It takes a Herculean task to pull out of old, destructive habits of addiction….
We cannot do alone. We need help…
This painting is what “IT” feels when that beautiful energy of love comes and pulls us through.
The Artful Life
It takes a Herculean task to pull out of old, destructive habits of addiction….
We cannot do alone. We need help…
This painting is what “IT” feels when that beautiful energy of love comes and pulls us through.
“It’s not the critic that counts…”
So begins one of the most inspirational speeches of all time by Theodore Roosevelt.
This painting was inspired by one of my “Sheroes” jockey Rose Napravnik who “dared greatly” and never failed to step up and enter the patriarchal arena.
I’m a "Lancashire Lass", born and bred in Wigan, England.
I’ve quite literally met kings and queens, but the “mac ladies’ that populate the streets of my birthplace have riches we could all use; friendship, loyalty, simple love of one another.
In August 1914, at the early stages of WWI, 3 little children wrote to Lord Kitchener asking for their beloved pony Betty to be spared conscription to the cause.
This letter inspired War Horse and Stephen Spielberg’s film of the same name.
These brave children and their ponies lived in my neighbourhood; rode ‘Old Betty’ along the lanes where I rode too.
I was inspired to begin a series….
Have you ever had a time in your life when you “know you’re on the right path” because coincidences begin to pour in and synchronicity happens beyond your wildest dreams? One of those times was when I was named the Official Kentucky Derby Artist for 2011. A truly great story began to “weave” into place, which included a great horse called Timeless Fashion, and his owner, my dear friend Judy Miller. This is a painting I did for her, designed with a nod to the Fibonacci sequence rather than the usual, “blocky” way of designing the canvas.Read More
This will be our card this year... Ashley and I always love to make the handmade Xmas cards together, but she is working in Italy at the moment.... so she modeled for me before she left. The first painting was a little "cool" both in demeanor and skin tone, so I decided to change it. I prefer the finished piece above. I'll probably doodle on each one with paint markers, just to make each one a little more special.
Breeding, power, training, skill, intelligence... Time and time again these are the components considered vital to win, or simply get ahead, especially in the horse business. So many ordinary horses deemed 'the wrong type' or 'poorly bred' are seldom given the chance to even compete with "the big guys", yet when they do... sometimes... miracles happen.
You may think you're from the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong country, in the wrong religion, the wrong color, physical shape, gender - to get ahead - to win, and the list is endless.
IT PULLS YOU BACK DOWN; IT'S ALL JUST GRAVITY...
I've been told art is not a 'proper job'. Then a teacher all but convinced me I couldn't paint and forbade me to use anything other than a 6" house painting brush for 1.5 years.
Gravity can be created by physical issues, social situations, economic strife. It can be racial/ethnic/gender related... Gravity can be imposed by political, religious and/or tribal dogma - anything that 'keeps you in your place', brings you back down to earth, keeps you under control; Gravity creates self doubt, always the biggest weight to overcome, time and time again.
We all have gravity. Gravity can be like a suite of armor made from disapproving labels others/society has applied to you. Gravity is like clay that weighs you down, and the more clay you accept, the harder it is to get up and keep trying... Yet you must, especially if you want to someday fly or
I was 33. I had 3 very young children. I had a burning desire to ignore 'the clay' that I had accepted. I heard that a 'great' professional, local artist was giving lessons in his studio, so I went. He told me on the first day that I didn't have enough time to become a good painter, since I couldn't go to an art institute like he had attended, and it was pointless to have that dream as a housewife with young kids. My ears 'heard him'; What he said made sense to my brain, but my entire body screamed disagreement. Some part of me stood defiant and actually felt angry - I thought, "I might be a mother, but I'm not dead, for goodness sake!" I decided he was an arrogant p$&*!!$, and a burning desire was born to 'prove him and everyone else wrong who would label me incapable - for whatever reason. That burning desire provided and fueled the 'escape velocity' (#1 painting in the series), burning away clay every step of the way. I decided to keep my head down, and keep going; to follow my bliss, no matter what.... To defy gravity.
Now off you go.... have a great day, shed some clay, and fly away.
Have you read the book, "Snowman, The $80.00 Champion", by Elizabeth Letts? It's wonderful! I bought the book at an airport, on my way to a week-long artist's retreat by the beach and was, quite literally, swept away by it... In part because of the story of this amazing horse, and partly because of the incredible man and hero, Harry Deleyer... I was deeply inspired by them both. For the remainder of the retreat, I was inspired to paint my white horse over and over again, 9 times in total that first week.
