Kari Maxwell drives a white 1998 Subaru station wagon with 250,000 miles — and a pair of ever-present rubber wading boots in the back. That’s because she’s been known to pull over on rural roads and wander across fields to photograph cows.

“Sometimes I’m lucky enough to reach over the fence and greet them,” she says.

She gets up at 5 a.m., with no help from an alarm clock, and uses her cow photos as touchstones as she draws her subjects in a paint-splattered, converted bedroom studio in her Longfellow neighborhood home. She has painted hundreds of cow portraits with colorful splashes of acrylic paint. You can find them from the Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul to the Mill Valley Kitchen restaurant in St. Louis Park.

“I just love cows and am humbled by that animal,” she says. “Their eyes are my favorite part — they are so content and express such honesty and curiosity.”

Maxwell grew up in northern California and met her Minnesotan husband, Peter, at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont. They moved to Minnesota in 1997 and landed jobs as teachers. Kari taught at a St. Paul Montessori school for 13 years.

On a dare from a friend, she entered an early painting of Indian women at a powwow in Rosebud, S.D., in the Minnesota State Fair fine arts competition.

“Nothing gets in,” she says, her gray eyes twinkling.

But lo and behold, her painting did. That launched her career as an artist, a career she augments waiting tables a few nights a week at the Modern Cafe in northeast Minneapolis.

Her in-laws, retired Minneapolis cop Art Maxwell and his wife, Grace, now live near Red Lodge, Mont. For Christmas in 2003, Grace purchased Kari an easel and “a million paints” and made her open the gift and start painting.

So on Dec. 26, 2003, Maxwell painted cow No. 1. “And for the next six years, I painted nothing but cows; that was my only subject. To me, the cow represents a symbol and a definition of the grace I want to have in my life.”

She paints in spurts, “going into a flurry for a week when I don’t even know what or when I ate. You kind of empty yourself out of all this pent-up expression.”

Her cows, and other more abstract work, can be found on her website at www.karimaxwell.com. She also teaches painting for kids in the Seward neighborhood and for adults, who hire her for painting cocktail parties.

“Kids are so uninhibited and free, while the adults get paralyzed trying to be such perfectionists,” she says. “They can all learn from the gentleness and curiosity cows express.”