Shawndell Oliver is a morning person. A typical day begins at 5:00 a.m. in order to catch the pink glow of the Colorado mountains at dawn.
She feeds her horses, Cash and Spirit, and a menagerie of ducks, chickens, goats and dogs. By 6:00 a.m., Shawndell is in her studio, coffee in hand, gazing out at the city of Golden, and the Flatiron mountains. “Work is effortless in the morning light.” she says.
Oliver, a Denver, Colorado native, has created a rich and rewarding life for herself, both as a modern day cowgirl and as a respected and sought-after artist. With ancestors from Durango, a writer for a mother and graphic artist for a father, Oliver not only has the Wild West in her blood, but a covetable artistic pedigree. Childhood summers were spent riding horses with her uncles in Durango. When she wasn’t riding, you might have found her whiling away lazy afternoons sketching her beloved equine friends. Today, Oliver lives with Erik Jensen, her husband of twenty-two years (and biggest fan) on three acres in Arvada, an outcropping of Denver’s sprawling metropolis, where she manages to mix art and horses on a daily basis.
Shawndell, as she is known, has developed the practice of working on multiple paintings in one day, although each piece may be uniquely different. She begins each painting with an abstract approach, “laying on” large blocks of color. Utilizing something akin to baker’s racks, she allows the initial coats to dry before adding more paint. Shawndell’s paintings, which are a combination of both acrylic and oil, are often monochromatic, with a wide range of tones in the chosen hue. Drawing her subject matter comes next. Subjects are traditional in the sense that you can tell what they are, yet contemporary with regard to her loose style and liberal use of modern, vibrant colors. For depth and texture, she gathers horsehair from local fences and posts, and mixes it in with the paint, adding dimension and textural intrigue. Attached to the back of each painting is the story of its own particular origination and inspiration, along with a feather talisman.
When the need for inspiration arises, a ride is in order. Friends have become accustomed to seeing Oliver in her chaps and boots, with paint in her hair. “Riding feeds my soul,” she explains, “All [the] emotion in my paintings comes from being around horses. My creative, artistic visions come [to me] on the backs of horses.”
Because Shawndell lives, essentially, in the city, her horses are familiar with stoplights and traffic. They travel along bike trails or the High Line Canal Trail, a 71 mile path that stretches through Denver’s southern suburbs, meandering through many parks. When she returns to her studio refreshed and reinvigorated, her intent is to capture the passion and soulfulness she has just experienced, with the eyes and stance of her subjects.
Whenever possible, Oliver participates in the annual Sombrero Ranch’s Great American Horse Drive, a fifty-year tradition and tribute inspired by preserving the heritage of the West. The ride involves driving 700 horses 62 miles from northeastern Colorado’s wintering pastures to the Big Gulch Ranch in Craig Colorado en route to their summer jobs at various dude ranches. The thundering herd and her adventures on the way provide a wellspring of images for future work and creativity.