Sean Sexton couldn’t choose between working the land and being an artist, so he decided to do both.
“The two are so connected,” says Sexton, 52, who owns and operates a 600-acre Angus-Brahman cattle ranch in Vero Beach, Fla. (pop. 17,209).
Sexton makes half of his living from his ranch and half from his paintings, which are inspired by his rustic ranching lifestyle. “I’m not dabbling in cattle or dabbling in art,” Sexton says. “I’m dead serious about both.”
As a cattleman with 300 head of livestock, however, Sexton must set priorities. During fall calving season, for instance, when he has to catch and tag every calf and plant forage crops, it’s difficult to find time for art. So he seizes other opportunities to put paint on canvas, such as on a chilly morning before dawn. As his wife Sharon, 52, and his son Michael, 18, sleep, Sexton dons his cowboy hat, pulls on a pair of well-worn work boots and walks across his sprawling back yard, past a cluster of swaying palm trees, to a nearby art studio in a rustic cabin he built from salvaged lumber.
“I have the discipline to come out here and work all day, every day,” Sexton says. “I just don’t always have the time.”
Inside the studio, the focal point is Sexton’s two-year work-in-progress, a 6-foot-by-7-foot oil painting depicting his neighbors, the Guin brothers, dressed in mountain man garb and posing with a table of objects—deer skulls, turtle shells, grapefruits—that are meaningful to their rural Florida lives.
Sexton keeps a journal and sketchbook with him at all times to be ready when inspiration strikes. “When I’m running a tractor, chopping a field or planting, if I’m open to the things I’m seeing, it makes a wonderful basis for a painting,” he says.
The inspiration is effective, says Currie McCullough, curator of the 53 Cannon Street Gallery in Charleston, S.C., where about a dozen pieces of Sexton’s art are on permanent display. “Sexton’s paintings derive from his firsthand knowledge of life and death,” McCullough says, “subjects constantly present in the everyday existence of a cattleman.”
As a cattleman, Sexton works mostly solo. He takes care of his ranch alone, except for the five or six times a year when cows must be moved to greener pastures or gathered for sale, necessitating the assistance of hired cowboys.
“I put in all the posts,” he says. “I fix all the fences. I pull all the calves. Everything.”
Sexton, whose father and grandfather also raised cattle on the ranch, gets enormous satisfaction from the ranching lifestyle. “This is a real life,” he says. “We cherish it every day.”
Indeed, Sexton is doing his best to preserve a life that is fast disappearing. He’s not sure if his son Michael wants to take over the ranch someday. And his daughter, Julia, 23, plans a career in interior design. Sexton’s main concern is developers who are frantically snapping up coastal property and building high-priced condominiums. Sexton’s land is just five miles inland from the beach.
“I’ve had people yell land prices across the ditch thinking I’m going to jump on it,” he says. “But isn’t happiness worth millions of dollars? That’s what I want.”
That, and maybe a little more time to paint.