Media FAQ's Part 3: Stories on Art, Life & Derby (Copyright 2011 Lesley Humphrey)

Q: Can you tell me the stories behind each of these paintings? I understand you sometimes imagine individuals from your own life in depicting your subjects. In one painting, you even have names for the characters, which is very interesting! Can you tell me more about how those came into being?

I must find a way to make my paintings personal, even when I am creating for a commissioned idea. What follows are my ideas and inspirations that formed the basis of the paintings this year:


ALL THREE TOGETHER....Represent Health (Oaks poster), wealth (Paddock scene/Ltd. print depicting owners) and happiness (Derby poster).

All are painted on gold, representing the unseen, positive energy of the life force that seems to exist beyond what we can “see”. Under the paintings inscribed the word that represents my hope for that particular painting:

Oaks image is called “Horses & Hope” I inscribed the gold with the word, “Health”, because I want everyone who viewed it to sense the hope of the Oaks day and the healing charities representative on that day. (The word is still visible and I can show it to you if you wish.) The characters are representative of the Derby and Oaks traditions, from left to right: Lily, she’s a bit of a stargazer (symbolizing the Oaks winner garland). Then there’s Jim; he always has a beam in his eye (for Kentucky Bourbon). Next comes Rose, she’s always laying all over everyone (Rose garland for Derby winner). Last but not least is fresh and fun Julep (because I just love Oprah and wanted ethnic variety in my race going family.)

Derby Image is called “Victory” and I inscribed it with the words: “Won!” (The large circle is the “O”, all that remains visible of the words.) I wanted the view to feel like THEY were the winner; as if this was their horse coming to them, looking at them.

The Ltd. Edition is called “The Paddock Party” and is created by bonding two paintings: The Owners, and Horses and Hope into one; the official limited edition print. Into “The Owners” I inscribed and designed around the word “Love” because I have never met anyone more passionate about anything than the owners, jockeys and trainers have for the athletes and the sport of racing.

The characters in the Oaks and Paddock scene are modeled after my own family. Lily is for my daughter, Lauren. Jim, a cross between my husband Larry and son Chris, Rose is myself (channeling Charlize Theron, my husband’s favorite actress), and Julep is for Oprah, whom I like think of as my sister from another mother. (Just love her.) The lady owner is representative of my daughter Ashley, the sunniest, brightest and unconditionally loving person I have ever met, and the man is inspired by my son, wearing a flat cap on as a nod to the men of my Lancashire origins.

Q: I understand Silver Charm was your muse for the horse in the painting? Why Silver Charm specifically? How was he your muse - in spirit, in physical features, in character, or in some other way?

A white/grey horse has become an important symbol in my work. Whilst I do not feel it’s necessary to divulge the entire workings of my creative heart, it’s safe to say that a grey horse has spiritual significance for me.

The recognizable imagery in my work is always from personal sketches or from the thousands of photos I have taken over the years. However, the expressive, creative elements seem to happen completely aside from any mental consideration, in response to my inspiration and ‘emotional‘ intention. My muses for the Derby (and the backstretch painting that was not chosen) were Silver Charm AND, perhaps more importantly for the creative qualities; Gary Stevens. I will never forget a documentary during which Gary Stevens fought diligently to save the life of his best friend, also a jockey. Mr. Stevens, and jockeys like him including Mr. Pat Day and Mr. Chris McCarron, have all used their celebrity to inspire and improve the lives of those around them, or those less fortunate than themselves, often overcoming great hardship in the process. They are examples to me. Real winners, in every sense of the word.

I actually had three ideas that I submitted for consideration:

First, the start of the race idea, depicting the team of owners, trainer, jockey and athlete and the Oaks:

The backstretch, which I entitled "The Unfinished Race" and which was inspired by the poem:

...And the end of the race, which of course became the Derby painting:

As a professional artist, I have taken thousands of photos over the years of incredible horses of all colors. I used one of my own photos to capture the gesture of the horse coming toward me, but to find my gray, I looked at references of Derby winners Silver Charm and Monarchos.

Q: What do you hope people will see or feel when they look at these paintings?

I think there are two types of content in my process; One requires technical competency; in other words, “how do I want this to look, what will create a powerful design, etc.,?” and the other a willingness to dig deep for more meaningful content. In a commission as important as this one, I had to find the courage to allow abstraction to take over the process in response to the emotional, rather than literal content.

The creative elements occur “aside from technical/mental considerations” usually in response to a question. The question was: How many of us can ever know what it feels like to win the Derby? Very few, and yet I wanted to create a painting that would capture what it feels like to have won the Derby.

The horse race is a great metaphor for life, no matter what your personal goals, struggles or aspirations may be. I want the viewer to feel like THE WINNER. That they are already in the winner’s circle; That this is their horse, coming to them, looking at them. It is the circle of success...The winner’s circle. An icon for that golden moment; a pinnacle moment; a dream come true.

Q: In what way do these paintings capture the spirit of the Kentucky Derby?

The first Saturday in May..... It’s a day of festivity, fun, and the day when 20 of the most beautiful, powerful horses on earth come together for the greatest race on earth. Yet behind the day comes deep history, ups and downs, hopes and dreams, faith and commitment of a type very few people ever see. The spirit of the Derby, for me, is steeped in history, stories that are woven together in a tapestry so rich and beautiful that it can never been captured in words or on a simple piece of wood. It is a complex, beautiful life and seems interwoven, inextricably with the heart of the world, and humanity sees its own struggles in the metaphor of the horse race and its heroic, and often devastating, raw nature.

