A studio tour with artist Joni-Leigh Doran

A studio tour with artist Joni-Leigh Doran

Meet Joni-Leigh Doran, a talented artist with a deep appreciation for nature and a gift for portraying soulful expression through the medium of oil paints.

Joni-Leigh’s solo exhibition, Cognisance, is a series of equine oil paintings on canvas and linen and is a tribute to all the horses she has known and loved. Imagine a palette of soft dusty hues, deep rusts and moody greys with infusions of ethereal light. Joni-Leigh has captured these graceful creatures in a moving and utterly unique manner. Her pieces are mesmorising and you can’t help but feel yourself falling into them and the world she has created. This body of work fits into La Galleria like a glove and when I heard how the exhibition came to be, I felt those unmistakable tingles of alignment and magic!

I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Joni-Leigh at her home which is tucked away in a quiet and idyllic nook in the village of McGregor. Sitting in her glorious garden oasis, I got a glimpse into her life with partner Adam and their family of two felines and two equines.

Joni-Leigh tells me she’s been drawing since she could pick up a pencil and equally, her love for horses began at a young age too. She remembers being captivated since the days of first learning about animals and immersed herself in horse inspired books and movies such as the classic, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

She began taking horse riding lessons at the age of 6 and every Saturday morning was spent at the stables despite the difficulties of living far away and needing to arrange lift clubs. In high school Joni-Leigh started leading outrides on the weekends to have more access to horses. She found herself grabbing every opportunity to spend time at the stables and with horses and it became a wonderful haven and place to escape to when family life wasn’t easy.

Hugo and Luna

Art was also a refuge during her high school years and although she had wanted to study fine art, her parents pointed her in the direction of graphic design thinking it would be more useful. After 10 years as a graphic designer at a magazine, she received the necessary nudge to listen to her inner knowing and made the transition into freelancing so that she could dedicate more time to painting. She tells me she’s always had this deep longing to paint, be an artist and study art further.

It was around this time that she came across renowned South African artist Ryno Swart and started working with him. She discovered Ryno in a spontaneous way through one of his previous students who taught in Ryno’s method. Joni-Leigh tells me, “It’s amazing how life works… you don’t even know you’re looking for guidance or that you’re looking for anything, and then you meet these people and they give you this sense of direction and open up a whole new realm, something you didn’t know you were needing or would be by inspired by.” 
Ryno became a mentor, teacher and friend to Joni-Leigh and has been her biggest influence to date, in terms of painting, drawing and style.

Her words remind me of those of Rumi –  “As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.”

Four years ago, another significant influence literally walked into her life. Enter Hugo, her horse and confidant, who was a birthday gift to herself. I asked her how she chose him and she replies, “He chose me”. Earlier that year, Joni-Leigh discovered horse riding in the Baviaanskloof with Hercules van Huyssteen through a friend and together they did an incredible 250km organised horseback trek on Boerperds. She absolutely fell in love with the style of riding, finding trails en route and the particular breed of horses they rode on. These horses could do just about anything and were so chilled and easy, as well as reliable and strong.

A few months later, Joni-Leigh decided that she wanted to get her own Boerperd and connected again with Hercules who had about 60 odd horses. When Joni-Leigh walked into the paddock where the horses gather for dinner, one horse emerged from the large herd and walked straight up to her and stuck his head directly in her chest. It was Hugo, and as if to say Pick me’ and this was the beginning of their soulful relationship.

2021 was a year of surprises, bold moves and much unexpected change for Joni-Leigh. Happenings that she never could have dreamt up occurred, including meeting Adam, the love of her life, through a series of serendipitous moments and ‘somehow stumbling’ into the village of McGregor. After being a nomad her whole adult life and never living in one place for more than a year she feels as though she has finally found home. She tells me, “I can’t ever imagine myself leaving!”

I ask Joni-Leigh how the Cognisance exhibition came about and she tells me there was no initial intention to create a whole body of work with an equine theme, it unfolded naturally, as did the exhibition. She primarily paints for herself and purely for the love of it. It can be traced back to an afternoon when their horses had been grazing in the neighbour’s field, a very effective win-win way to ‘mow’ the lawn which is one of the regular delights you’ll encounter when in McGregor. The light was particularly beautiful and it inspired Joni-Leigh to do an impromptu photoshoot with Adam and Luna, his horse.

