Farm Horizons, August 2010
The woman who paints cows
By Stephen Wiblemo
If you’ve been living in rural Minnesota for long, chances are you’ve at least heard of Bonnie Mohr. And if you’ve heard of Mohr, chances are good that what you heard about her was in regard to her special skills as a bona fide bovine artist.
While painting cows is what made Mohr famous in these parts, and, indeed, throughout all of rural America and dairy farming communities, she is much more.
Today, Mohr lives on a dairy farm north of Glencoe with her husband, John, and five children. While she and John both grew up on Minnesota dairy farms near New Ulm, they weren’t always living the rural American dream.
It was just 20 years ago that the Mohrs purchased their farm. Before that, they were living and working in the Twin Cities. Bonnie sold advertising for a publishing company, and John sold dairy sanitation products. While work was good, they both longed to return to farming, so in 1989, they moved out west and started their farm. This was also when Bonnie decided to take her first big step into the world of art.
Mohr had always enjoyed art, and although she never had any professional training, she had been doing it as a hobby for many years.
“I’m a self-taught artist. I’ve always loved art,” she said. “Ever since I was a kid, I loved design, color, and paintings. It was my favorite subject in class, but I never had any formal art training.
“While I was working for this other company in the Cities, I would play around with art on the evenings and weekends. I went and bought some oil paint and some canvas, subscribed to some art magazines, and just taught myself.”
After the Mohrs left the Cities and headed back out to the country, Bonnie saw it as her opportunity.
“When we bought the farm in 1989, and I knew we were moving out here, I decided I was going to give my art a try,” she said. “I thought, ‘if it doesn’t work out, I can always get a job and go back to the working world.’ But, if you never try, you never know.”
Like most beginning artists, things started slow. Not only was Mohr a beginning artist, but she was having to learn and figure everything out for herself.
“The first few years were slow, and almost painful, because I left a good job with a secure paycheck and went into a world I knew very little about,” Mohr said. “There are no artists in my family, and I was trying to do something I knew nothing about.”
Fortunately, Mohr had a plan. The saying is “do what you know," so when it came to painting, Mohr was inclined to paint what she knew, and that was cows.
“I knew them well. I grew up showing them, milking them, chasing them, and working with them,” she said. “What I found was, I did it (paint cows) well and there weren’t many people doing it. That was the beginning of a market for me.”
In that first year, she also got her first job, commissioned by Select Sires, a bull seed company, to paint portraits of two of their bulls. As it turns out, this was the beginning of a career that is still going after 20 years.
“For the first 10 years of painting, all I did was paint cow pictures,” Mohr said. “I went to the World Dairy Expo, which is a big show in Madison, WI the first week of October every year. It is the largest dairy show in North America.”
Mohr brought her work to the show and discovered there was an interest in cow art. At first, she only brought a few paintings, but after 25 consecutive years of attending the dairy expo, her displays have grown considerably. The expo was also an important part of growing her business.
As her business grew, the room required also grew, and about 12 years ago, the Mohrs made the decision to set up a studio and showroom for Bonnie to operate out of.
“From that point, when we put the building up, is when some fun growth and new things started to happen,” she said. “We put together a catalog, I went online, and I got into the Minnesota State Fair and started exhibiting there.”
It was also at this point that she decided to start painting something other than just cows, but she didn’t stray far from what she knew.
“That is when I started doing a lot of domestic animals, and rural America paintings,” Mohr said. “I have a huge love for all of rural America. I grew up on a farm, and I think it is the best-kept secret in the world.”
Mohr’s business continued to grow, and so did her identity as an artist. While her rural American work did well, about five years ago she decided to try her hand at some inspirational work.
She has a verse stenciled on the wall of her showroom that she wrote, and after years of listening to people ask for a copy of the verse, she was inspired to do something with it. She created a work called “Living Life” that includes the verse and a painting of a tree, which she felt was the perfect imagery to bring her verse to life.
“I created the painting to go with the verse, and it’s been my number-one selling print every year,” Mohr said. “That was kind of strange for me, because I’m thinking ‘wait a minute, I’m about cows. I’m a cow artist,’ but my inspirational art is taking off.”
While Mohr is excited to jump into this new area of art, she says she will continue with the work that made her famous.
“I’ve discovered that the inspirational area is something that I like, and I may have a calling for,” she said. “So, I think I am going to move in that direction, but I will continue with my ag and rural American art.”
Even if Mohr tried to get away from her cow paintings, the demand for them simply wouldn’t allow it. Most recently, Mohr was commissioned to do a painting in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine.
“Anyone who milks cows probably gets Hoard’s Dairyman and reads it. They are the magazine of the industry,” Mohr said. “. . . To have landed that commission is really awesome. I feel like this is recognition that I have arrived at a place in my career to be given a great opportunity.”
The painting Mohr was commissioned to do was an updated version of Hoard’s Dairyman’s most famous work, “Foster Mothers of the Human Race.” The painting, which features all six breeds of dairy cows, was first done in 1957 by Hoard’s Dairyman’s former art director, James Baird. Baird also painted updates of the work in 1963, 1991, and 1993. Mohr’s updated version was unveiled in June.
Like most artists, Mohr’s journey started in one place, but over time has sprawled in many different directions. In this desire to diversify and become multifaceted, some artists can grow to resent the things that first made them famous. For Bonnie Mohr, though, she has embraced her place in the art world, and while she will continue to let her heart steer her work, she doesn’t resent being known as the woman who paints cows.
“I’m really proud of it, because if you are good at what you do, honk your horn,” she said. “I can paint cows really well.”
If you would like to see and learn more about Mohr’s work, you can visit her website at www.bonniemohr.com.