As if that were not enough, I was utterly blown away to later discover that a friend and neighbor, Mr. John Deleyer and his family, was Harry's son, John Deleyer, and unmentioned in the book! John is the huntsman of the The Longacre Hunt where I was once a member, with colors. The Longacre Hunt is partly owned by one of my closest, dearest friends, MFH Susie Hackney! That was the 'icing on the cake'. These are all wonderful people, dear to me for years.
Life seemed to be weaving its incredible tapestry, the threads woven together by the Creative Spirit, becoming visible... right before my eyes! My heart was deeply touched... I couldn't get Harry and Snowman's story off my mind... Now this image is ingrained upon my psyche... The painting here is a sneak preview of the series unfolding...Hope you like it!
I gave the book to my daughter, but the image lingered and is now etched upon my psyche....
The thought of Snowman, determined to come home, and Harry Deleyer, determined to win, despite obstacles of every possible description: Origin, breed, economics.... I recognized their story as the aptly-named "Hero's Journey" referred to in Joseph Campbell's epic work "The Hero With A Thousand Faces"; A story of life, of Spirit, and extraordinary circumstances that brought together two magnificent beings; Both had that very rare, unbeatable, indescribable 'something' that life throws up from time-to-time; That 'something special' that defies the odds, flaunts the powers that be, and in the process, gives us all hope.
I love the story. It changed me for the better, forever, and launched a new painting series...
Hello again. Gosh, it's been 7 months since I posted on my blog. I have been writing lessons though (which have found their way all over the globe I am surprised to say) so I've not been neglecting you. I've been traveling, learning, living and loving life, and I hope you have too.
I enjoyed spending time with my Woodlands buddies a couple of weeks ago at the Thursday session. I just love model encounters like this one. In costume, and with gesture and a personality that invites imagination... Lots of texture. How lovely to paint.
Interesting thoughts, ideas and stories bounce around in my head as I listened to her Egyptian love songs in a musical style not exactly commonplace in my particular corner of Texas. With only 20 minutes per session, rather than practice my 'portraiture', I decided to instead practice my personal response to the subject. She gave us such wonderful poses... It would have been a shame to sit there struggling to create a likeness. (Other painters were very good at, and enjoyed doing so... but I am woefully out of practice at rendering a likeness.)
My art students and friends wonder why don't I paint portraits, or go to posed model groups so much these days? I find that people, when they think they're being watched or judged, 'put on a pose', as sure as they put on their clothes; both on their faces and in their bodies. It's the 'life behind' the pose that intrigues me the most. Think about when you watch people greet, or say goodbye to one another at an airport... They often don't "put it on" in those circumstances. At airports, at hospitals, on vacation - wherever humans are being themselves, how people hold their bodies tells the story of their sorrows, their delight, and even give clues as to how this person feels about life.
It's the essence of life itself that I love to try to capture; How one's life and body deals with the effects of time and circumstance is etched into our gesture and in our eyes. In this world of carefully polished and trained veneers (think of recent political campaigns...) the fleeting life essence caught in authentic expression is life, caught in an instant, and precious to behold. Rare at times, and what I love to paint... Whilst I'm 'at it', I like to leave a little bit of my own life essence/ gesture there too...
...Obviously not tending to my Artful Life Blog. I confess.... I admit.... I've been hiding. In a 'creative funk'.
After all the pageantry, wonder, and excitement of the Kentucky Derby commission, I became... in the words of Piccasso "Empty" in just about every way that could be described. I turned down a host of commissions, workshop requests (from all over the world), and all manner of painting opportunities because I simply could not face 'painting' at all! Instead, I squirelled myself away into corners, drawing and creating on my little sketch pad, iphone or ipad, blending into any environment as I joined the millions of people completely disconnected from the flow of life, noses buried in smart phones and all manner of electronic devices. I, however, was capturing gestures, not only of people, but of landscapes, rooftops, hotel rooms... Any situation that enabled me to sit for a while became a simple act of enjoying shapes:
From sitting, waiting in the car observing the shapes and colors from an Oklahoma gas station, last December ...
To responding to feelings and shapes of the Paddock, Keeneland in Spring this year...
Anyway, I continued to think about, read about and 'delve creatively' with gestures and expressions like the ones above, but I just couldn't paint.
