‘On the Hoof’: Marco artist Jo-Ann Sanborn exhibits cow paintings at Immokalee museum

Lance Shearer

Marco Island and Immokalee are about as far apart as you can get in Collier County. This is true not only in geographical distance, though it takes over an hour one way to drive from one to the other, but also in just about every other way.

While Marco and Immokalee both share a link to Southwest Florida’s pioneer past, that is where the similarity ends. Upscale Marco Island has embraced the genteel coastal lifestyle, while Immokalee has remained a raw cowboy town of cattlemen and itinerant agricultural laborers for over a century.

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In her own way, Marco Island painter Jo-Ann Sanborn is bridging that gap. Sanborn, well known for her quasi-impressionistic acrylics of unspoiled Everglades scenery, has taken a bit of a detour in her artistic journey, and it led her to Immokalee. Roberts Ranch, the historic cattle ranch outside Immokalee that is now part of the Collier County museum system, which also includes the Marco Island Historical Museum, is hosting an exhibit of recent works by Sanborn.

The exhibit will be up through July 17, but on Saturday morning, May 22, Sanborn was in attendance for a reception from 10 a.m. until noon. Her exhibit, featuring her whimsical paintings of cows, is called “On the Hoof – Florida.” The painted bovines, painted in mixed acrylic media on boards, represent a clear break from the serene vistas of coastal swamps typically rendered in muted natural tones.

Sanborn’s cows bring a little of Marco Island to Immokalee, looking as though they just stepped out of their appointment at the beauty parlor. With long, luxuriant eyelashes, floral garlands on their heads, and some coloration that is the equivalent of a woman opting for green or blue dye in her hair, these would not be confused with the rangy “scrub cattle” that were bred to be tough enough to endure the heat and insects of interior South Florida.

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“Cows really do have long eyelashes,” said Sanborn. “They go down, instead of up like ours. My cows have bedroom eyes.” She researched cows, particularly the red Florida scrub cattle, even if her painted cows look different. Jo-Ann also painted a few landscapes with cows grazing among the vegetation.

“My philosophy is artists need to learn every day, to try new things. I try painting all sorts of new things – flowers, abstracts, and yes, cows. “I ended up doing 30 cows. I feel people really like them,” she said.

Ron and Jean Bell, who drove up from Naples for the artist’s reception on Saturday, liked Sanborn’s cow paintings enough that they bought one, although purchased works will remain on the walls of the museum’s visitor center until the exhibit comes down in July. The cow paintings are smaller and less expensive than Sanborn’s Everglades acrylics, with 12” by 12” cows available for $195 and 5x7” miniatures going for just $75. 

Brent Trout, museum manager of the Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch, liked the cows enough to pitch Jo-Ann on exhibiting her works at the museum. He praised Sanborn’s work, and said it dovetailed neatly with his current project of commemorating five centuries of cow culture in the Sunshine State.

“We’re delighted to be able to offer a showing of her work. It’s a really fun exhibit and a great way to help us celebrate 500 years of cattle raising in Florida,” he said. According to the historical record, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first introduced cows from Europe to Florida in 1621.

Local cows played a role in history through the centuries, with the sound made by the whips of the drovers responsible for native Floridians being dubbed “crackers,” and local cows being the cause of the only Civil War battles fought in the area. Scrub cattle were a source of provisions for the Confederate Army without having to run the Union maritime blockade, said Trout, and sparked a conflict when federal forces sent a raiding party to interdict the supply.

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Sanborn’s cows hang on antique beadboard walls in the restored and relocated 1928 church sanctuary that is now the visitor center at Roberts Ranch, among interpretive panels, antique sewing machines, branding irons, a yoke for carrying water buckets, and examples of those cracker whips.

As the preserved and restored buildings at Roberts Ranch show, being a ranch hand in Immokalee was a Spartan existence, with the bunkhouse interiors containing bunkbeds, a rough table, an oil lantern and not much else. The day of Sanborn’s reception, the museum also hosted another event, a “waste not, want not” demonstration on how to craft a lantern from a tin can.

On June 12, Sanborn will be back at Roberts Ranch to teach a class of her own, a workshop teaching children how to paint cows, with all materials provided. On Marco Island, she teaches classes through the Marco Island Center for the Arts. When she speaks of artists on Marco, her Massachusetts roots become apparent, as it comes out “ah-tists on Mah-co,” but she long ago committed to the Everglades, and her paintings are strongly identified with this last wild place.

At the same time, she is mounting the Roberts Ranch show, Sanborn has two exhibits hung at the Marco Island and Naples offices of attorneys Woodward, Pires & Lombardo. Sanborn’s paintings are available on her website, joannsanborn.com. For more information on the free Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch, go to CollierMuseums.com.