January 17, 2022 at 3:22 a.m.

The cow artist

Bruner makes magic with the paintbrush
Jason Stiemke and Janelle Bruner manage a 120-cow dairy farm near Columbus, Wisconsin. Bruner is also an artist who started MilkWagon Whatcha Ma Call It’s in 2018 selling custom-made milk cans, mason jars, cookie jars, windows, wood pieces and more featuring her artwork. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Jason Stiemke and Janelle Bruner manage a 120-cow dairy farm near Columbus, Wisconsin. Bruner is also an artist who started MilkWagon Whatcha Ma Call It’s in 2018 selling custom-made milk cans, mason jars, cookie jars, windows, wood pieces and more featuring her artwork. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

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COLUMBUS, Wis. – Janelle Bruner has a passion for painting, and her specialty is cows. She paints beauties from all breeds on milk cans, glass jars, cookie jars, windows, wood pieces and more. All items are made to order, and each project is done by hand from start to finish. 
Cows are painted in various poses and become treasured keepsakes and décor for those looking to showcase a special animal from their herd. Devoted to exceptional quality and craftsmanship, Bruner’s detailed work makes cows come to life in every project. 
“Everything is custom designed and custom made,” Bruner said. “This includes every digital file, cut of wood, slice of vinyl and pane of glass. I’ve always loved designing, crafting and art, and doing everything from the ground-up incorporates all those aspects.” 
Bruner started MilkWagon Whatcha Ma Call It’s in 2018, and her growing craft business is attracting customers from all over the U.S. as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Germany. Bruner is making a name for herself in the world of bovine art while also managing a farm near Columbus with her boyfriend, Jason Stiemke, where they milk 120 cows.
Working out of her home studio, Bruner was booked solid this past Christmas as her schedule filled up with orders well before the holiday. Bruner works on a variety of mediums – such as wood, metal and glass – transforming each into a masterpiece. Bruner’s artwork can also be found on apparel like T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats as well as ear tags. Bruner also does glass etching on drinkware and cookie jars.
“Ear tags have become a popular save-the-date token for weddings,” she said.
Customization and personalization are at the heart of every one of Bruner’s projects, and her one-of-a-kind creations make for unique gifts. She loves bringing joy to her customers and said thought and care goes into each design.
Bruner began with an itch to make tea towels, but the idea did not take off. Then, after seeing glass jars on Pinterest, she decided to make some of her own. Bruner painted famous cows like Apple and Blexi on the jars and took them to the World Dairy Expo where she made her first sales. Now, milk cans are her most popular item. Farm signs and show awards are also in high demand.
“I use acrylic paint because you don’t have to be as precise as you do with oil paint,” Bruner said. “Acrylic is more forgiving.”
Bruner’s love for art began as a child. Drawing horses was one of her favorite things to do, and she sketched and painted throughout high school. 
“I took every art class I could, but after I graduated, I didn’t paint for 10 years,” said Bruner, who grew up with horses. “When I had to sell my horses, I kind of got a little lost in life and didn’t paint or draw or ride.”
Bruner did not get into cows until 2012 when she started working at the Emmons Blaine Dairy Cattle Research Center in Arlington. Bruner milked cows on the farm which is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I enjoyed working with the cows and started to daydream about owning my own farm someday,” Bruner said.
She later took a job working for dairy farmer Tammy Voegeli and milked cows while going to technical school to become a veterinary technician. 
“After graduation, I got a job at a small animal clinic, but I hated it and went back to milking cows,” Bruner said. “Tammy’s milk hauler was looking for help, so I got my (commercial driver’s license) and drove milk truck for a few years while also working at Tammy’s.” 
Meanwhile, Bruner bought a herd of 20 cows to help fill Stiemke’s barn. She backed off on the milk hauling before quitting and deciding to farm full time with Stiemke. In March 2018, the couple took a job managing the farm of Bryan Kurth who was moving to Kentucky. It was at this time that Bruner got back into art and equine – two of her biggest passions. She and Stiemke have five horses, in addition to 36 cows and about 50 heifers. MilkWagon Holsteins is their farm name, and the inspiration for the name of Bruner’s Milk Wagon Whatcha Ma Call It’s business.
“Painting and designing is part of who I am,” Bruner said. “It’s a gift I was blessed with, and when people don’t use their gifts, they tend to get lost, which is how I felt in those years after high school when I didn’t paint, draw, design or ride. I really started to feel like myself again when I finally got back into these activities.” 
Stiemke is Bruner’s business sidekick and helps her track down items and work on projects. Bruner and Stiemke hunt for the pieces for her artwork and find many of the milk cans at antique malls and on social media. Stiemke’s daughters, Kyla, 12, and Mazie, 9, also help where they can.  
“Before her business took off, Janelle was thinking about getting a job doing design work,” Stiemke said. “At the start, her art was something to fill the time, but then we realized she can also make money doing this.” 
Bruner paints cows based off of photographs people provide. Many customers send in professional photos, while some send candid photos, in which case Bruner will find a cow with a comparable body type and then paint on the spots. 
“My goal is to improve something in each painting, and I can paint on pretty much anything,” Bruner said. “People sometimes order stuff from Amazon for me to paint on.” 
It takes Bruner about five hours to paint a cow on a glass jar and 12 to 15 hours to paint one on a milk can. Using paint to capture the essence of her customers’ favorite cows, this artist plans to start a similar business centered around horses which she is naming Bay Roan & Co. 
“Horses were my first love, and I’m hoping to expand my art into that industry as well,” she said. “I love waking up every morning knowing I get to explore my creative outlet in some way, shape or form with the people and animals I love.”


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