I now understand that part of it was that I had fallen out of love with 'process' because 'product' and obligations had been so large and all consuming. Also, travel and other obligations took their toll. I'd like to share how I found my creative feet again, because if we're creative, and we're living in a world that sees, requires, sells, buys, and judges or efforts, we just might find ourselves retreating into our shell, as I did. This is how I found my way out:
In future, I will try not to let product overwhelm my love of the process.
L asked: "Why do people spend countless hours painting or pursuing art? Seems so selfish and self-indulgent. What's the point?"
These days, at least for me, it is a connection to Spirit that drives me on. I only feel connected to life, fully alive, when I have the chance to connect in some way with art or the artistic process. Sometimes that involves writing about art, sometimes teaching, sometimes painting; Sometimes reading or discovering my own insights in other art forms… Sometimes revelations occur constantly when visiting a new city or museum….the list is endless. I am in love with discovery, both of an external and internal nature. It is a permanent unfolding, this love.
L deals with the materialistic world, and has been exposed to many experts; the world’s finest and most influential; A place where critics and experts reign supreme, and only if you are a product of the system, educated by that system, validated by that system, can you be considered a 'worthy artist'. (Worthy of patronage, collecting or being considered "serious" I suppose.) Whilst I do not have the benefit of their formal education, I have to say that, in my (by comparison very lacking) experience, the opposite feels true: Only if the work originated "not of this material world", beyond the artist, could it possibly contain 'Art'.
For me, Art is the essence, the Creative Spirit behind and beyond all things. It can be found caught up in poetry and literature that remakes the mold of men who encounter it. It can be found present in the exquisite line of the Shodo master, or caught forever in great paintings... paintings that bypass the mind entirely, yet burn you with a Presence words cannot describe. I've heard it in monastic chants whose words are unintelligible to me, and I’ve heard it in the piercing note of Miles Davis contrapuntal to Marcus Miller's beautiful baseline. All portray the 'essence of life' not dependent upon sight or sound, and not containable or explainable by critics, or those who purport to be 'in the know'.
It requires that the 'artist' refine himself as an instrument, for he is not a source of It, but a conduit for It. He molds his life, his body and his mind, refines his skill, (into which he probably puts in at least 10,000 hours) then yields his egoic mind, and responds to It. That artist can become a poet, painter, musician, teacher, doctor, scientist… The point is, It is different for everyone. The best way I have found to find one’s path is to follow the advice of Joseph Campbell when he said “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where none existed before”. In other words, follow your calling. After a certain point, one must go without the need for approval of peers, society or expert opinion. It takes courage to leave the ‘group’, but sometimes one must...
A 'good artist' in my opinion, is simply a person who has agreed to do 'the work', in body, mind and spirit. Agreed to become a conduit for life. Its direction is fleeting; It is instantaneous and does not appear to occur in linear time or as a result of thought. (Rather, 'insight' is it's preferred communication). Like a bolt out of the blue, the ideas come whole and almost fully formed.
If you ask me if I have created 'Art' yet, I would have to say that I have only perhaps seen/felt glimmerings of it within certain works (usually from a powerful intent to serve or help someone or something greater than myself). Some of the works are unfinished, left in precisely that condition because I am afraid that that one, powerful mark may be "the Thing" that moves me, (rather than my skill, or any image that may have occurred). I could never say I have created Art. As part of my process, I always attempt to paint some ingredient that connects us all; Perhaps some reassurance, some human condition that is common to us all... Reminders that 'you, the viewer are not alone'. My hope is that my viewer feels something 'beside' me, rather than being enthralled with any masterful element... that he/she is reassured and comforted, then ultimately, hopefully left with a desire to discover and recover the Art within themselves. That's where my lessons come in… To give them a way to access Art in their own lives could be my greatest gift and my greatest art form. I just know it's something I'm powerfully led to do.
I merely respond to the call. Everything I do, when I'm at my best, is just so that I can hear (feel) It. It is beautiful when it happens and I am powerless to refuse... For me, the morning journal, the reading, the walks are only preparations, but necessary preparations. They're how I 'tune my instrument'; Tune-in to my highest self. All are ways I have discovered to put my ego aside so I can 'let the music come through'... When it does... Oh, what a feeling! When it does I am left with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Art is a privilege. I am merely a servant to the dictates of the Creative Spirit... the closest thing to God that I know.
And that’s why I paint.
