Farm Ireland

Monday 18 February 2019

Brush with bovine art

Waterford artist captures an alternative side to cows

Caitriona Murphy

Beef and dairy farmers spend their lives surrounded by cows. The animals are described in terms of milk yield, weight gain, EBI and carcass yield.

How many farmers would say they love cows for their curiosity and quirkiness?

Yet that is exactly how Waterford artist Brigid Shelly has described cows and for the past eight years -- she has made her living from painting hundreds of bovine subjects.

Often known as simply the 'cow painter', Brigid grew up in the English Midlands, but at holiday time, she escaped to Ballycotton, Co Cork, where she says her senses were bombarded.

She spent her days helping her uncle on the farm, driving cows to the parlour to be milked and watching his daily chores.

Those experiences were to have a lasting effect on her.

"Painting cows came to me almost by accident as I was looking for subject matter to paint inside when my kids were small and I couldn't get outside," says Brigid.

"To begin with it was cows and my own children, but the cows really took off," she says.

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"What that says about my children, I'm not sure," she laughs.

Based at her studio at Dysert, Ardmore, Brigid paints unique cow portraits that embody the inquisitive nature of cows in bold, primary colours.

The quirky paintings are real show-stoppers and have been snapped up by the likes of Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture and the new Cork Marts facility at Corrin, Fermoy.

But why cows?

"I think I have a touch of mad cow disease because it is very difficult to identify what it is that makes me want to paint cows.


"My love of cows stems from holidays spent with farming cousins in Whitechurch and Ovens [both in Co Cork].

"But trying to understand the appeal for others is more difficult. Part of it is the cows' curiosity and quirkiness that makes them a good subject but also the fact that they are -- and always have been -- part of the Irish landscape," she says.

"Cows are so wrapped up in the identity of Ireland that they are part of everyone's roots, I think."

Individual buyers range from people who are now living abroad and it is a memory of Ireland that they can take with them. Others grew up on a farm and are now living in a city and one of Brigid's cow paintings is a little reminder that these people hang on their wall.

"Paintings are very personal and I love watching people's reactions to my paintings," Brigid says.

"At art fairs, one half of a couple could say 'wow' when they see my painting, but their partner could look at them as if they have two heads.

"I've noticed, whether at the Art Ireland exhibition or the National Ploughing Championships, they never fail to bring a smile to people's faces and for as long as I see that reaction, I will continue to paint cows," she vows.

As for her subject matter, there is no shortage of muses in her locality.

"People are now used to seeing me hopping over ditches taking digital images or just talking to cows," she laughs.

"I think the local farmers are tickled by the fact that I want to paint their animals."

However, the farmers are keen to give the artist extra material and often ring when they are moving cows or have a new calf.

"I could take 50 photographs but only use one for a painting because, even on a cow's face, the way the light falls on it, is the inherent factor in making a good painting," she says.

Although her personal favourites are Friesians, their black and white faces don't always make the best subject for a painting.

Herefords and Charolais, with their masses of light curls, make better subjects, but since she concentrated on painting cows, Brigid has been introduced to more breeds than she ever knew existed.

"I've been commissioned to paint Aubrac and Shorthorns and sometimes I get requests to paint just one cow from a herd of Friesians and get her individual tag number in the painting too," she says.

Selling two cow portraits each week, there is obviously steady demand for Brigid's work but this has not stopped her from trying out other subjects.

"I tried sheep but unfortunately they didn't do a lot for me. However, I quite like their eyes because they are a bit spooky looking," she explains.

More recently, the Waterford artist has spent time at point-to-point meetings at the request of Dermot Cantillon and completed a series of mart scenes for Corrin Mart in Fermoy.

At present, Brigid is working on a painting depicting the first Teagasc board meeting at the revamped Oak Park HQ.

Aside from displaying her work in galleries, Brigid's studio is open to visitors.