She’s known for goats and for soldiers. The first she has raised for years on her ranch south of Manti, where she’s been given the nickname The Goat Woman: she bears the moniker proudly, her affection for the animals going back to an almost mythical origin story, her birth on a remote homestead in northern Arizona and the goat milk that kept her alive in that barren desert. The latter she has painted over the past decade, by the hundreds, service men and women who have fallen in foreign wars or succumbed to depression and suicide at home, the paintings given to the grieving families: Project Compassion has garnered Kaziah Hancock praise and attention from across the country, as well as recognition and numerous awards, but as a retrospective of her work now at Spring City reminds us, her artistic interests are varied, from narrative paintings on the struggles of life, to joyous landscapes, inventive portraits and a recent series of paintings celebrating pop icons…
Kaziah Hancock’s nickname might conjure up the image of a wild-haired hermit surrounded by her animals, a rural version of the urban “cat lady.” And there’s a touch of truth to it. She is a character, an unapologetic one. She lives life loud and proud and she shares her comfortable cabin with a dog and six cats and cares for eight more feral felines as well as the goats. But she’s also held audiences with generals, received awards from Utah’s governor and numerous civic and military organizations; and she is comfortable in front of a film camera or at a podium. The stories she tells of her life in polygamy can be as colorful — and disturbing — as the language she uses to condemn the “dumbasses and sonsabitches” that crossed her path; but in other moments, while she taps the ashes from her cigarettes into a tin can and peers out her stained-glass window, tears come to her eyes and she describes the subjects of her paintings as the children she always wanted but never had.
A detailed account of Kaziah Hancock’s life is found in the books and audio productions she has published — first Prisons of the Mind, about her mental and physical escape from the “bonds of polygamy,” and then Kaziah Hancock: Born to Paint, a more expansive biography that is available as a 9-CD audio set— as well as the numerous interviews she has given to various media outlets. Her life began in the mid-20th century, when Mormon polygamists were being prosecuted by the federal and local governments, and her father kept her family on a parched piece of land, 50 miles from the nearest town, without transportation. His death left the family stranded when his wife was about to give birth to Kaziah. Her mother had become so dehydrated, Kaziah says, her lips turned upward and she had no milk for her newborn. A goat on the ranch gave birth the same day, however, and Kaziah’s 9-year-old brother milked what little he could from the nanny to keep his sister alive until a passing sheepherder found the family and brought them help.
Shortly after, the Hancocks moved to Murray, where they became enmeshed in the polygamous communities of the Salt Lake Valley. Kaziah describes a life of mental and sexual abuse, grinding poverty and financial exploitation. Her Sunday clothes came from discards found at the Murray dump, her sisters were married off one by one at a young age, men disparaged the women with phrases like “you’re not even worth the salt content in your body,” and the disobedient were threatened with eternal damnation, as well as with more mortal punishments within the confines of the mental ward.
Kaziah grew up rebellious, uncomfortable in the bounds of the patriarchal community. But when she was nearly raped and murdered at 15, she cried to God for help and promised to repent. Within her upbringing, that meant “submitting to the brethren.” In 1963, she became the third wife of James Reed Stratton.
“I wanted to be an artist since the day I was able to have my first original thought,” she says about her artistic aspirations. “Coloring books, crayons, carving into anything that was wood with a nail.” When Kaziah was 13, her mother saved enough money to buy her paints and canvas to encourage her budding talent. But when she married Reed Stratton, he destroyed them. “’That’s a damn waste of time, people pushing paint around canvas. And you expect people to pay good money for that?’” he said.
“I have to admit this, it was part of the making of Kaziah,” she now says of those difficult times. It was in these years, after all, that she learned to work hard. To avoid being in the bedroom of a man for whom she had no affection or love, and for whom she felt a physical repulsion, she worked up to 16 hours a day. The money would go to support Stratton’s three wives and his children, but it also gave Kaziah a certain amount of autonomy. The detail with which she describes the process of designing and manufacturing the machinery to blow out the dents in old 55-gallon metal barrels so they could be painted and resold, and the success of the place she turned from a small bottle-washing facility to a successful recycling company with a dozen employees, reveals a marked sense of pride in her creative talents and her work ethic. One suspects it’s the same creative force that would fuel her artistic career.
Despite the threat of hellfire and damnation, after 16 years as a polygamous wife, Kaziah bolted. “I was already in hell, so what could they threaten me with.” It was neither quick nor easy, but she got a “release,” or divorce, from within her ecclesiastical community, a restraining order against Stratton from the police, and her recycling company from the courts.
It was while running Reclaimed Barrel that she began to take private lessons from Doug Jordan, an art teacher at Salt Lake Community College. She describes him as “a handsome bugger” and still calls him “the love of my life.” For years he taught her to paint, but they also developed a friendship that turned into a marriage. Jordan came from a mainstream LDS background, but was attracted to the Mormon polygamous communities, and while Kaziah was glad to be rid of her first husband, she had never fully left the polygamous circles of her youth. Out of love, she says, she joined Jordan in Manti to become part of the Jim Harmstom group. But she left when Jordan brought home a second wife. In the process, she says, she also lost her life savings. “I was married to the love of my life. He still screwed me, blued me, and tattooed me.”
“I walked away and told God to forgive me for ever being that stupid,” she says of her years in polygamy. Today, she rejects all versions of Mormonism, but still speaks of a loving God, and her Christian faith. And despite bullying and threats from some of her neighbors and the bullet holes in her cabin, she has stayed in Manti, painting and raising her goats. “I love ‘em,” she says of the goats, “and I’m one of them. And when they adopt me I’m one of their kids and then they become one of my kids.”
