Although she is neither a dairy breeder nor a show ring competitor, artist Valerie Miller nevertheless is completely hands on in her relationship with cows. This passionate painter not only paints her girls larger than life but she also aligns their bovine characteristics with dear family members and friends.
Creating from Nature and Nurture with Help from Cousins and Cows
It’s quite true that not all dairy lovers are born and raised on a dairy farm. Valerie explains her country connection and how it has been multi-faceted and rewarding over several generations. “I have a long history in my family of people making a living through working with animals. My mom’s side of my family founded (and still run) Impro Products, a leader in natural solutions to livestock production and dairying for over 50 years. I have uncles and cousins who are dairy farmers and two of my uncles and their families have W.W. Homestead Dairy – a local dairy in Waukon, Iowa (where we live) that locally produces and processes a full dairy product line. I also have an aunt, uncle, and first cousin who are Veterinarians. We live in Northeast Iowa, a rural area of the Midwest that has beautiful gently rolling hills, and we have quite a few dairy farms around here. Growing up I loved visiting and spending time on my uncles’ farms, as well as the farms of my friends – actually I still love spending time on their farms!”
Encouraged by Mom, Masters and Mentors
Valerie was creatively inspired by her rural heritage and happily points out how fortunate she was in the mentors in her life. “Growing up my mom was a huge influence on me and encouraged me artistically as much as she could. She would always buy me art supplies for my birthday and Christmas, and would help me learn how to use the art supplies together. She would frequently say that she wanted to be an artist but her parents wouldn’t let her, so I could be anything I wanted. She also loves telling people she taught me everything I know.” With that supportive start, Valerie was eager to meet other creative role models and she was fortunate there too. “Larsh Bristol was a professional photographer and a friend of my dad’s. After high school Larsh and I would have art shows together, and he would teach me things about making a living through art, among other things. Larsh was a big influence on me, and still is even though he passed on after a terrible car crash several years ago.” She is also an eager and avid student of famous painters. “From a historical painting perspective, I love the works of Mark Rothco, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper. I used to spend hours poring over their paintings in books that I had either checked out from the library or bought with birthday money. Their paintings were so beautiful to me and I hoped one day I would be able to create something as beautiful as their paintings.”
Valerie Adapts to Cows, Canvas and a Career
Homing in on a fulfilling career is something everyone strives for and Valerie reports that she got off to a quick start. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a painter. (I think in kindergarten I was telling people I was going to grow up to be an artist.) So, even though I have an art degree in studio art with a concentration in painting from Bradley University and a marketing degree from the University of Iowa, I was painting as much as I could from about 8th grade. I painted from photos I took myself, ones I found in books, and read and followed along to every type of painting book I could.” She looks back on how she started amassing her photo inspirations. “I first started messing around with my dad’s old SLR camera when I was in high school. I would take a lot of photos of friends, animals, and of course cows. As I went into college, I took some photography classes to learn more about cameras and how to use them to achieve what I wanted them to do.”
“Valerie, Valerie, How Does Your Gallery Grow?”
My husband and I met the first week in college, and about a week later we were pretty much inseparable. He was majoring in sculpture and I was majoring in painting. We used to talk about opening up a gallery/store together somewhere and so we came upon the name of Steel Cow as it was a combination of both of us – he was using a lot of steel in his sculptures and I was painting cows. After we got married in 2003, we spent a few months deciding where to locate. After countless hours on the internet looking at places and traveling around a bit, we couldn’t find “the perfect place,” so we decided to open a store in a family building in Waukon on a temporary basis.” For Valerie and Josh temporary is enjoying an extended stay in this rural town.
The Artists’ Journey Travels Down the Waukon Road
It might not be the first place to come to mind for establishing an arts based lifestyle but this town in rural Iowa is working well for Valerie and Josh. “Waukon is a great place to live and raise a family, but there are not a lot of stores around here, and there are quite a few empty buildings in our small rural town. Steel Cow opened our doors 10 years ago this month. I hung up my cow paintings (at the time I was also painting dog portraits), and Josh is a cabinetmaker, and he displayed his very cool handmade furniture and cabinets. As time went on, we adjusted and tweaked our businesses to make them work for where we were living.” It becomes apparent that, in a similar way to the multiple skills that dairy farmers must call on every day, Josh and Valerie have dug deeply to enhance and grow skills beyond their chosen arts. “The building we are in was built by my grandfather’s grandfather in the ’20’s as a furniture store, so it was really neat to have the building being used for something in the family again. About 5 years into it, we bought the building from my parents and completely renovated the whole space ourselves. Talk about exhausting! Josh wouldn’t say so, because he comes from a line of contractors and work to them is like food. But, I thought I was going to die when I had to sand the floors. Luckily I survived and have a much greater appreciation for what it takes to renovate an old building. I just wish the elevator still worked! I spent an entire winter one year cleaning and painting the third floor ceiling. The building is three floors plus a basement and has tin ceilings and original floors, so it has quite a bit of character.”
