Joe Anna Arnett, Art of the West, January-February 2017

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January/February 2017 Celebrating 30 Years

For All Fine Art Collectors


Lady Hamilton, oil, 10˝ by 14˝ “Lady Hamilton is another David Austin rose that blooms beautifully in my high-desert garden. I love that it is not quite orange, not quite yellow. The variety of color is a delight to paint. The blossoms put on such a show. Lady Hamilton was a notorious character in British history, and this rose seems to suit her.”

‘I’ve Got to Keep Painting’ By Sara Gilbert Frederick


o say that the past year has been a rough one for Joe Anna Arnett would be an understatement. Her husband of 31 years, artist James Asher, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the fall of 2015. Just as the couple was dealing with that news, a black widow spider bit Arnett’s foot, as she stepped into the shower. “The pain was horrible,” she says. “There are neurotoxins coursing through your body, and there’s nothing you can do for the pain. It was miserable.” But instead of dwelling on the difficulties, Arnett decided to look for the good. Some days, she finds it just across the railroad tracks from 58

the cancer center, where Asher receives his treatments. Once he’s settled in for a four-hour chemotherapy session, she scoots across the tracks with her easel and spends the time painting. Some days, she finds it by spending a few hours outdoors with her plein air painting group, a small cadre of friends, who take turns picking a location where everyone can meet and quietly paint together. And some days, she finds it just by looking out the windows of her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Watching the sunlight pour down over the roses in her garden brings her great joy.

ART of the WEST • January/February 2017

“The light here is amazing,” Arnett says. “We have such beautiful light. That’s one thing I know about myself now: I have to live somewhere where we have this bright, bright light.” The garden helps, too. She and Asher have spent years filling the land around their home with flowers. When Arnett heads out to tend the 40 varieties of heirloom roses, 20 different kinds of peonies, and towering sunflowers, her stress melts away. “Once I start weeding or deadheading the roses, I calm right down—and that has been very helpful over the past year,” she says. The same thing happens when

Wandering Wildflowers, oil, 11˝ by 14˝ “Down a forest road, around a bend, and there it was: the perfect tree fallen in just the right place, with deep shade behind and wildflowers to make it almost too pretty. My first thought was simply, ‘If you can’t make this painting work, you’re just not grateful for the gift.’ I was so grateful. There are subjects for paintings everywhere; we just have to look with the right attitude and give an honest response.”

Arnett sits down at her easel. Although time in her studio is more sporadic now than in the past, she is deliberate about making time to paint. “If I can get to my easel, then I go right to an endorphin state,” she says. “And then, anything that hurts stops hurting; anything that is worrying me just goes away.” Arnett remembers being told by people, who had taken care of sick family members, that it would be critical to make time for herself, even as she was caring for her hus-

band. She thought they were crazy at the time, but now she understands completely. “If you don’t take care of yourself, then you won’t have anything to give to anybody else,” she explains. “You’ve got to be at peace and collected, so you have something to give. Jim and I both agree about that. I’ve got to be myself; I’ve got to keep painting.” Arnett and Asher both stay focused on what’s going right rather than what is going wrong. A few months ago, for example, they were

looking forward to a weekend getaway to Colorado and to wrapping up the current round of chemotherapy. “You’ve got to look for the positive,” Arnett says. “It’s there—it’s always there! You’ve just got to look for it.” Art has always been one of the ways Arnett has found good in situations that might seem to be less than ideal. Often sick as a child, she spent many days home from school and occupied herself with artwork during those long hours. “Drawing was my friend,” she says. “I sat there doing drawings and watercolors, and that made me happy.” Although her mother wanted her to become a musician, she did agree to pay for a private art teacher, if Arnett kept up with her piano les-

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Eden in the Morning, oil, 24˝ by 18˝ “The name of this rose really is Eden. It is a David Austin climber. This rose is right outside my studio door and too convenient, by far. The blossoms were so thick that it screamed to be painted. I experimented with a paper made in France just for oil painting. The watercolor effects were so right for the texture and absorbency of the paper. And, since I was at home, I could sling as much paint as I wanted, with no complains from anyone.”


