British cowgirl | May 19, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 19, 2006

British cowgirl

Painter from England has fallen for the Western lifestyle, and captures it on canvas

by Marge Speidel

Posting to the trot on a pony in her native England was Christina Holmes' passion in the England of her childhood.

Now, in her 40s, she's Western-style all the way, from riding to choice of vacation spot to subjects for her watercolor paintings.

Jeans-clad ranch hands sitting on fences capture her imagination as subjects for her paintings, along with boots, hats, chaps, saddles and belt buckles. There are also skillfully rendered horses in action, and the landscape of the American West. The observer can almost smell the dust.

"Everything about the Western style feels natural to me," Holmes said. "Maybe I was a cowgirl in a previous life."

With her husband, Chris, and sons Matthew, 11; Jamie, 6, and Nicholas, 4, she makes her home in Menlo Park. For ongoing inspiration and exposure to ranch-style living, she takes a yearly trip to the Kay El Bar dude ranch in Arizona, which has been a guest ranch since it began in 1926.

"It's a wonderful place," Holmes said. "The same people come year after year, so there is lots of camaraderie. I take loads of photos, sometimes from the back of a horse."

After her ninth trip there, from which she returned home April 30, she said, "I got enough subject matter to last me the rest of my life." It wasn't all serious stuff, though. An impromptu duel with water pistols ended with the ranch wranglers good-naturedly dumping her in the horses' water trough.

Holmes got the inspiration for her first cowboy painting in the fall of 1998, when she took a seven-day horseback trip through Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon and the Arizona Badlands. With that painting, she placed third in a show at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto.

Holmes doesn't paint while at the ranch, but works from her photos back at home. In most of her cowboy paintings, faces are obscured by hats or the position of the subject: a cowboy is painted from the back, or has his head down as he gets ready to ride a bucking horse in a rodeo. Holmes simply prefers to focus on atmosphere, shapes and color instead of faces, she said.

An exception is a portrait of a very young girl whom Hholmes spotted at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and asked parental permission to paint. "I call that painting 'The Cutest Thing I Ever Saw,' because she was," Holmes said. The winsome little girl wears a large cowboy hat and scarf.

Holmes and her husband came to California from England in 1992 when he began a startup software company. Christina had training in commercial art with 12 years of experience in that field, and worked for her husband's company, too.

An unexpected glitch in her life came when the company was sold. Her California network dissolved. "Everyone I knew worked for the company," she said.

Absorbing that shock became even more challenging when she suffered postpartum depression after the birth of her first son.

One day, she walked into downtown Palo Alto, feeling at a low ebb, and by chance ran into art therapist Carla Brooke near the studios of the Pacific Art League. The two had been in touch about Holmes' depression and when Holmes confided that she was not doing well, Brooke recommended an art class.

"I signed up for classes with Robin Scholl, beginning with landscape, and then took watercolor from Steve Curl," Holmes said. She's been studying to build her style and technique for eight years now, and continues to study with Curl.

"This has been a winning combination for me as I love being mom to our three sons while still nurturing my creative spirit," Holmes said. "We have a wonderful group that meets Thursday mornings at the Art League: friends, music and camaraderie. I've gone through two of my pregnancies in that group. It's more than a watercolor group. Steve encourages us to paint what we are passionate about."

Holmes stresses that while art played a big part in her recovery from depression, feeling better also required medication and counseling.

Curl notes that depression is often part of the artistic temperament. Of Holmes, he said: "Quite frankly, painting is one of the things that helps her keep her balance. As to her technique, over the years in class she has improved tremendously. Her color sense and design sense show dramatic improvement."

When Holmes sells her paintings, it's usually to buyers in the Bay Area or to people she meets at the Arizona dude ranch. She has also placed in several competitions, and one of Holmes' paintings was recently selected in a juried art competition for display at this year's Grand National Rodeo, Horse, and Stock Show at the Cow Palace.

In addition, she will show her work at an annual open house celebration at Sunset magazine in Menlo Park this weekend.

"In September of this year my youngest son will start kindergarten. Then my advertising and marketing background will become really useful, as I begin to focus on marketing my work more seriously. Meanwhile, I am just happy to be doing something that I really love," Holmes said.

What: Ninth annual Celebration Weekend at Sunset magazine's headquarters, including kitchen and garden tours and arts and crafts. Christina Holmes will show her work at the event.

Where: 80 Willow Road, Menlo Park

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Cost: $10 general, $8 for seniors, free for children ages 12 and under

Info: For a schedule of events, go to www.sunset.com.

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