The painting to the right is a demo I did recently for Brenham Fine Art League. Honestly, in my artistic world, nothing makes my heart sing more than introducing people to a way to embrace art. The way I see and paint is all "learnable stuff", and when people watch my demos, or take my workshops, they believe it, for I have found a way to paint and teach that makes the process understandable, efficient, and great fun. Demand for my workshops has hit an all-time high, whilst my my schedule becomes increasingly impossible, and all my faithful and 'would-be' students await... very patiently... which has created a conflict.
I have a solution...
In short, my life is one big, amazing adventure, all because of this great journey with art. It’s time for me to pass on what I know; to 'give back' in the best way I know how, and I have decided to post everything I ever learned about painting here… on my website...
ABSOLUTELY FREE FOR ANYONE... ...until I am exhausted of ideas and content! I feel it's just the right thing to do. Consider it my true gift. My wonderful website designer, Colin, is creating us a new page which will be called "Lessons With Lesley"... coming soon...
Lastly, I'd like to share here a picture of what it looks like when my heart is singing. Here I am with my dear friend 'Annick the artist' who, blind from birth, never let that stop her! Here we are making some yummy gesso pies together in Karen's Studio at Heartlift in Wigan.
Happy Christmas, Hannuka, Kwanzaa... Happy life! So stay tuned.
Most of my paintings, these days, originate from internal content/inspiration rather than an external subject matter. All of them are born in the early morning, whilst drinking tea and writing; some of them in the form of a poem, as this one did.
I’ve always been inspired by the Pin Oak Charity Horse Show and it’s mission. This year, I met a woman, a show jumper herself, who’s courage was sorely tested not going into a giant show ring, but as her beloved child was wheeled away on a gurney for life-saving surgery, in the the very hospital she’d supported since childhood. It was a weighty ‘full-circle’ moment.
Life has many thresholds. I’ve crossed a few myself. I know what it’s like to go into the start box of a cross-country event and your ex-racehorse bucking and plunging. I know what it takes to move to a new land, not having anything ‘mapped-out’ except the next footfall…I know what it’s like to accept a massive commission, not knowing if you have the courage to win the fight against your own fears… And I know what it’s like when a mother watches her child wheeled into a hospital room, some never coming out.
Life’s journey contains various thresholds, various "portals". We may never know the outcome; we just have to decide to take a deep breath and move forward, no matter what the challenge. (I did write a poem here... but I took it out...)
KUDOS: I am deeply grateful to Andrea Jetton and friends, Tim Novak, Rosemary Hickman and the rest of the wonderful Pearl Museum staff for hosting my exhibition, providing the perfect culmination of my Kentucky Derby adventure. You are indeed a beautiful 'pearl' in the northwest Houston community, and I love what you are accomplishing with your wonderful museum bringing art to all.
I would also like to thank the owners of 'Race Day' (the official Kentucky Derby limited edition image), for graciously allowing me to show their painting. (They also happen to be owners of the 137th Derby winner, Animal Kingdom.)
During the past 12 months, my derby year, I did not have much time due to a very difficult travel schedule. I was distracted by obligations, and did not have much peace with which to 'germinate big ideas'. It's impossible for me 'not' to paint though; and with no way to transport major studio equipment, I decided to paint small and portable. The Derby 12's idea was born, each commemorating personal expressions of my adventure, but not in the way you might think...
Paint artists tend to think of every piece they ever do as a grand performance. A trip to any art league show will reveal a steady parade of "first timers" proudly displaying the 'still life du jour', or the 24" x 30" 'grandchild in cowboy boots, with puppy' painting, painstakingly painted for at least 10 months or so. It's as if painters think they're better than dancers or musicians; It's like little Mary Sue coming home from her first piano lesson, then plonking out "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" not for the adoring family, but at the local community theater! It's terrifying to contemplate, yet we artists do it all the time. It's true what they say about us.... We must be mad!!
Musicians practice. Dancers practice. Singers practice.... they all "play their instruments" in between grand performances, and often in the solitude of their own studio. Why don't paint artists "play" paintings? Why should every one end up in a gilt frame, marched out for ooh's and aahs?