As the 137 Kentucky Oaks and Derby artist, the best I could hope for was to offer a glimpse into the tapestry; To create a mirror for us all to look into and see glimpses of a multi-layered life that connects us all, one to another. A reminder that, if we just stay in our own, personal race, keep on track, and don’t give up, we’re all winners in the end.

Q: What kind of paint is on the Oaks and Derby paintings? Are they oils? And what type of gold were they painted on - what the canvas itself gold, or was it another material painted with gold leaf or something like that? Little details like this are helpful?

They are in oils and they are painted on a special panel called an "Ampersand panel". These panels are coated with a special type of gold gesso that is created by a company called Daniel Smith. It's expensive, but it's not "gold leaf cost'.

Q: The memories that you have of your youth jumping out of trees and molding horses out of the clay in a stream bed - are these in Lancashire? Can you describe a little more that image - of you molding clay in the stream bed with horses around you? Where was this?

This was indeed Lancashire. I grew up in a small village called Standish. A former Standish native came to America too, a long time ago... Captain Myles of the Mayflower is from this area also.

My parents could not afford the upkeep of a pony, but I did take lessons from a very small child and wanted to ride all the time. I lived just steps away from a farm with two, very large horses in the field. When they would take shade in the summer, under a wonderful, far-reaching old tree, I would climb up the tree and gently climb down onto the kindest and tallest one. Up there, I imagined I was Queen Boadicia, or some such horse woman. Sliding off was the most dangerous part of this. What I did not tell you before was that the farm was a dairy farm, and I also would ride the Hereford Bull called Hank, back to the shippon when the cows came home (with the farmer's permission, of course.)

Another silly thing I used to do was ride my cousin's wild, Shetland pony stallion (I would ride anything, literally). He would stand still whilst we got on, then would buck and careen through the field until we were tossed off, usually in very quick order, and probably less than 8 seconds. Honestly, it's a wonder I survived childhood at all as I relate this. I must have thought I was immortal.

I'd have to say that I was pretty fearless until I had children. I can remember the day I became concerned for my safety. I was on my 16.2 hand event horse, lunging and plunging in the start gate to cross-country, when I spotted my husband with my new baby Ashley. Unafraid for myself, I realized that if I was hurt, I was hurting an entire family, and I never evented with fearless gusto again. I think I had one more after that, before I quit competing all together.

This field contained an old stream which wound all through a corner of it. The bed contained a rough, grainy clay, and I would create fat little sleeping horses (always lying down because I knew nothing of armatures back then and the legs would snap off.) The gentle old farm horses, often curious, would come and see what I was doing, in case I was making carrots, no doubt.

Q: What organization do the proceeds from the sale of "Horses & Hope" go to?

The charity is called, appropriately, "Horses and Hope!" It is First Lady Jane Beshear's charity. You can go to

Q: Just wanted to confirm - the gallery you own with your husband is in Magnolia? What's it called?

My gallery is in Tomball, Texas, just outside of Magnolia. It is called DaVinci Artists Gallery. I often do not have work there; it is a co-opertive for local artists and friends.

Q: You spoke about the special significance of grey horses for you. I feel like it's rare for them to win the Derby - though I'm not sure if my perception is right. Any comment on how this may have informed your decision to paint a grey, if it affected it at all?

You are correct. Grey horses are rare, with bays being by far the most prolific winners, probably because there are many more of them in the Thoroughbred breed. There was a technical issue that presented difficulties, had I decided to use a bay (reddish) horse: Because I wanted this painting (Derby) to contain expressive rather than literal colors, I decided that excitement, energy and power, all verbs that I considered would convey fiery, hot colors. In order for the painting to succeed, it needed a quiet, neutral color that kept it light and bright. What better to achieve this than a grey horse?

Symbolically, the white or grey horse appears as an iconic representation of the heroic or "God" forces, the spirit that overthrows negativity in the world. It appears in myth, legend and a religious figure in every ancient civilization. For myself, it represents that spirit that seems to carry us; an energy or force that seems to exist beyond our own that lends itself to our individually unfolding lives. Not exactly manageable by our self-seeking minds and actions, it seems to have a will of its own, and when we our goals are in harmony with "It", there's no such thing as failure.

I feel it's important to state that I honor all people on their religious journeys Erin, and even though I grew up in the Church of England, and while I continue to study the world's great religions, I do not adhere with any doctrine or religious tradition myself, these days. Mine is a personal spirituality, practiced every day and in every action, often alone and in my journal. As I said, whilst I honor everyone's path to spirituality, I decided to tap into that powerful, spiritual energy personally, and found I could not witness it second-hand forever, via the prism of another's hand, mouth and sensibility. We could open up a can of worms here, if we're not careful and I do not wish to offend. )

Q: Any other comments about your experience working on these paintings, your inspiration, your past, or anything else are absolutely welcome!

This is a dream come true for me. The real payback is my family and I will see the Derby together. My Derby, Derby 137.

I hope people enjoy the art, and that it brings joy wherever it is seen.

In the words of the great Picasso “I am empty” (for now).