Jolee French’s first paying art gig came when she was in high school, and friends started paying her a little to paint their Keds sneakers. Then she started painting pet portraits, and soon realized, “Oh, I can make money doing this. It’s not just for fun.”
“It all kind of started from there and snowballed into what it is now,” she said.
And what it is now is a bustling business as a full-time artist, still doing portraits of pets but now also specializing in Western art and some tattoo designs.
French didn’t realize she wanted to pursue art as a career until she figured out that a more traditional job was not for her. She earned a business degree from Lamar University, and her first job in the business world in Waco lasted for three months, and “it was just not working for me,” she said. “It wasn’t worth the money I was making to deal with the amount of frustration it was giving me.”
Her husband Caleb, who’s an engineer at the Sandy Creek Energy Station in Riesel, urged French to consider a career as an artist.
“At first, I was not really believing him. I was like, ‘I don’t know, man. I don’t know,’” she said. “And he was like, ‘I really think you should give it a shot.’”
French talked with her mentor Caroline Sweetenburg, a second-generation artist in Atlanta, and asked her to “be brutally honest.”
“I showed her my work and was like, ‘What do you think? Is this something that can be feasible for me,’” French said. “I wanted to check all my bases and make sure that I felt safe enough. I really needed the outside encouragement.”
“Her encouragement of ‘You can do this’ was what finally made me realize, OK, I want to do it,” said French.
After some early dabbling with acrylics, French now works with oil and watercolor paints. Much of her Western art reflects the life on her farm that is just west of Waco. She and Caleb live there with three cats, a dog, seven chickens and three donkeys, though that might soon be four donkeys since one that they adopted from the Humane Society of North Texas might be pregnant.
“She’s just suspiciously round. She’s very big in the belly,” French said.
The Western art on French’s website features cowboys and cowgirls working the cattle herd; paintings of barns and birds and bucking broncs; and delicate portrayals of cardinals and other birds. French is also a prolific painter of pet portraits. She creates those from photographs of pets submitted by their owners. The key to a good pet photo, she said, is the right lighting. She can work with about any pose, but the lighting is crucial.
“The best is outdoor lighting shining onto the front side of the animal,” she said. “So, they’re facing the camera and the light’s coming from behind the camera. That is your best bet.”
French’s art can be seen at her social media channels on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, and on her website, JoleeFrenchFineArt.com.
Inked in Art
When Jolee French sees one of her ink designs that’s been tattooed onto a fan of her work, “it’s a bizarre feeling,” she said. Her friend Jack Bobo was the first to get a tattoo of her work, and he’s since gotten two more.
“The first one he wanted was a rock crying out, like the rocks cry out in the Bible verse,” she said, referring to what Jesus said as written in Luke 19:40: “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
In her tattoo designs, French often combines traditional Western art with religious symbols or icons. The heads of an animal, such as a wolf or armadillo or deer, is encircled in what could be interpreted as a red halo, for example.
“I have always loved religious iconography in art, like Catholic cathedrals, the rings, the hand positions, things like that,” she said. “So, my ink style that really got some attention was my wildlife drawings that are very realistic, and then adding in the religious iconography.”