Contemplating this, I realized that, even though I may not have many "grand paintings" in me this year, there was no reason in the world why I couldn't or shouldn't play; Why I couldn't I be like the dancer or the musician? Why couldn't I play daily, 'practice my instrument', testing its depth and breadth and pushing boundaries well away from the public eye? Why couldn't I pour my ideas into mini concertos, whether on my iPad in a hotel room or in a makeshift studio in our condo? The Derby 12's are expressions of me 'playing the music', in paint. (A nod to Kandinski, one of my faves, here.)
Isn't it ironic: My first one-person show was at a fine arts museum and it consisted of one ultra-finished piece, one unfinished piece, and 12 unframed exercises in 'testing the instrument'....The latter being the very idea most intriguing to the Pearl as way to educate people about the artistic process. So play your instrument to the best of your ability, and if you do, your platform will find YOU.
Now... go and play ART!
My best wishes to you, as always.
12 months of Derby... From May 5th, when I first was asked if I'd like to be considered, all the way through to May 6th and 7th, and the running of the 137th Kentucky Oaks and Derby. A tremendous cycle that seemed to exorcise every aspect of life, as well as excavate parts I never knew I had... good and bad! Ups, downs, agonizing decisions, courage, feelings of utter frailty and fragility, as well as tremendous joy. Requiring determination, guts, and a battle with insecurity that raged throughout, and culminating in a series of experiences that were rare, and often bordering on miraculous. Perhaps it's best to consider them small, "personal performances". In other words, responses to a burning need to express and work on my art and explore my craft in between "grand performances". In years such as these, of constant travel and obligation, they served as platforms for my experiences, my loves, my angst, my challenges; sometimes my longings, hopes and dreams. Please, enjoy them.
The paintings in the "Derby 12" series are symbolic of this journey. Presented here are the first 10, and the full 12 will be available during my Derby Reception hosted by the Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., June 16th. If you're coming, wear a hat! My creative pals are throwing down the gauntlet for who has the most flamboyant chapeau!
The Derby 12 Series are all 12" x 12", oil on panel, and are $1,200.00 each. A nice, tidy dozen!
Thanks for coming to see us, and have a fabulous year.
Stay tuned for final two...
PAINT ON THE TRACK: Derby Program Article
By Erin L. McCoy
Humphrey’s Horses Capture the ‘Energy of Life’
On its final stretch, the horse kicks up dust from the track which explodes into color. Fans and owners pour onto the racetrack, and the dust envelops the horse as though he’s already draped in roses, horse and jockey already crowned winners of the Kentucky Derby.
The viewer becomes the finish line in the official painting of the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Internationally known equine artist Lesley Humphrey painted the Derby poster artwork on hardboard panels coated with gold gesso that lends a vibrant glow to the horse, which is haloed in a large “O” — only one letter from a word etched directly into the gold: “Won!”
Messages of hope are scrawled into the gesso of all three paintings Humphrey created. The Oaks painting depicts hat- wearing revelers in the Churchill Downs paddock, and barely visible in arches of cloud and shifts of color above their heads, is the word “Health.” In a limited edition, extended painting of the paddock, thrilled owners gather around their prize filly, the word “Love” hovering in the sky. “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,” Humphrey said. But love permeates all of Humphrey’s works — beginning with the first horses she ever drew.
“I cannot ever remember a moment that I was not drawing horses,” said Humphrey, who spent her childhood in Lancashire, England, dropping out of trees onto the backs of cart horses on a farm near her house.
“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,” Humphrey said.
From her youth in Britain’s Pony Club, to show jumping, fox hunting, dressage and eventing as an adult, Humphrey has experienced nearly every type of horse event — and has witnessed hundreds.
“She has traveled the world studying first-hand all kinds of equine events, getting up close and personal,” said Julie Buchanan-Springer, who was serving as executive director of the American. “Lesley herself is extremely colorful. She’s extremely passionate and that just spills and bubbles up in her work.”Academy of Equine Art in Georgetown, Kentucky, when she first met Humphrey. Capturing the look of an event isn’t enough for Humphrey, Buchanan-Springer insisted. “She creates what she sees, what she feels and what she takes from the event — meaning the entire atmosphere surrounding the event,” she said.
