On the second floor of Les Yeux du Monde, artist Russ Warren takes stock of his latest project. It’s a series of bulls drawn using livestock markers—paint sticks used to label cattle and farm animals. Gallery director Lyn Warren points out two piles of discarded chunks of the oil-based markers, fluorescent and accumulating on the floor. Several columns of Roman numerals drawn in permanent marker on a wooden desk count Russ’ progress—an “unsophisticated numbering device” that Russ borrowed from Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems.
“It’s not organized,” says Russ. “I have no idea of knowing how many I’ve done. I’ll do more. I’ve easily surpassed the 100 mark.”
Painter Gwyn Kohr introduced Russ to livestock markers when she and multimedia artist Kathy Kuhlmann took lessons in his studio several years ago. Kohr lives on a farm with cattle, and when she learned the livestock markers could be used for art purposes, she bought all 16 colors. While there are more than three times that many colors in conventional kits of paint sticks used by artists, Russ and his students felt drawn to the livestock markers. Each marker costs about 75 cents (one-10th the price of the average oil paint stick from brands like Shiva or Winsor & Newton) and takes about two days to dry—allowing Kohr, Kuhlmann and Russ to experiment with the medium.
“The three of us have all utilized [the markers] in a very different way,” says Kohr. “The fact that they aren’t expensive gave me the creativity to play with them and not feel like I was taking a risk.”
Each artist’s unique exploration of the medium comes to light in “The Livestock Marker Show” at Les Yeux du Monde, on display through July 15. Despite the marker’s heavy quality and garish palette, every piece in the exhibition achieves a dream-like airy lightness and surrealistic, complex expression of color and texture—both paying homage to, and betraying, the humble origins of cattle paint sticks.
Kohr employs it “like a crayon on top” of her paintings, she says. After creating an acrylic underpainting, she builds linear, yet three-dimensional texture using modeling paste, then layers on the livestock marker. In Kohr’s “Les Fleurs” series, her additive process creates a wash of texture and color reminiscent of a well-loved pair of dark denim jeans. In “Infinite Rhythm,” one can easily envision this act of adding layer after layer in the painting’s mosaic of lines and circles—some such a vivid white that they appear to be made of mirrored glass at first glance. It’s a five-foot constellation and tapestry of circles and lines that come together to infuse the piece with movement and dimensionality.
Whereas Kohr’s process of using the livestock markers adds layers of paint and clay, Russ and Kuhlmann’s approaches incorporate more reductive processes. While Kuhlmann’s background is in textile clothing design and dyeing, she got excited about the process of photo transfers after taking a workshop that focused on the form.
“Photo transfer can be whatever you want it to be, from a picture that you took and put on a mug, to getting experimental with it,” Kuhlmann says.
With many of Kuhlmann’s photo transfers, she begins by painting an acrylic or watercolor wash on a substrate—anything from an aluminum panel to a clayboard. She then pastes a black-and-white or color photograph on that surface using a gel-based medium, lets it dry and tears away the remainder of the photograph’s original paper. On top of that, Kuhlmann gets color from the livestock markers on her fingers and rubs it onto the piece’s surface, then seals the work with layer upon layer of buffed cold wax.
“I enjoy the process and the ‘What happens if?’ quality,” she says. “It’s kind of like cooking. You want to put the love in there. With the layers and all the time I spend on it, I’m putting that part of me into it.”
Russ also infuses a part of himself into his series of livestock marker bulls. He grew up on a cattle farm outside Houston and raised his youngest daughter in the junior rodeo circuit, and feels like a “surrogate parent to steers.” For his most recent series of bulls, Russ looked to artists like Rufino Tamayo, Jean Dubuffet and Picasso for inspiration.
“I love the way the livestock markers work. It’s a give and take,” he says. “It’s angst and scraping on the surfaces of the paper. This is the perfect medium to respond to those artists. I chose that path.”
Though Russ says he likes each bull in his 120-plus series for different reasons, he points to “Bull LXVI” and “Bull LXXI” as two of his favorites due to their “childlike” quality.
“Of all the mediums I’ve worked with, the livestock markers are really fun,” Russ says. Kuhlmann, Kohr and Lyn Warren all use the same word to describe the medium—fun.
“I take them seriously but they’re humorous,” says Russ. “They’re not forbidding to the viewer. They’re not that boorish kind of seriousness.”