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True Grit

Western artist JaNeil Anderson chooses character over cows, focusing on the humanity of life lived close to the land.

By Donna Clayton Lawder


JaNeil Anderson gives directions to her house in terms of mile markers and the length of time spent on dirt roads. Okay, she's only in Redrock, but it's "out there" a bit.

JaNeil Anderson in her studio. (Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

"Did you have any trouble finding me?" she asks with a laugh. She's clad in jeans and a pretty yellow cotton shirt, and her bright eyes dance. She gently slaps a cow in her front yard on the flank to move it along. "Don't want them eating my roses," she says.

Anderson has lived on this ranch 16 years, since she married her husband. The land was first his parents' ranch.

"I grew up on a farm. It's who I am," she says. "You hear all the same stories growing up, hand down the same recipes, that way of life. I have farmers on both sides of my family."

She raised two boys — one now in the service, the other "a cowboy" working for Phelps-Dodge mining down in Morenci — both with families of their own now. She points out their pictures with pride — her one son in uniform, the other in western duds — their respective crops of children framed in various poses. One grandson's won art awards, she says, perhaps displaying talent handed down from her genes. Another grandson, the cowboy's son, "is roping and riding like his daddy." She has a total of seven grandkids, "each one of 'em different," she says with a smile.

The way this good ol' girl lives — close to the land, with family front and center — is reflected in her art, as well.

"It's western figurative," Anderson explains. "It's realism, but not like a photograph. And I try to convey a certain mood about the subject by what I choose to put in there." She works in oils, preferring the richness of the colors, sometimes on canvas, but more often working on large Masonite panels "because it's easy to cut them into any size I want."

Currently in the process of shuffling paintings from one gallery to another, Anderson has a house filled with her framed work at the moment: images of a mother and daughter wading through a small river, another pair in a field of golden flowers, a duo of cowboys in chaps, their thumbs thrust into their pockets and belt loops.

Anderson points to a painting of a small boy sitting in a saddle on the ground. He leans back, one hand on the horn, the other flung high into the air as if fighting for balance. Though he's sitting on terra firma, in his mind he's clearly riding his first bucking bronco.

"It's called 'Watch This,'" Anderson says. "Don't you just get the feeling that he's showing his mama and dad what he can do? That he's ready for the big ride?" She smiles the smile of a mother looking with pride at her own son. "I love it. It's my newest one."

Her work is exhibited at the Ol' West Gallery & Mercantile on Broadway in Silver City and El Presidio Gallery in Ruidoso. Anderson is also something of a "cover girl," she says, as her art currently graces the covers of the Silver City-Deming Names and Numbers phone book, and the New Mexico Stockman magazine. This month, of course, her work is also on the cover of Desert Exposure.


Self-taught in the beginning, Anderson went on to study with renowned western artist Jim Reynolds.

"It's a funny story," she says. "I met him on a ranch in the Bootheel. I was working as a cook there, and he was impressed with the lunch I made for him." Conversation followed lunch, along with an invitation to come out to Reynolds' Sedona, Ariz., studio, Anderson recalls.

"I learned all the basics from him — perspective, composition. He was a darned good teacher, if he wasn't always kind. Well, he can be pretty tough." After a pause, she adds, "But it's good tough."

She also took lessons with another Cowboy Artists of America (CAA) painter, R.S. Riddick, and attended the Scottsdale Artist School.

"I wish I'd studied earlier," she says. "It's great to study with an artist and learn firsthand. Then you can see right away, 'Oh, that's how you do that!' Self-taught takes so long!"

To capture a quality of "real life" in her paintings, Anderson says she finds it advantageous to work from live models. "I dress them up, give them an idea of what I'm looking for, and then turn 'em loose," she says. "I take a whole bunch of photos and then work from them after the fact." A photo shoot takes anywhere from two to three hours, she says.

She tells how she dressed up a mother and daughter in handmade elk-skin dresses to portray Native Americans; how she gussied up a little blonde girl in an old-fashioned frock; and how one time she set another child loose among a bunch of chickens.

"The kids don't sit still much," Anderson says with a laugh. "You kind of just have to follow them around and see what they do."

Getting the idea of what she wants to paint is just the first step, she says, followed by historical research. "Oh, I do a lot of research before I even get to begin," she says. After she's sure she's got the historical details down, Anderson then has to attend to proper costuming, then choosing a setting.


She picks up one painting after another, telling not only the title and story behind each, what she was trying to capture in the image, but also the time spent with the real live models themselves. The little girls love to dress up, she says, imagining themselves as girls on the Old West prairie, or living the life of a rancher's daughter.

Sometimes the faces themselves suggest a story to Anderson.

"This one model, my neighbor, has these high cheek bones and she's dark, so I made her and her daughter into the Indian maidens," she says. She pulls out one of the handmade leather dresses worn in the painting.

"Oh, they were getting pretty hot in those dresses after an hour or so," she adds with a laugh. "I really felt bad for them. It makes you think about what those girls back then went through."

The subjects, she notes, were only too happy at her suggestion that they wade in the cool waters of the Gila River flowing nearby. In the resulting painting, "Sharp Rocks," the two step gingerly through the sparkling water, looking down at their feet as they cross.

"You can feel them picking their way, can't you?" Anderson asks.

Though she's keen on capturing in her paintings elements of the western lifestyle she loves, she says her choice of subject matter and pose show her involvement with her subjects' humanity.

"I mean, take the cowboy. There's just so many paintings you can do of pushing cows before it gets pretty boring," she says with a laugh. "So, I try to capture other aspects, what a cowboy does in his personal life. I'll show him with his family, with his newborn baby. People, real flesh and blood people, are real important to me."

In another painting, "Bunkhouse Beauty," a young cowgirl fixes her lipstick in a mirror hanging on a stable wall. "You're catching a glimpse of this other side of her," Anderson says. "It's something you might not normally see, but here you are, observing this private moment."

In "Quality Time," a mother up in the saddle turns to smile at her small daughter riding right behind her on the same horse. In "Showing Her the Ropes," the piece featured on the phone book cover, the same mother and daughter pair stand in a barn doorway, coiling a rope, perhaps fashioning the little girl's first lasso.

"Faces aren't the only thing that show the character of a person, and that's what I'm looking for, their character," Anderson says. "I did a whole series of just hands. You know, cowboys' hands, good strong working hands, they tell so much."

She pulls out a couple of images from her "hands series." Tanned skin and creases tell the story — as she says, they're good strong hands, reflecting years of honest work. In one, a cowboy holds a small bunch of flowers.

"To me, that tells a whole story," she says. "To me, that's what it's about: real people living their real lives. Yeah, I'm preserving this moment, this bit of history, but it's that people that lived it that makes it important. That's what I want to show."


JaNeil Anderson's art can be seen at Ol' West Gallery & Mercantile, 104 W. Broadway in Silver City, 388-1811.


Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.


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