But when Humphrey was being considered to create the official artwork for the 2011 Derby, she was faced with a challenge: she had to capture the heart and soul of the Derby and Oaks — but she had never attended either. Her solution? Total immersion. Humphrey checked into Louisville’s Brown Hotel, where Derby society has congregated since the hotel was built in 1923, ate a Kentucky Hot Brown, and early the next morning arrived at a training barn at Churchill Downs to watch the horses warm up. The enthusiasm of the owners and trainers channeled the spirit she wanted to capture. “It dawned on me that these were the people who live the Derby dream 24/7, 365 days a year. It flows through their blood like fine Kentucky bourbon, fuels their dreams and infects them with passion,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey was also inspired that day by the story of a jockey, Justin Vitek, whose friends rallied to support his family after he died of leukemia in 2010. That story became the inspiration for the Oaks painting, titled “Horses & Hope.” Humphrey’s own family populates the piece, in which she has named every character: Lilly the stargazer reminds Humphrey of her daughter, Lauren, while Jim, with a bourbon-flavored “Beam” in his eye, was modeled after Humphrey’s husband, Larry, and son, Chris. Proceeds from its sale will go to the painting’s namesake charity, organized by Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear to benefit cancer victims and their families in the Kentucky horse racing industry.
The theme of hope came to permeate all three works Humphrey produced for the Derby — and it went far beyond the words etched behind the paint. “I thought, if there was only one more painting left to do in my life, what would I want it to say? What last message would I want my kids to know? The words literally hit me: ‘Don’t give up.’”
The grey horse in the Derby painting, “Victory,” was inspired by past Derby winners Silver Charm and Monarchos, while the jockey was modeled after three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens. “Victory” communicates the exhilaration of succeeding against all odds, Humphrey said — something she hopes everyone can relate to. Yet the painting also portrays a moment few people ever experience: “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,” said Humphrey. And it seems she’s succeeded.
“Lesley herself is extremely colorful. She’s extremely passionate and that just spills and bubbles up in her work,” said Clare Jett, president of Jettstream Productions, which has published the Derby art series for 11 years running. “Racing fans and the casual fan have absolutely embraced it like we’ve never seen before.”
In more than 20 years as a professional artist, Humphrey’s work has been displayed in such venues as Lexington’s International Museum of the Horse, the Marietta-Cobb Museum in Atlanta and Christie’s in Britain. In 2006, she was presented to the Queen of England after painting the Grenadier Guards’ Brigadier General in honor of her uncle, Norman Ball, and the soldiers who served with him during World War II. Today, Humphrey splits her time between Magnolia, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, but her “love for the Bluegrass” draws her back to Kentucky again and again.
So the opportunity to attend the Derby and Oaks this year, where Humphrey will sign posters, is a pleasure that’s long overdue. “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,” she said. There could be no better place for an artist whose passion for horses and for painting combines into a “perfect storm,” according to Jett.
“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,” she said.
There could be no better place for an artist whose passion for horses and for painting combines into a “perfect storm,” according to Jett.
“I know how a horse feels, whether I’m trotting children around with a pony and buggy around my neighborhood, or feeling what it’s like to fly like the wind on a massive athlete, or take a leap of faith into a water jump. I know what it’s like to win, and I certainly know what it’s like to lose. I know what it takes to keep on trying, no matter what,” Humphrey said. “The energy of life is my inspiration, and horses are my representative for the spirit of life.”
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:
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 www.horsesandhope.org.
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).
Q: What draws you to horse racing or to the depiction of scenes of revelry/sports/light and color?
I’ve been a horsewoman all of my life. I have always been attracted to equine sports, from riding in gymkhana and point-to-points growing up in the Pony Club in Britain, to show jumping, fox hunting, dressage and eventing in the United States, as an adult.
For a brief period, when I first moved to Texas with my husband, I was an office manager of a stud farm and race training facility in Kress, Texas, an organization which bred and trained race horses for the quarter horse and thoroughbred industry. Once, during my lunch hour, as a favor to the trainer, I agreed to gallop a fabulous Kentucky thoroughbred on its way to a new track in Oklahoma, just so I could know what it felt like. (The quarter horse riders were not comfortable with the 17 hand athlete.) The stride was enormous; the power and velocity formidable. I could not see (no goggles), nor could I hear anything but the thunder of hooves and heaving of breath. For a mind-blowing 1.5 miles I endured this, my legs crumbling like jello upon my dismount. This horse achieved the track record that stood for years at Blue Ribbon Downs, Sallisaw, OK (I believe that was the name of the track) just two weeks later. It was my first, and my last full gallop down the track on a Kentucky thoroughbred.