ART of the WEST • January/February 2017

Pale Peonies, oil, 12˝ by 16˝ “Peonies are one of my favorite flowers. In my high-country garden, I grow about 10 varieties. This is an early bloomer and so soft in color. I paint these outside and inside and never tire of them. They almost boast with beauty. In fact, in the Victorian language of flowers, they were assigned the character of ‘haughty.’ Hey, that’s OK with me; they deserve it.”

sons. So Arnett stuck with piano through high school, just to have the opportunity to keep drawing, as well. She was so sure that art was her future that, when she enrolled at the University of Texas, she declared her major as studio arts. “But I had no idea what I would do with that,” she admits. The answer to that question became clear during Arnett’s senior year, when a recently retired creative director from a New York ad agency joined the faculty. The one class she took from him—Conceptual Thinking—opened her eyes to the

opportunities available in advertising. “He taught us how to think conceptually about solving marketing issues,” she says. “I thought it was wonderful—and something I could do for a living.” After graduation, Arnett took a job at a small agency in Dallas, Texas. Before long, she realized that she could do more, if she moved to New York. She presented her portfolio during a handful or interviews and was quickly offered a job at Young & Rubicam. Arnett loved the glamour and excitement of her work as a senior art director for one of the

premier ad agencies in New York. Her work for clients such as Merrill Lynch allowed her to fly around the country, shoot commercials, and meet interesting people. But one night, as she was working late on a set of storyboards, Arnett looked at her drawing of a hand holding a bottle of powder. “It was horrible,” she says. “I looked at it and wondered what had happened to my drawing.” The very next night, as she was walking back to her apartment, Arnett passed by the Art Students League and decided to check it out. “I walked in the door and the floorboards reeked of linseed oil,” she says. “I knew immediately that I was where I should be.” Arnett began to take classes at

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the league after work and on weekends. It didn’t take long for her to realize that fine art was her true calling but, when she went to her boss and told him that she was planning to go back to school and become a fine artist, he didn’t take her seriously. “He literally said that the company would pay for my therapy,” she laughs. Instead of taking him up on that offer, Arnett took a leave of absence and traveled. When she returned, she tendered her resignation and began to study at the Art Students League full-time. She laughs when she says she lived on tuna fish for several years trying to make it work, but she never regretted her decision. And within a matter of years, she had found gallery representation in Dallas, Texas and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had decided to move back to the Southwest to be closer to her family. It was there that a gallery director introduced her to Asher. “She told me that he knew everything about art in the Southwest and that I should meet him,” Arnett says. But, when the two met for dinner, it was clear that their relationship would be more than just informational. “It was love at first sight for both of us,” she says. “I think it was over for both of us by the end of the first date.” Some friends worried that it would be hard for the two artists to coexist creatively, but that has never been an issue for the couple. “Jim has always been 1,000 percent supportive of everything I do,” Arnett says. “What we do is so very different. But the qualities of good art and good design are all the same—the principles of what you’re doing don’t change. Jim and I agree on most everything about that; we just don’t execute it the same way.” But Asher has certainly had an impact on her work. As a still life artist, Arnett spent most of her time working indoors. Asher, on the other hand, often worked outside. “I wanted to go out, too,” Arnett says. “So I started going with him and doing plein air painting. I wasn’t any good, but the more I worked on it, the more fun it became.” Now, Arnett says that her work outdoors has started to 62

ART of the WEST • January/February 2017

California Coast, oil, 9˝ by 12˝ “Very few places in the world are as paintable as the coast of California. This is a spot that countless artists have painted and will always paint. It is almost too perfect in its formation. I kept thinking, ‘Just do it the honor it deserves.’”

migrate back inside. “It’s changed my brushwork,” she says. “It’s freshened it up, made it less controlled. When you are painting plein air, you don’t have time to labor; you just have to go. That’s what happens outdoors, and now it’s traveled indoors, as well.”

That evolution is another of the good things that Arnett looks to these days. She’s been doing more landscapes lately and is working on more figurative work, as well. She admits that it might not be the best marketing strategy to veer off in new directions, but she can’t help herself.

“You just can’t stop listening to your heart,” she says. “If your heart says do this, then you do this.”

Sara Gilbert Frederick is a writer living in Mankato, Minnesota.

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