Her house is simple: downstairs, a small office where her many awards decorate the walls above her computer, a storage space for new canvas, and a workroom with a table for framing new paintings. Upstairs, a kitchen area and sitting room form one half of a U around the staircase. In the other half, a bed, where she sleeps near a portrait of her mother that looks across to her easel, the first thing she sees in the morning.
It has been alone, on the Sweetwater Goat Ranch, that Kaziah Hancock has come into her own as an artist. In 1999, she captured the attention of Vern Swanson, then director of the Springville Art Museum, and won the director’s award in the museum’s annual Religious and Spiritual Art show for a painting of Christ’s Last Supper. “Vern said to me once, ‘Kaziah without a doubt you are the Norman Rockwell of Utah painters.’ It makes sense: Doug Jordan studied with John LaGotta, who was a student of Norman Rockwell. So that knowledge was passed down.”
The influence of Rockwell is evident in her attention to details and the narrative quality of her work. “My Dream of Heaven,” with its smiling girl leading a flock of goats through a flower-sprinkled meadow, is heartbreaking considering the artist’s own childhood. “Mocha Days,” with a half-dressed woman sipping coffee by a window with an art book open on her lap, is likely another of the artist’s versions of heaven. She contrasts this idyllic painting with one done after the 2008 market crash, “Bare Necessities” — an old woman sitting in a rocking chair in the dark in an empty house, laundry hanging on a wire. It’s barely sketched in, elements suggested rather depicted. In addition to these narrative scenes, she has frequently painted the landscapes around her home, and two of her floral works are on display in Spring City; but for the most part, Kaziah’s focus has been on portraits— of herself, and her friends and neighbors, but also of movie stars, African immigrants and Native Americans. Her paintings exude an abiding empathy, compassion and desire for love. A hard life has not made a misanthrope of this artist.
As it was for many Americans, 9/11 was a pivotal time for Kaziah, a time of reckoning. “I said to myself, ‘If you’ve got to narrow it down, what are you going to paint.’” It was high time, she felt, to stop just thinking about The Worker Series, a group of paintings depicting various professions, and do it. “I was drawn to the idea because of my own workaholic life,” she says. A coal miner from the series is at Spring City and she has painted more than 40 additional portraits, from a waiter, plumber and baker, to a grave digger, cowboy and schoolteacher.
Included in her projected list of workers was the soldier—she envisioned a Marine that would embody all the ideals of work and sacrifice she admired. “I didn’t think I’d be painting dead ones,” she remarks sardonically. She was listening to a radio program in 2003 when she had the idea that would become Project Compassion. Friends and family were discussing Marine Staff Sgt. James W. Cawley, a Salt Lake City man who died in a firefight in Iraq. “My heart just went out to his family.” She reached out to them through contacts at The Salt Lake Tribune and soon the project that would change her life was launched.
With Project Compassion, Kaziah offers the families of deceased soldiers a portrait of their loved one, free of charge. She began with local boys —Cawley and then John Darren Smith of Clearfield—but has since painted soldiers from all across the country. “The last one that I painted is just as worthy as the first one. Where’s a mother’s heart gonna stop?” She asks for a photo and for stories from the family—“I want to put their character in the painting.” But, she says, “When they get the painting, it’s not what they sent me, because if I don’t put what I think should be there, what the hell is the point. They already have the photo. I want to bring out more of who they are.”
The paintings are a personal matter for her. “Unless you’ve known what it’s like not to have freedom how can you really appreciate freedom?” She recalls a meeting she had with 25 to 30 generals seated around a u-shaped table. Her final remarks were: “’I just think if we ever see a day when there’s no longer men and women of valor willing to risk life and limb for this great nation then . . . our ass is grass and the lawnmower is on its way.’ They started laughing, gave me a standing ovation.” As she shook their hands they handed her a coin from the state they represented. These form a halo above her computer, along with numerous other awards. “Go figure, born in a hut with a dirt floor to speaking with generals. Not too bad.”
She has incorporated the project as a nonprofit, to defer some of the costs, and at one time had other artists participating as well. And over the years her list of subjects has expanded. “I also paint [military] suicides, because I know what it’s like to be that far down, to be so damned depressed you don’t know how it would be to even take another breath.” Recently she’s added firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty.
Painting occupies most of her time these days. At one point, her ranch had 65 nanny goats, but now she’s down to two mothers and a baby—arthritis has made the birthing and general care too difficult. She has sold off much of her acreage, but keeps the access up to the house, and the sagebrush hills behind her. The occasional car passes by on Route 89, but otherwise things are fairly quiet as she sits on her front porch and gazes out to the San Pitch Mountains.
Number 1,600 in the Project Compassion series sits on her easel, but as the Spring City retrospective demonstrates, she’s been able to maintain a healthy diversity in her output. She likes to experiment, to break any mold that might be forming around her. “If people put me in a mold they’re making a big damn mistake.” In her personal collection is a copy she did of a Francis Bacon, an unexpected choice for an artistic descendant of Norman Rockwell. The Spring City show has some surprises as well, including a large portrait of Steve Jobs and one of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In fact there are quite a few paintings of pop stars, most of them musicians. “Anywhere from Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ to the Stones to Michael Jackson, anything that’s good music and is done creatively I’ve got it,” she says, before breaking into a rendition of Jackson’s “Billy Jean.” Sting, Billy Idol, even the late, great Prince have attracted the attention of her brush. These icons give her a creative outlet. “When I’m painting a soldier I basically have to behave, be respectful, but damn when I’m painting another artist I get a creative energy in me that I know they would appreciate.”
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.