For art to be authentic, you have to “paint what you know”. I know how a horse feels, whether I’m trotting children around with a pony and buggy around my neighborhood, or feeling what it’s like to fly like the wind on a massive athlete, or take a leap of faith into a water jump. I know what it’s like to win, and I certainly know what it’s like to lose. I know what it takes to keep on trying, no matter what.
I paint what life “feels like” rather than just what it “looks like”. The energy of life is my inspiration, and horses are my representative for the spirit of life.
Q: Can you walk me through the process of how you conceived of and produced these paintings? How long did it take? What obstacles did you face and overcome?
At the root of everything is a profound love of art and the creative process. I have to say it borders on a ‘spiritual’ experience for me and I feel the best paintings are always drawn from a personal life experience that I feel strongly about.
Regarding the technical aspects, the commission required several weeks of sketching and approval of ideas. After years of intense study and daily practice, I never actually "think" about my technique any more, (unless I am teaching a workshop). I believe that my best, most expressive paintings always come from an emotional rather than a visual encounter, and because the publisher/agents were attracted to these more abstract paintings, I had to find a way to make the art personal in order for it to be something that was true to my aesthetic. Following a complex approval process, which required much negotiation and confidence, and I am very, very grateful to Jettstream and Churchill Downs for working so hard to understand, and work with, my very individual artistic process. Churchill and its agents allowed me to paint several ideas, then selected the ones they felt best met everyone's goals.
Now for how the idea came to me...(As a writer yourself, I know you can appreciate this): Every single creative act/endeavor of mine begins its life as a kernel of inspiration derived from my daily journal. I write each and every morning, and have done so most of my life. Writing enables me to escape the traps of my fearful, ego- mind so that I can find something meaningful, or beautiful upon which to base my day. With this in mind, when I found out from Clare Jett that I was fortunate enough to have been selected as the next Kentucky Derby artist, I felt that, with an audience that was so large, and the commission so important and meaningful to so many, that it had to represent something far greater than my ability to paint something beautifully. It was my greatest hope that the work would be a conduit for something much greater than myself, and that the people who looked upon it would see something in it that reflects what is best within us all.
At such times, poetry usually comes before, and inspires the painting, and this time was no exception; With altruistic intention and ideas “brewing” inside of me, I thought “If there was only one more painting left to do in my life, what would I want it to say? What last message would I want my kids to know?” The words literally hit me “Don’t give up.” I wrote a poem that I called “The Derby Beat”. (Just yesterday I received a request from First Lady of Kentucky, Mrs. Jane Beshear's office that she would like to place this image and poem at the capitol showcase in honor of Mrs. Beshear's program: The Celebration of Hope. I am so honored.
The poem has already helped people throughout Kentucky and Texas, from those battling dreadful diseases to loss of employment. It is part of the reason why my husband and I are donating the proceeds of the Oaks painting sale to Horses and Hope charity.) I’ll share it now:
When sometimes you feel out of place,
You’ve further to run just to stay in the race,
And the journey ahead seems too hard to face
.......Don’t give up
When legs become weak, and muscles burn,
And the earth beneath you begins to churn,
To safer ground, your thoughts may turn, yet
......Don’t give up
When your heart can offer you nothing more,
When defeat descends like leaden door,
With your confidence leaking from every pore...
.....Don’t give up
When all you can do is stay in the race,
Rejecting all compromise; not saving face,
When you dig deep just to keep your pace
.....Don’t give up
You’ll reach a point when, as you make the last turn,
From deep within, a force starts to burn,
Internal fires fueled, when you yearn... just...
.....Don’t give up
The finish line, that glint of gold
Is reached by those who do not fold,
For guiding hands come to the bold, who
.....Don’t give up
That vein of gold you rush to meet,
The pulse of life pounds with your feet,
You’ll find resolve in every beat, when you
.....Don’t give up!
.....Don’t give up!
.....Don’t give up!
.....Don’t give up!
.....Don’t give up!
Can you hear the hoofbeats? My friend said this style of poetry is called “onomatopoeia. Who knew? I certainly did not!
(This painting will be available soon in print; keep posted or visit www.humphreyart.com to enquire. I will be giving a signed copy of my poem with every image also, to help you on your way.)
The first Saturday in May and the Kentucky Derby and Oaks races loom close. As a result, I am being interviewed regularly. Recently, as I was out of the country, I was asked to answer questions for an interview via email. What resulted was a thorough overview of my life and art as it relates to the Derby commission. Posting much of it here gives me a great opportunity to update you on this amazing Derby adventure....Grab a cup of coffee and read on...