When she sat down to edit the photos, she was struck by one in particular where the crop and angle were so appealing and very different to what one typically sees in horse portraiture. Luna’s body language was soft and relaxed and you could sense the absolute trust in her relationship with Adam. This stirred Joni-Leigh to create a painting in an attempt to articulate this magnificent creature and initially the painting found a home in their bedroom. It wasn’t long before Joni-Leigh found herself itching to paint Hugo in the same style. She retrieved some old canvases and started painting over them and suddenly a body of work started to take shape.

As if on cue Dani, the owner of La Galleria, emailed and asked to meet with her as he had heard of her work. By this time she had completed 3 or 4 pieces in the same vein and on seeing these, Dani promptly and on the spur of the moment asked her whether she would like to have an exhibition at La Galleria. And YES, that’s how effortlessly an exhibition and a beautiful collaboration can come about! Of course, Joni-Leigh had to then create further inspired works however as she says, “There’s no shortage of reference and inspiration, it’s limitless the amount of paintings I could do.”

‘Spirit Animal’ was the first piece in the series and depicts Luna.

Visit La Galleria at 7 Bree Street, McGregor. Here you can meet Dani and view his latest photographic work and fine art prints. Dani curates and regularly hosts solo exhibitions with talented contemporary artists. Opening hours: Friday 18:30 – 19:30, Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 – 14:30 or by appointment with pleasure.

I asked Joni-Leigh what lies ahead for her in 2022. She tells me that she was recently accepted into the Florence Academy of Art for a full 3 year program. This is an incredible privilege and a big deal to have one’s portfolio accepted however the idea of uprooting herself and leaving the horses and her lifestyle in the village seems unthinkable. And so she has declined their full program and instead will do as many workshops as she can, beginning with a one month stay in July.

July’s workshop is all about painting the figure from life in oils and using the old classical techniques of the masters and will circle her back to the fundamentals of what she learnt with Ryno. Joni-Leigh’s preference is to always work from life whenever she can and so she’s feeling excited about what will unfold in terms of skills, practice and inspiration.

There’s so much to love about McGregor. For me, it’s a culmination of so many things: The incredible beauty that surrounds us. The way the light touches the fynbos during the golden hour. The wildness of the elements. The unlimited vistas and wild spaces surrounding the village. The vast contrasts between summer and winter. As for McGregor itself – as well as being an incredibly pretty village with so much to offer, it has an authenticity to it and a sense of community unlike anywhere else I’ve been. I’ve been told that it’s always attracted poets, musicians, writers and artists – and it’s easy to see why.

Spending time in nature, and seeing the world through Hugo’s ears when we’re out on the trail together. Being on horseback allows me the great luxury of taking in these incredible surroundings and the inhabitants thereof, be it a field mouse scurrying across the trail, an incredible, highly adapted plant species or a bird. What I love most is the fact that when I’m with Hugo, quite often we are not seen as a threat to other species of wildlife. This makes me feel so much more a part of nature and not separate from it. I think this is what brings me the most joy.

I believe in practicing The Four Agreements, a book by Don Miguel Ruiz.

Self acceptance.

“It’s Not About the Bats” by my partner, Dr Adam Cruise. It’s a book about resetting our relationship with Nature. It’s what made me fall in love with him.

Connect with Joni-Leigh Doran on Instagram to keep updated or hop over to her website.
Visit La Galleria in McGregor to view Cognisance (running till the 13th of February) or view online here.

‘Fynbos Hugenoot’ – 40 x 80cm | ‘A Dream I Had Once’ – 60 x 40cm

Photography: Lana Kenney 

  1. Gail

    31 January

    What a wonderful, uplifting story Beautiful artwork displayed in a really special space at LA Galleria!!

  2. Jennifer

    31 January

    What a beautiful, heart-moving story! Your art is absolutely breath-taking. I am so pleased that it is being exhibited in La Galleria with Dani and Manu. Vety best wishes to you all.

  3. Paula Combrink

    31 January

    great read and even better that you’re back blogging !

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