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Born to Paint: Jon Lightfoot

Author: Terri Feder
Issue: July, 2013, Page 138
Photos by Tim Fuller

Lightfoot paints in his home studio in Tucson, surrounded by various works in progress.

Jon Lightfoot’s Lifelong Passion for Art Is Expressed in Powerful Paintings and Earthy Pigments

Some people are born with talent in an art form that reveals itself early on. Others demonstrate innate skill in several realms. Artist Jon Forrest Lightfoot of Tucson, Arizona, is of the latter ilk.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, to the “most loving of parents,” with Cherokee heritage on his father’s side and Swedish ancestry on his mother’s, Lightfoot came into this world with sculpted cheekbones and an aptitude for fine art, including
theater, dance and drawing.

His childhood, some of it spent on the Cherokee Reservation in Oklahoma, was marked by two extremes: the joy of creating art and the emotional vicissitudes of having a chronically ill parent. One helped him cope with the other. “When I was 3, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We later moved to Arizona for his health, and my mom became a registered nurse to take care of the family. My sister, Florres, and I had to assist my dad from a very young age. It was difficult. I began looking for another avenue so that I would not just be a caretaker,” he explains. That outlet would be art.

“I was always drawn to paper,” says the artist. “I would sketch Tarzan, Vampire Woman and other comic book characters.” Around age 14, Lightfoot enrolled in classes at the Milan School of Fine and Applied Arts in Tucson. “I also became interested in theater and dance at that time,” he adds. He joined Francis Smith Cohen’s Kadima Dancers in Tucson—a Martha Graham school and troupe—and excelled. By 17, Lightfoot was being inundated with scholarships for art, theater and dance academies. “They were astonished at my abilities,” he recalls. He chose a four-year dance and theater scholarship to Bennington College—a distinguished liberal arts school in Vermont.

Jon Lightfoot has always been fascinated by hiding his figures in the patterns they are wearing, such as in this piece, titled Bandolier Woman, oil on canvas, 40"H x 30"W. He says, “I feel that way about the Native Americans; they are very private people, by choice and necessity. To survive, they have to be part of the landscape.”
Lightfoot continued his education at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and later apprenticed with realist painter Lowell Nesbitt for three years. Painting was his new passion.

While in the Big Apple, Lightfoot was surrounded by other creative types, habitués of the theater, dance and modeling worlds. When a friend needed an extra male model for a show at The Plaza, he’d call Lightfoot. It wasn’t long before the artist’s finely chiseled face and dancer’s physique caught the eye of Wilhelmina of the legendary modeling agency. Soon Lightfoot was gracing the runways of London and Paris, and making the scene with hipsters like Andy Warhol. But it wasn’t all play; he still had to make a living and modeling wasn’t steady. By day, he’d do “go sees”; by night, he’d freelance as a children’s book illustrator.

Eventually, the young artist grew tired of the fast life and longed for quieter locales in which to paint. He returned to the Southwest, spending time in Tucson, where he now lives full-time, Santa Fe, where he ran an antiques store and gallery for many years, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he used to own a vacation home and where he found ample subject matter for inspiration. 

The one current throughout it all has been the pull of the canvas and the paint—acrylic, oil and pastel oil. “I became an artist at the age of 12 and never stopped,” notes Lightfoot, who most enjoys painting people, primarily Native Americans. These can take form in a mother’s loving gaze at her child or a trio of warriors enrobed in colorful, patterned blankets. “For me, I really need to feel that I understand my subjects—that ancient lady who goes to the market every day, for example. She’s ancient but she’s beautiful because she has a job to do picking up the discarded, fallen fruit for her family,” he explains.

Jon Lightfoot’s faces have been described as “full of presence,” as seen here in Brothers of Chimayo, oil on canvas, 12"H x 16"W.
Lightfoot is also known for his vibrant still lifes of fruit and flowers. “When I decided to do fruit,” he adds, “those big fruits had spirit, too, and they were something created to flourish.”

When asked if he plans to paint forever, the artist replies, “Yes, I think in some form. Picasso, when he decided his hands were in bad shape, did paper cutouts and drew happy little squiggles on ceramic stoneware. He couldn’t stay away from it. I suspect that I’m the same.”

Jon Lightfoot began painting still lifes of fruit in Mexico, where he would buy fresh fruit from the market and arrange it on the terrace of his home to paint in plein air. Pictured is Fanfare, oil on canvas, 24"H x 36"W.
The Offering, oil on canvas, 60"H x 30"W
The artist’s family never shared much with him about his Cherokee roots. He says, “Having it left out of my upbringing created a mystique about it that I’ve always found intriguing.” This helps explain why so many of Lightfoot’s works, including this one, titled The Harvest, acrylic on canvas, 36"H x 24"W, depict Native American figures.

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