Hooked on Horses
Artists see equine subjects as symbols of West, freedom, spirit
The horse and the American West are intrinsically linked. It is impossible to separate the history or the mythic power of one from the other.
While horses are important figures in human history the world over, the symbolism of the western American horse is unique. Nowhere is this more evident than in Western art.
The great chronicler of the late 18th Century American West, Frederic Remington, created iconic images of horses and riders that still resonate today. His sculpture, “The Bronco Buster,” could be said to be a precursor to the Wyoming State license plate image of a rider on his bucking bronco.
“I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever,” Remington once said of the territory he’d been sent to write about and illustrate for east coast magazines. “I began to record some facts around me, and the more I looked the more the panorama unfolded.”
Though Remington’s Old West may have vanished, passion for equine art did not. Jackson Hole corrals much of the finest contemporary western and equine art in the nation. Some modern-day equine artists follow in Remington’s footsteps, working within representational bounds. Others, like Diehl Gallery’s Ashley Collins or Montana sculptor Deborah Butterfield, interpret the horse in bold new ways, using unexpected media.
Images West spoke with four leading equine artists who exhibit locally to learn what fuels their abiding interest in the horse as subject. The diversity of their media, style, and approach exemplify how the dynamic icon of the horse continues to ride across the evolving plains of human imagination.
September Vhay’s first vivid memory of horses dates back to when she was 5 years old. She and her parents were sitting in a natural hot springs near their Idaho home when a herd of wild horses suddenly appeared, galloping along a ridge above them.
“I was mesmerized,” Vhay remembered. “I thought I might be able to catch one if only I had some string.”
As an adult, Vhay found that string in the form of a paintbrush. The Jackson Hole-based painter is known for her ability to capture the essence of horses with spare, elegant brushstrokes. Winner of the 2010 Trustees Purchase Award at the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s Western Visions show, Vhay was also selected as Southwest Art magazine’s “21 Over 31” artists to watch in 2010. In 2009 she won the Fine Print Imaging Award at Ex Arte Equinus International Competition. In addition to showing her work in Jackson at Trio Gallery, which she co-owns with Kathryn Mapes Turner and Lee Riddell, Vhay also exhibits at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe.
“A lot of people who buy my work are not necessarily ‘horse people,’” Vhay said. “Clients tell me that my work captures the je ne sais quoi of the animal—which is an intuitive, unconscious process for me.”
For non-“horse people,” the horse can elicit fear. It’s a big animal with the power to throw a rider or stomp on smaller creatures. But as Vhay notes, the horse is also “an icon of freedom, peace, beauty, loyalty, luxury, nobility, and industry.”
Vhay’s affinity for the horse is apparent in paintings like “Alacrity.” Here, a young horse is anything but fearsome. He is almost ethereal; yet there is nothing lightweight about him. Vhay has gotten inside the horse’s motion and concentrated her attention on the interplay of sunlight and shadow on shiny coat and rippling muscles. The colt appears to be dancing of his own volition, caught on canvas with no knowledge of a human gaze.
In addition to her more representational painting, Vhay explores the horse form in minimalist gestural paintings rendered in vibrant red.
These red horses resemble Chinese calligraphy.
“The red horse paintings ask viewers to finish the image with their own knowledge of the subject,” Vhay said. “This interaction with the art is much more powerful than literal work where the viewer might bring little of herself to interact with the art.”
Photographer Gregg Albracht had a client once tell him she had always been afraid of horses until she saw his photo “Jose Blinked First.”
The Jose in question is a muscular bay stallion approaching a gorgeous chestnut mare. Necks curved in cautious greeting, the two horses sniff noses and at that very moment, Jose blinked. Albracht caught this moment on film, where the courtship between mare and stallion is sweet and gentle and the animals bow in humility to this special dance.
Based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Albracht spends countless hours in the field taking photos, waiting for that magic moment when he is able to capture a perfect horse expression or movement. With “Ghost Horse,” featuring the proud head of an Andalusian stallion, Albracht had all but given up on his quest to capture the horse’s essence. He’d been photographing the horse for years, never quite getting what he was after. Then one afternoon, standing with a group of students he’d brought to photograph the stunning horse, Albracht found his moment.
The stallion trotted by Albracht, arching his neck and looking sideways straight into the camera’s eye. The result is an image of Pegasus himself, come down to rule in the 21st Century.
Represented in Jackson by Jack Dennis’ Wyoming Gallery, Albracht grew up near a racetrack in Nebraska. Watching the horses running at top speed made a deep impression on him. When he started learning photography in college, he soon turned to horses as subject matter.
“The first roll of black-and-white film I did was of my sister and her horse,” he said.
Now considered one of the country’s preeminent equine artists, Albracht has works in the C.M. Russell Museum; the Museum of Fine Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the Nebraska Art Museum; among many others.
