By Cowboys & Indians contributor, Stephanie Stephens
When Jan Mapes’ Facebook page featured her new National Cutting Horse Association trophy design, a loyal fan wrote her, “No one deserves this honor more than you.” For the award-winning artist, that accolade and the many others she’s received over the course of her career signify that she’s made that all-important connection, “which is way more important than the financial part,” she says. “I’m never happier than when somebody just really wants my art. … They see it and they get it and we’re on the same wavelength. Then they just have to take it home and live with it.”
It was a deep connection to ranch life that attracted Mapes to art early on. As a child visiting her grandparents’ small ranch in Arkansas, she fell in love with horses, nature, and the outdoors. She would scour Western magazines not for the words, but for the pictures. (“I was a terrible reader,” she recalls.) She first began drawing from photos — usually horses, then cattle, wildlife, cowboys, and landscapes.
The daughter of an Air Force colonel whose work required that the family move to posts across the United States and Germany, Mapes always re-connected with animals and ranch life for the several weeks each summer that she visited her grandparents. At one point she grew particularly fond of a paint pony named Diamond. Years later, her affinity for equines hasn’t diminished.
She has been immersed in the ranching culture that inspires her art since moving to Colorado in 1969: Her husband, Jim, trains cutting horses at their La Junta ranch on the Great Plains in the southeastern part of the state and Jan, now 59, pitches in. “He works his horses in the mornings every day, so I go help and work mine on cattle,” Jan says. “I ride four days a week on average. I show in cutting competitions when I have a horse ready. I also ride pasture to check on the cattle, and we help neighboring ranches with cattle work — branding, shipping, etc. — when needed.”
When she’s working on a piece — whether it’s a bucking bronc, a hunting coyote, or a strutting rooster — Mapes captures the essence and character of her subjects in any number of mediums, including oil, bronze, watercolor, or pencil sketch. Whatever the medium, her work is always about the feeling: “The ideas in my head are endless, but I must be able to just see or feel it,” she says. Even if it’s a palm tree near a parking lot, Mapes appreciates and strives to communicate the structure and beauty of nature. She counts it as a joy to share “the gift God gave me of noticing His beautiful creation and of expressing the wonder visually.”
Some of her inspired sculptures reside in permanent collections at The Phippen Museum in Prescott, Arizona; the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona; and the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana. “Years of immersion in, and a love for, the ranching lifestyle and its enduring culture have given Mapes the ability to feel for the land and its inhabitants,” says Lynette Tritel, curator and collections manager at The Phippen. “This unique appreciation has resulted in a special ability to communicate the emotion of the moment in her artwork and helps her capture the action.”
Despite the fleeting nature of the images Mapes captures, the artist never hurries the process — especially when sculpting, which requires that she be careful and methodical from the start. “I visualize it for days and then when I sit down, it goes quickly,” she says.
With each finished piece, Mapes finds it gratifying to share the ranching lifestyle that keeps her close to animals and the land. “I want to convey something in my life that comes through in the story of a piece — something I’ve observed or I think is interesting. My work will never be done, for this isn’t really work, but a journey of exploration.”
For information on Jan Mapes’ upcoming shows and for more Western art, visit www.cowboysindians.com.