It started with a pussycat painted green — the first among what would be thousands of masterpieces in her lifetime.
In the eyes of 3-yearold June Payne Hart, surely an open can of paint, left unattended by her father, couldn’t have been anything but a sign for her to pick up a paintbrush, dip it in paint and coat a fresh layer of vibrant green paint on the family house cat.
“My dad was painting the house, and he was painting the doors with thick green paint, and it wasn’t long after World War II. Anyway, I was 3 and my pussycat was coming around, and I thought, ‘Oh you’d look good green.’ And I got the paintbrush and put it all over the pussycat,” Hart said. “I was a very bad girl.”
It wasn’t until Hart’s mother gave her paper for the first time that the “pussycat” no longer seemed like the perfect canvas to try her hand at painting.
Today, Hart primarily paints on canvas, with a painting on wood and other materials here and there — although no material may ever compare to painting on a “pussycat.” Ironically, however, they do remain one of the main subjects in her paintings, along with other domestic and wild animals.
An English wildlife painter, Hart moved to Sedona in 1980, and in April 1983 she met her husband Ron. This year will mark 33 years of marriage “with her other half,” she said.
Upon visiting Hart at her home art studio, one is greeted at the door by Hart, plush in the face with joy and blush, and a cardboard cutout of Queen Elizabeth II, smiling, waving and sporting a pendant that her husband crafted — embedded inside is a photo of Hart’s painting of a bulldog smoking a cigar.
Red rock country, Hart noted, serves as a scenic delight and a wonderful place for her and her husband to call home.
Hart’s medium of choice is gouache, which she referred to as opaque watercolor. She uses gouache for underpainting, followed by acrylic on top, which gives a vibrant touch to her compositions needed to bring life to her visual narratives of animals and landscapes. She also noted the medium is forgiving and allows flexibility in her craftsmanship.
“If I don’t like it, I can take it off quickly. I can just wipe it off,” she said. “When I was doing Noah for example, there were some things I didn’t like very much so I thought, ‘Ah, I don’t like that, I haven’t done that well enough.’ So, I’d take it off and put something else on.”
Noah’s Ark “The New Beginning” is one of Hart’s most renowned, vast and intricate compositions. It is of a flock of countless animal species in unity and in pairs, deboarded from the ark, finding haven upon land. It took her nearly two years to complete.
From first view, Hart’s paintings, like Noah’s Ark, may tell a story of a woman with a heart full of patience. Quite the contrary, Hart may interject. It is her paintings that receive the privilege of patience.
“Well I’m not patient with a lot of stuff, but I am with my painting,” Hart said. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I take a long time to do something. Whereas other artists might do it very, very quickly, I don’t.”
Often in her paintings, Hart places animals like cats, dogs, wolves, mountain lions and other wildlife in charismatic scenes in the forest or in desert during all seasons. Like an illustration from a Western fable, subject matter will be brought to life and given personality through fine detail in the eyes and other elements, such as fur and body language, which she characterizes through techniques using texture and color.
Gene Dieckhoner, a sculpture and realist painter in Sedona who primarily paints wildlife, has been friends with Hart for 20 years. They met in the late ’90s and clicked over their mutual love for wildlife painting.
“Even though we are painting the same subjects, she just has her own way of doing it,” Dieckhoner said. “It’s a very unique look, and especially when she does some large pieces she’s done where there will be a whole series of Western boots with cats crawling in and out, she is very meticulous. She doesn’t throw anything together; June puts everything into the painting.”
Paying close attention to detail in some of Hart’s paintings, one can notice trademarks such as hummingbirds in her work and hidden images embedded in clouds, trees and other elements of nature making for an aesthetically pleasing painting and a stumping game of I, spy.
Her style today, Hart can accredit to herself, but her artistic ability is something inherited. Each member of the Hart family had some creative trait to bring to the craftsman’s table: Her two brothers welding, her father framing and her mother theatre, known for making costumes at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where William Shakespeare was born.
At age 15, Hart attended Birmingham College of Art where she was put to the test, but not entirely in the artistic ways she imagined.
“I did life drawing in college which was nudes and that, and I was the youngest student. I was just 15,” Hart said. “Anyway the master said, ‘We’re having life drawing today,’ and I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ I got all my stuff set up and this lady comes out, she’s in a dressing gown, and I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ She took her dressing gown off, completely naked, and I was in shock. I was trying to draw her and that was really funny, ’cause you know, in those days if you’re 15 you’re really innocent.”
Hart jumped at the idea of attending school, contrary to those her age, which made graduating five years later bittersweet. Hart bounded between jobs, working as a design consultant at Harrods of London to Rackhams, a store in Birmingham, and a chief designer for Accord Greeting cards worldwide before she launched her art career — thus leading Hart to where she is today in Sedona. Her art is featured in the Village of Oak Creek Gallery of Local Artists, the Artists Market and the Hart of AZ art Gallery in Old Town Cottonwood. She designed the Hummingbird Society’s logo and is part of the Sedona Visual Artists’ Coalition.
Another one of Hart’s renowned paintings, “Animal Fantasia: One,” found its home in royal quarters. It was given to Prince Charles and Princess Diana upon the birth of Prince William, and in December 1981 Hart received a letter from Buckingham Palace expressing sincerest thanks for the gift.
“A Dog’s Plea” and “A Cat’s Life” are two other distinguished piece of Hart’s, as they have helped raise funds for animal rescue and humane societies like the Sedona Humane Society, the Morris Animal Foundation and throughout the United States. Her painting “Boot Camp” also received a first prize award in the 2015 Phippen Museum Western Art Show & Sale in Prescott, an annual event in May. Initially she did not consider entering the painting, but Hart’s husband Ron insisted, and the painting received a first prize award — an I told you so moment for Ron.
“When you look at those pieces, the dog and cat one, the one with the boots and the Noah’s Ark, you can get a real feel for June as a person and a feel of her work,” Dieckhoner said. “She’s a very gentle person and very sincere, and it comes across in those paintings.”
While Hart’s paintings may be found around the world, from originals, to puzzles, plates, greeting cards and more, some still decorate the walls of her home studio from floor to ceiling. Gesturing to many Hart can recount stories of her favorite pet, the neurosurgeon who bought Noah’s Ark and more.
As Hart is in the mist of another day being an artist, she licks her index finger and rubs a speck of paint from her right hand. Hart paints day in and out, and there’s no other way she would have it, except for maybe a few “pussycats” by her side.