“I love everything visually about a horse,” Albracht said about his lifelong muse. “When you’re standing in a field of horses, the rest of the world disappears.”
Abstract western landscape painter Theodore Waddell has stood in plenty of fields of horses. A Montana native and full-time rancher, Waddell divides his time between Manhattan, Montana, and Hailey, Idaho. He exhibits at Altamira Fine Art in Jackson.
Where Vhay distills the essence of a horse by omitting most of the background or setting, Waddell punctuates the landscape with the horse.
“Horses, cows, and sheep are on the ground that I love,” Waddell said. “I live in rural places where these animals make their homes. They give focus to the landscape in a special way. Somehow, drawing a double-wide trailer or a subdivision doesn’t get it.”
One of Montana’s most nationally renowned artists, Waddell has had numerous museum shows including the Holter Museum, Yellowstone Art Museum, and the prestigious Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. He has also been featured at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the Missoula Museum of Art, and the Paris-Gibson Square Museum of Art. In 1982, his work was part of the Second Western State Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
In his “Arco Horses” paintings, Waddell paints shadowy herds of horses. They graze; they rest. The sun is setting, or the sun is rising. One horse turns to face the painter. Waddell’s horses are as much a part of the landscape as the sage and the distant mountain ranges. By creating these otherworldly horses—much less distinct than Albracht’s “Ghost Horse”—Waddell evokes the timelessness of place, something we know here in the West. How often do we stand at the edge of an expanse like the National Elk Refuge or the western foothills of the Tetons, awed because the scene before us is almost identical to how it was hundreds of years ago. That horses roamed North America thousands of years ago only to go extinct and then be reintroduced with European exploration in the 16th Century lends powerful reverberations to Waddell’s timeless horses.
“Waddell’s work is derived from passionate emotional connections with his environment,” says Dean Munn, Altamira sales director, “transcribed intuitively while engrossed in oils, encaustics, brushes, palette knives, and canvas.”
By concentrating on the paint itself and the landscape as subject, Waddell reveals an aspect of horses we can’t experience from directly representational art. Because horses in a Waddell painting often blend in with the landscape, the viewer is invited, via our connection with horses, to enter the landscape as if we, too, were part of nature.
Sculptor John Mortensen says the connection between humans and horses is ingrained in our history.
“The horse has long been a partner with man in his quest for survival and celebration of spirit,” Mortensen said. “A piece of art depicting horses can be a touchtone to the horse’s realm.”
Mortensen grew up with horses. In fact, he was on horseback before he could walk. His father was a horseman and owned a tack shop in Salt Lake City. He sketched and modeled horses in clay from a young age.
A self-taught sculptor and resident of Wilson, Mortensen is a sought-after artist across the west. His outdoor sculptures can be seen at Walt Disney World, Grand Teton Lodge Company, Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, as well as in the permanent collections of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and the Springville Art Museum.
Mortensen says that people often see the personification of themselves and their emotions in horses.
“My piece, ‘Silent Saddles,’ commissioned by the American Legion Hall here in Jackson, represents all who have served our country from our ranching community,” Mortensen said. “The strength, steadfastness and burden of this service are reflected in the piece.”
Where painters and photographers must work in two dimensions, Mortensen says sculpture allows an artist to fully express a horse’s animation and spirit. Mortensen uses the lost-wax casting process to create his bronze sculptures. This ancient practice involves many intricate steps from clay model to latex mold to wax copy to bronze.
“I see the coursing flow of molten bronze as creating life within the sculpture,” Mortensen said.
While some equine art explores the horse’s form or its spirit or the landscape it traverses, still other works tell a story. This is the case with Mortensen’s tabletop sculpture “Twelve Blanket Horse.” Mortensen met the horse’s former owner on a lonely ranch in New Mexico. The rancher told a story of a horse his Native American neighbors used to admire. They offered to trade a blanket for it. The rancher said no.
The next day they brought two blankets, and so on, until a pile of twelve blankets stood on the rancher’s land. Finally, he let the horse go to its new owners.
Ultimately equine art connects people to our uniquely American story. As Cayuse Western Americana owner Mary Schmitt notes, “The horse allowed us to get where we are today. I think we are closer to our past than we realize consciously.”
As symbols of freedom, horses are exhilarating and magical. As partners in industry and adventure, they are unrivaled. And as perfectly proportioned, aesthetically evocative creatures, horses are an artist’s superlative subject matter.
For many who appreciate equine art, the connection is direct. “When I love a piece of horse art, it is because I can relate it to personal experience,” Schmitt said. For others, the affinity is more symbolic.
Among equine artists, the media may differ but the reverence for horses is palpable, no matter which artist is talking. Perhaps Theodore Waddell summarized it best: “I am around horses every day. I see them as they eat. I pass through their stalls on the way to my studio. I watch them in the pasture as they graze. Their nicker at night is grand; each has his or her voice. Their liquid eyes know and see everything. Nothing is better.”