New cowgirl in town, ValJesse O’Feeney, poses with her Andalusian mare, “Famosa.” O’Feeney has worked on ranches from the Yukon to Arizona. After relocating from Cave Creek, she is happy to ride, teach and do paintings in Williams.
A few decades ago, the young girl of Irish/Cherokee decent wanted to work on a cattle ranch, so she told the foreman, “I’ll work harder, longer or smarter, with integrity, experience and willingness!”
How could he refuse? The Granite Dells Ranch, near Prescott became another outfit on O’Feeney’s “rawhide” resume.
O’Feeney began as a horsewoman, growing up on the outskirts of San Diego in the early 1960s. She quickly combined artistry skills, and when she wasn’t working with horses she was photographing and painting them — purchasing her first camera at 11-years-old. At 14-years-old she was working on a horse farm in Warner Springs and the owners were so impressed at her way with horses, they referred her to the V J Ranch in Poway.
“This was a year of discipline, “O’Feeney recalls. “The first thing I learned was, there were $30,000 horses and you didn’t just go slap a rope on them!” she said. “They owned outstanding Quarter Horses, Morgans and Arabians. I thoroughly enjoyed halter breaking colts, exercising the horses and showing them to prospective buyers. Each horse had special characteristics stemming from their bloodlines and a unique personality. I often infuse special memories of them into an equine portrait.”
Subsequent years found O’Feeney on an adventure with her former husband. They moved to northeastern British Columbia and homesteaded in the wilderness, 60 miles south of the small town of Dawson Creek. This remote spot in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies provided spectacular wildlife models for O’Feeney’s paintings.
The Rockies holds both fond and tough memories for O’Feeney. She helped fell trees and skidded logs on horseback to a build their home. She raised an orphaned moose calf that her husband found stranded on the river. She did day work at ranches while he worked at the sawmill and coal mine.
“I got so attached to that moose calf. Although sometimes he got in the way,” O’Feeney recalls. “The week-old, injured moose calf was the ‘only child,’ never hesitating for attention. Every three hours, all night long, a mournful ‘mawh … mawh …’ had me scrambling down the ladder from the loft to light the lantern and heat his milk bottle on the wood stove. Once full and content he would fall asleep.”
O’Feeney didn’t’ give up on her “only child” even when he grew big and gangly. However, a 1,000 pound animal with legs as long as hers was not going to fit in the cabin.
“One autumn day, my adolescent moose, with his growing set of antlers, ambled behind me and the horses to the river. When I returned from my campsite, I noticed two sets of moose tracks instead of one. The time had come for him to seek a (moose) family of his own,” O’Feeney realized.
The move back to Arizona provided more ranch work and commissioned art, while O’Feeney made a home near Cave Creek with her horses, dogs, cat and a wolf. After the town grew up and houses circled around her, she fled to the country and purchased acreage near Seligman and built a rustic home base there.
“I love the remote retreat in the juniper mountains, but the need for additional job opportunities brought me to Williams,” O’Feeney said. “I also enjoy teaching at the elementary middle school.”
“Miss ValJesse,” as the kids call her, has been on field trips to the Sharlot Hall Museum and led on wilderness trails where mock petroglyphs led to authentic ones. Her history lessons often combine hands-on projects and she is able to share her art and western perspective with the children. Much of her commissioned work is of Arizona landscapes and its pioneers.
“I enjoy working with the kids to develop their skills and insights,” O’Feeney said. “The historical scenes I paint depict a way of life in Arizona that needs to be preserved. Ten years of photographic assignments for Arizona Highways provided incredible scenery that I still sketch from and am compiling into a book. This past experience helps me inspire students to express their own creative vision and enriches my life.”
O’Feeney will also be teaching adult workshops in photography and sketching this winter through the Coconino Community College. She has quickly melded into the Route 66 town and become endeared to it.
“The welcoming people and historic, mountain-ranch atmosphere have made Williams dear to my heart,” O’Feeney said. “Where else in the world could I hear the whistle of a steam locomotive on a train ride to the Grand Canyon? Or ride my horse through the ponderosa pines with a view of the San Francisco Peaks and trout jumping in the lake?”
And so the 1880s girl retreats from a days work to her quaint living quarters in Williams — a studio filled with a mixture of canvas paints and western memorabilia.
“My home … it’s covered with wood smoke and trail dust of over 1,000 miles on horseback,” O’Feeney explains. “My treasured hand-tooled saddlebags and yellow slicker are well worn reminders of earlier days packing, wrangling and driving cattle.”
O’Feeney strokes her part-Labrador retriever, resting his velvety black mussel on her lap. Above them is a poster-sized photograph she took of handsome Sam Elliot riding in front of Hart Prairie on the west side of the San Francisco Peaks. It’s that constant mixture of the old west look, depicted in the new technology of a movie like the Quick and the Dead that works for O’Feeney. Even Nighthawk is named for her love of the old west.
“Nighthawk lives up to her namesake, the cowboy who rides night herd, making sure all is well,” O’Feeney smiles.
For sketching or photography workshops by O’Feeney, contact Phyllis Johnson at the Coconino Community College at 635-1325. To contact O’Feeney for art related information, phone her cell, (928) 890-7177.
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