Out of the Barn and Into the Gallery
The young couple has really paid their dues to create the space that is just right for them to grow their family and their business says Valerie. “We live on the third floor, Josh and I have studios on the second floor, we have a retail space on first floor, and we have a bit of a catch all in the basement. A couple of years ago we were able to purchase a shed behind our store and we took the parking space in front of it and turned it into a garden complete with an 8 foot outdoor mural of Greta. We love it, and are so happy we stayed in Waukon and are continuing to grow Steel Cow.”
When Cows on Canvas Connect with Admirers
It is easy to imagine how surprised visitors are to see the Steel Cow gallery upon their first visit. It isn’t every day that dairy cows go from milking parlor moos to artist’s muse (Sorry! Couldn’t resist). Valerie too recognizes how unusual some might think that her career has been. “ I think my greatest accomplishment has been simply making a living at painting cows from a small town in Northeast Iowa. Although there are a lot of dairy cows around here, there are not a lot of people, so my husband and I have had to learn a lot of things along the way (and we are still learning!).” It takes persistence and dedication admits this entrepreneur. “So far, so good! Cow paintings aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so I don’t think they are as popular as landscape paintings, or flower paintings, but it’s fun to hear people tell me why they like my paintings, or that one of my paintings reminds them of their cow, the cow they had as a kid, or simply reminds them of when they visited their grandparents farm as a kid.” Obviously connecting people, cows and memories are important to this artist who hopes that her future will include her husband Josh, their one and a half year old son Eddie, her sister and brother-in-law and their one and a half year old daughter because whatever the adventures ahead she say “I would want them with to join me because I would not want to live without them, and if we were together, it could be fun.”
“I Love All of My Gallery Girls”
Every painter feels a connection to the painted subject matter. Valerie is emphatic. “One thing I will always do is paint cows. As long as I am creating art in a way that is enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding and am able to share that with others …… I will be happy.” That happiness has brought her close to all of her cow girls. So much so, that choosing a favorite is difficult.
“Oh, that’s a tough one!” she admits. “It depends on the day. I like each painting to be better than the last, but that doesn’t always happen. As a cow, I like Queenie the best as she was the perfect matriarch of a local herd of dairy cows. I really like Virginia (she is chewing) and she reminds me of my great aunt who was always eating. I kept the original painting of Virginia and have her hanging in my kitchen. I am also fond of Dorothy as I first fell in love with cows when I met some Brown Swiss. Since I call the cow paintings “The Girls” and name most of them after family and friends it’s kind of like trying to pick my favorite relative (in which case I should say Greta because she is my sister.)” It’s obvious that Valerie’s heart is a large part of her artistry.
There’s A Cow in Waukon Library
“In my immediate future I am finishing a mural of Tippie the Cow at our local library.” Those who know Valerie are probably well aware of her project to raise funds for the Tippie Business School at the University of Iowa. “I owe so much to what they gave me, I simply want to give back something.” Expanding her artistic vision also includes another project. “I have been working on an A-Z kids book with the letters of the alphabet being the first name of “The Girls” and I hope to have it complete later this year. Hopefully my future holds lots of murals, new paintings, and more trips to meet cows across the globe. I also have plans on adding other farm animals including pigs, goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens, horses and, of course, “The Boys.” Oh to be that cow on the library wall and listen in to Valerie’s plans for the future. However, she is shy about sharing. “ I have a lot of goals for the future, but I don’t really like to share them as the details are always changing.” She also feels her art is evolving. “I would say my style is a contemporary representational depiction of cows. I like to strip the background away, take the cow out of context, and paint a solid color in the background. This way the painting focuses on the cow herself, and hopefully allows the viewer to connect with the animal up close and personal. I paint the cow representationally, but I do take “artistic license” and sometimes paint them a bit more whimsical. As I am going along in my artistic career, I am painting “The girls” more and more realistically and closer to how they actually look.”
The Bullvine Bottom Line
When you admire Valerie’s paintings it’s not about dairy conformation or bovine genetics. Valerie paints to capture the story. The story of the cow. The strength resulting from that connection is a celebration of hands on artistry. Steel Cows. The connection between cows and the people who love them.