Where Time Stands Still

Artist K. Henderson brings the past to life in finely detailed oil paintings

K. Henderson is not afraid of the past. In fact, her luminous paintings seem just one step—and at least 100 years—removed from the present. For this New Mexico resident and self-proclaimed lover of western imagery, that’s just fine. “The people I paint tend to be 19th-century figures,” explains Henderson, who uses only the initial “K” as her first name. “But I try not to romanticize them.”
Although Henderson readily defines herself as a western painter, she admits that her paintings are not in the tradition of artists like Frederic Remington. “I don’t do a lot of action, as do many western painters,” she notes. Instead, cowboys and cowgirls stand by horses and wagon wheels or out in an open field; Native Americans appear in traditional garb, usually without a contextual setting. In general, her figures seem immutable, frozen in time. The “story” that emerges from Henderson’s canvases is more image-oriented than narrative. “I’m trying to portray an expression or emotion,” explains the artist. “That’s what I’m mainly going for.”

Henderson counts John Singer Sargent as a major influence on her painterly approach. “He was my first inspiration,” she says, remembering the first time she saw his work in a museum. She also cites French realist Adolphe William Bouguereau as another important influence. “They both painted realistic-looking people, and the color and the skin tones they used were fabulous,” says Henderson. “Sometimes I start a painting and wonder how Sargent or Bouguereau would paint it.”

Henderson often focuses attention on her subject by minimizing the background imagery. Her backgrounds often consist of open sky or a distant field, but they are just as likely to depict an indistinguishable space—air captured on canvas—that imparts an atmospheric quality. “Again, I return to Sargent,” comments Henderson. “I’m painting just a little bit of background, just enough to give you a feeling that the figure is surrounded by something.”

Henderson’s use of indeterminate backgrounds also recalls the work of American realist Andrew Wyeth. This compositional device provides a somewhat modernist contrast to the painstaking historical detail in the foreground of her paintings. “I do a good amount of research for every painting,” she says. “The saddles, the decorations, the clothing—everything is researched and true to the period.” Henderson embraces the 19th century because, she contends, it is “the most interesting time period.

“The hardest part of researching is thinking, ‘Gee, I saw that someplace—now where was that?’” she continues. Over the years Henderson has amassed thousands of books, a huge personal library that informs the exactitude of each detail she paints.

She works predominantly from photographs, using friends and family as models. “I frequently use one friend of mine as a model, but you wouldn’t recognize him from one painting to the next,” she says. She also admits to using her husband as a convenient model: “Dress him up, take photos—and I can get the lighting I need.” On Henderson’s canvases, the same models transform into an array of characters: a bespectacled marshal leaning on a post, a young Plains Indian wrapped in a tribal blanket, a cowgirl lost in a pensive mood. But Henderson insists she is not simply painting a portrait.

K. Henderson
My Heart Rises

Her piece I Ride An Old Paint, its title taken from a traditional cowboy song, offers a prime example of Henderson’s pictorial interplay between historical figure and atmospheric background. An older, weathered Union soldier pauses for a moment on his aging horse. “I based the painting on a mounted shooter,” recalls Henderson, “but the original horse was not an old paint—and the man was much younger.” The painting’s lines, especially in the arcing reins and the man’s studded chaps, draw the viewer’s eye up to the soldier’s face. The man’s hat, holster and gun, gloves, and chaps disclose a fine attention to detail, and the counterpoint between his blue shirt and the orange stripes of the blanket beneath his saddle lends the canvas its sense of chromatic completeness.

“I’m painting the relationship between the rider and the horse,” says Henderson. To move the viewer’s eye up from the horse and the intricacies of the saddle and blanket, she placed a red scarf around the man’s neck. “I like to put in a bit of red in most paintings, to make things pop just a bit,” she notes. Yet, it is her use of a bright, indefinable background that moves the figure beyond the illustrative. Enveloped by glowing nothingness, the old soldier and his beloved horse remain frozen in time.
In her many portraits of Plains Indians, Henderson takes a somewhat more modernist approach. “I think of my cowboys and cowgirls in a traditional style,” observes the artist, “whereas I tend to take a more contemporary approach in my paintings of Native Americans.” Her Native American subjects are often rendered on larger canvases, and her palette is “a little bolder.” The emphasis on reds, blacks, and whites adds an aggressive feel to these paintings. “I like the freeness and spontaneity of the Native American figures,” she says. Still, her research is just as detailed and she places her Native American subjects squarely in the 19th century.

K. Henderson

K. Henderson
Ready to Ride

A childhood spent in Tulsa, OK, reinforced Henderson’s love for all things western. Her family background includes some Cherokee, and she views this aspect of her heritage as a natural part of growing up in Oklahoma—and one that continues to inform her art.

Unlike artists whose talent is evident in childhood, Henderson did not begin to draw until high school. “I only had to take one class in my final year to graduate,” she remembers, “so in the afternoons I went to an art school.” Her teacher had trained at the Art Students League of New York, and she credits him with giving her “a good, old-fashioned foundation in art.”

Henderson moved to California, but quickly discovered that she lacked the temperament for a “real job.” Returning to Oklahoma, she also returned to her artwork and has never looked back. After getting married, Henderson and her husband moved to Muskogee, OK, which she says at the time was “a little cow town with no stoplights.” When the town began to grow, they decided to move to New Mexico. “We spent two years looking for a place that was so remote that no one in their right mind would ever want to live there,” she laughs.

Today Henderson maintains a studio in her home where she works solely in oils. “I discovered it was my medium when I found out I couldn’t work in anything else,” she says. She paints at least six days a week, from nine to five each day. “If I’m really involved in what I’m painting, I’ll stay in the studio until seven at night and paint seven days a week,” she says. “I research every detail. I love figuring it out—it keeps things fresh, and you learn something new every day.”

The cowboy life is more than an artistic pursuit for Henderson. She and her husband belong to the Single Action Shooting Society, a competitive shooting organization that bills itself as “the closest you’ll get to the Old West short of a time machine.” Members are required to adopt an identity appropriate to the 1800s and dress accordingly. The Hendersons have even won the organization’s world championship costume competition. “I’m trained in doing costumes,” notes Henderson. “I’m on the Internet all the time looking for ideas.” Which also provides continual inspiration for her art.
Henderson is a member of the Oil Painters of America, American Women Artists, and American Plains Artists. Her work has garnered numerous awards, including seven awards at the Red Earth Show in Oklahoma, best of show at the Celebration of Western Art in San Francisco, and various awards at Native American venues, such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Tulsa Indian Arts Festival, and the Trail of Tears Art Show at the Cherokee Heritage Center.

“I don’t like to label myself,” says Henderson about her Native American art and background. “It’s like being an actor and playing the same part over and over again. You want to be known for your art—not for the part you are playing,” she notes. “I paint because I love to do it. And I’m fortunate enough to make a living from it.”

Mark Mussari is a Tucson-based writer whose publications include magazine articles and educational books.

Originally appeared in Southwest Art - September 2008

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