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Crazy for cows:

Children’s alphabet book gets sponsorship from Dairy Farmers of Ontario

Amos and Adi are antsy. Gertie gets giddy. Urma is unctuous. Who are these capricious characters? They are some of the cows found in Look at Those Cows! An ABC Book of Cattle, illustrated by artist Julia Veenstra and written by her daughter Rachel Cuthill. And thanks to the sponsorship of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, over 4,000 school libraries will be receiving a copy of the book this school year.

The colourful pages invite rhyme lovers of all ages to curl up in a corner, read the lilting lyrics aloud and take the time to admire Veenstra’s illustrations. And her studio is just as inviting. Nestled in the heart of the James Street North art district, Veenstra’s studio is filled with vibrant pieces. It’s a comfortable space. Colours on the canvases jump off the walls with bold, daring brush strokes.

Veenstra studied illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville but this is the first book she has worked on. The works displayed in her studio are mostly landscapes, pieces with vibrant contrasts. For Veenstra, positive space is as important as negative space. She paints with an impressionist style, slightly more abstract than her earlier work but still representational.

She is drawn to relaxed images that feel like home. She had a turbulent childhood, which means that her “sense of home is rooted with God, rather than an earthly idea of home.” As Veenstra says, “The Lord has transformed me and it comes out in my paintings.”

Name that cow
Veenstra, a Hamilton, Ontario artist, has been painting cows for a while: “I paint cows because they are fun. They loosen me up, free up my strokes so I can get to more serious work.” She won the 2013 poster contest for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, Ontario for her painting entitled “Celeste.”

Cuthill, also living in Hamilton, is a teacher of art and English. Even as a child, she loved words. “It was Mom’s idea to do an ABC, which provided the creative constraint that I needed,” she says.
The concept of partnering on a book had been in the back of their minds for some time but didn’t take shape until two years ago, when layout artist Lynn Walma offered her services. Realizing then that publishing her own book was feasible, Veenstra started paintings cows on 12×12 and 24×24 canvases.

In January 2015, they made the project a priority and it was ready for publishing in half a year. They started crowd-funding in May, using Indiegogo to raise enough interest and money for a short print run of 1,000 books. As part of that fundraiser, contributors could choose to purchase an advance copy of the book, sign up for art classes or name one cow for the book and receive a full-sized painting of the cow you named.

As names were selected, Cuthill came up with fanciful verses while Veenstra brought the words to life with her fun, lively cows. It wasn’t long until the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), after seeing one tweet about the campaign, took an interest in it. Recognizing Veenstra’s work from the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, they responded with a request for 4,200 books, one to be donated to each public elementary school in Ontario.

The first edition of Look at Those Cows was released in September 2015. The book is written in iambic tetrameter and the illustrations, depicting the original cow art pieces, complement the whimsical alliterative verses. When a new cattle breed is pictured, there is short informational piece under the verse, vetted by the DFO. Other than verifying species information and accuracy, the DFO did not impose and Veenstra and Cuthill maintained complete creative control of the book.

International venture
Will there be more books? Counting cats perhaps? Veenstra and Cuthill have some ideas, but in December Veenstra has another mission. Her studio has joined with artists in Tanzania and Kenya in an initiative called the Wild Hope Artisan Project.

The Wild Hope Artisan Project is in partnership with JuliaVeenstra Studio and artists in Tanzania and Kenya to make and sell Fair Trade products. Veenstra comes up with designs and women from Tanzania and Kenya use their traditional beadwork talents to manufacture artisan ornaments and train more women as well. During the Christmas season, Veenstra promotes the products at craft sales and finds retailers to sell them as well. This partnership empowers the women in Kenya and Tanzania, allowing them to provide clean water, education, medicine, goats and other animals for their families. Veenstra, who lived five years in Africa with her family, knows how vital one animal in particular is for the Maasai people of Kenya: cows.

  • Krista Dam-VandeKuyt lives in Jerseyville, Ont. with husband Rob and their children Ethan, Eliya and Zoë. They are members at Ancaster Christian Reformed Church.

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