, fenced area for them first so they do not become prey. "Have you ever seen the way they're put together? Now, they're unusual creatures!" she says with a laugh.

Back to the subject of horses, she pulls out a book of photographs. Toole says she spotted three horses in a pasture in Taos and got busy with her camera, snapping the animals in a variety of configurations as they moved around. On another easel is the resulting painting, "Three's A Crowd"–this issue's cover painting. The three equines, in shades of brown and amber, shine with glints from the golden sky above them. Toole recalls the horses being almost like autumn leaves, moving in the breeze–first in one configuration, then another. The strokes of color in their coats give a feeling of motion, and one can easily imagine the gently jostling ebb and flow that horses standing close together engage in. The strokes of red on the ground beneath them are echoed in the horses' backs, amplifying the reddish hues in their coats.

"This one's been accepted into the Empire Ranch Foundation's special show and sale," she says of "Three's A Crowd." The Empire 100 is a juried exhibition of 100 original works in oils, watercolor and bronze by nationally known painters and sculptors. Sales of the works benefit the Empire Ranch Foundation, an organization that works to restore and preserve the Empire Ranch historical buildings–the ranch house is a 22-room adobe and wood structure dating from 1870–in Sonoita, Ariz., as a western heritage and education center.

"I'm so excited about being a part of that, to be able to help. I was in the ranching lifestyle until I was 50. I respect and celebrate that life," Toole says. "It's why I paint what I do. I want to keep that alive."

Speaking of the ranching life her work celebrates, she could just as well be speaking of the animals themselves, past and present, when she adds, "I want to keep respect for that I alive."


Narrie Toole's work is on display at JW Gallery in the Old Hurley Store, Cortez Ave., Hurley, www.thetown.com. For more on the artist and her art, see www.narrietoole.com. The Empire 100 Western Art Show & Sale is on exhibit at the Northern Trust Bank in Tucson, Ariz., through Feb. 28; see www.empireranchfoundation.org.


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