Pick of the Week

Cowgirl Artist

For the past several years, artist Amy Novelli has ridden her adopted mustang, Sweetpea, in the Rodeo Parade. Chances are, if you attended the parade, you saw her. She wore a giant handcrafted cowgirl hat that's hard to miss.

The large hat is appropriate for Novelli; she has worn many hats throughout her life. As a beginning artist, she lived in Manhattan and worked at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Studio. In Tucson, she has worked as a public artist for Tucson Pima ArtWORKS projects, produced murals for the Biosphere 2 and the La Posada Hotel, and has decorated Hotel Congress for the holidays for the past 12 years. She's also a horsewoman and demonstrates her mustangs at the Sonoita Rodeo.

Her educational background is also multi-layered. She has a bachelor's degree in fine arts, received Society of Illustrators awards from the Columbus College of Art and Design, and completed her master's thesis with an emphasis on public art and painting.

When talking to Novelli, I got a taste of her versatility. She talked about a variety of topics, including going to a born-again church, owning a 10-year-old goldfish and throwing eclectic parties in high school. Novelli and variety are synonymous.

So it's no surprise that Novelli's art includes a range of styles: abstract painting on paper, cartoon cutouts on medium-density fiberboard, encaustic paintings (using heated beeswax) and Western paintings using oils on linen.

Her latest exhibition, Tucson's Cowgirl Artist on Parade, focuses on the latter style, with horses, cowgirls and coyotes as the main subjects. It's been a longtime wish of Novelli's to paint these themes.

"I always wanted to do horses. In art school, when I tried to do something with that imagery, people would giggle at me. ... It felt like there was a lot of pressure to do what was popular at the time," she recalls.

While it wasn't until many years after school that Novelli began painting horses in earnest, she had the desire to so when she was in the fourth grade.

"When the teacher asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, on the right side of the paper, I drew a horse raiser--not knowing the correct term--with the words 'just a hobby.' On the left side, I drew an artist with the words 'a job, maybe.'"

Novelli's simple drawing illustrated how she lives her life today.

"I get up in the morning, walk the dogs, then I paint all day. Then I ride my horse. That's all I do."

Novelli's experience with horses translates well to her art. She writes in her artist statement, "I have always been interested in the movement of the majestic horse. Horses think and communicate with their bodies. When I paint my horse in motion, I am not just studying her muscles and bones. I am revealing her 'joie de vivre,' her jubilance, her power."

Novelli says that she paints from real-time observation. She'll walk outside and look at the horses that she has and creates from her imagination, rather than using photographs.

"I realize photos lie. You can't trust them. There is a film reel in my head from riding, grooming and touching horses for 40 years. I realize I have a vast archive in my head."

Perhaps the archive also comes from Novelli's extensive experience. She's done installation work, performance art and public art. But in the end, Novelli says, she just loves to paint, letting the work develop on its own.

"Whether you are an illustrator, a designer or painter, the idea needs to come first. It's intuitive. I figure out the meaning later."

Deeper meanings aside, you can't help but appreciate the depth of artistic talent in Novelli's work. "Siesta" features three horses in pencil so detailed, you not only see individual hairs on the horses, but their individual personalities as well. "Glory Bound" also shows a horse's character, as the animal is saddled and tied to a fence with head bowed, almost tiredly waiting to be set free. "Meeting the Dawn" shows a blast of color behind a horse and reflects Novelli's thoughts on riding in the early morning: "These times offer not only a cool ride, but an explosion of colors in the sky which inspire a dramatic background for my paintings."

This summer, Novelli hopes to travel with her horses and paint as she goes. She's off to "Utah and beyond to paint and ride the West before it's gone." Chances are, she'll be wearing a cowboy hat and a smile.

Tucson's Cowgirl Artist on Parade is on display at Jane Hamilton Fine Art, 1825 E. River Road, Suite 111, through Monday, Feb. 25. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. through 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. Call 529-4886 or visit the Jane Hamilton Web site for information.

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