Q: Can you tell me your age, where you're from and where you live?
I was born on May 6th 1957 (53) so the Oaks day is my birthday! I was born in Lancashire, England and am still a British citizen. I live with my husband, Larry Humphrey, and our children Lauren (25), Ashley (23) and Christopher (20) in Texas (northwest Houston) where we have a small horse farm, and Charlotte, North Carolina. We also own a small gallery in Tomball, TX, which we lease to local artists. My studio is above the gallery.
Q: What first inspired you to become an artist? Was there a particular person or event that encouraged or inspired you?
I cannot ever remember a moment that I was not drawing horses. My mother says I was born loving horses. (She has zero interest, so she attributes it to her great grandfather who loved and trained horses for the cavalry in the Boer War!) My father was a commercial artist, so materials were always on hand. It was probably dreaming and hoping to own a horse of my own that led me to draw them incessantly. (I would drop out of trees onto the farmer's cart horses, then wonder how to get off safely once I got bored.) I would fashion horses out of clay from the stream as they grazed around me. My bicycle was a steed, complete with reins and a temperamental mechanism that ensured I "came a cropper" regularly.
In truth, the skill of drawing was developed from a very early age as I fashioned horses and ideas from my vivid imagination, and also from capturing the horses and ponies I rode throughout my childhood. I was encouraged by many people, from relatives to teachers, during my formative years. However, as happens to many would-be artists, I was encouraged to "get a proper job" and therefore pursued a legal career until I turned 30, had two children, and decided to pursue art; something for which I believe I was designed to do.
I was very unimpressed with the college art programs available to me in Dallas/Fort Worth area at the time, and so I searched for a mentor and found him in a Houston artist by the name of Dick Turner. I was fortunate enough to study with him for 6 months before he sadly passed away, but during those precious months, I learned the fundamentals of "how to see" and paint; The skills learned with my mentor, along with his passion and spirit, permeate every aspect of my art even today.
Q: How did you develop your artistic style?
I would say I have followed an individual path, guided by a special "litmus test" for direction: There have been some paintings that have caused, I would say, a "liquifying feeling" inside of me; There have been works of art that, once encountered, have changed my life and journey forever. I those moments, the art seems to bypass my critical mind, sending a wordless message to the deepest part of me. When this happens, I know there is something that rings like a bell within me, that I have to perhaps 'uncover' rather than discover what that is. I then set about learning, with a fervor, all that I can that causes that reaction.
My family and I have been to some of the most incredible museums in the world. I would say I am drawn to style and substance, rather than image and technique. My early influences were the Russian Itinerant painters, specifically Serov, Repin and Fechin. (I even studied from a Russian iconographer so I could better understand the soul of these painters! I'm not Catholic by the way.)
A massive upheaval to my style occurred in 2005 when my 44 year-old younger sister passed away after a long battle with M.S., when I stopped looking at external imagery for information, and instead went deep inside for content. Unable to paint my normal genre, I chose to paint for her four paintings, representative of the four seasons of her life, two of which I felt she had not experienced. This caused a creative shift: I chose to paint upon gold gesso, representative of the love and life force that exists behind things. The images that I produced were expressive of my emotional, rather than visual content, causing my inspiration to change forever thereafter. I believe the qualities that I excavated at this time, a time when my ego crumbled away, were the very qualities that endure now and are, perhaps, the reason I was chosen this year.
My artistic content and style matured when I discovered the "Glasgow Four": Charles Rennie MacKintosh, Mary McDonald, Frances McDonald and Herbert McNair. These remarkable painters of the early 19th century were pivotal in developing the Art Nouveau movement, even affecting none other that Gustav Klimt, who's aesthetic changed forever after showing with them in Austria. More importantly for myself, is that their work was created to illuminate ordinary people's lives, and not just for the elite.
Other "liquifying" painters are Kandinsky, Van Gogh and Deibenkorn, and I have developed my own voice by studying in a variety of ways, over the years. I know my journey will never be over. It is a journey rather than a destination. A journey that I love, and a journey I love to encourage in others.
Q: Where else has your work been displayed or what other commissioned artwork have you produced?
In addition to several gallery and art exhibitions, my work has been displayed in several museums including: Marietta-Cobb Museum, Atlanta, GA, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX, International Museum of the Horse, Lexington, KY, Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Wildlife Experience Museum, Denver, Colorado. In addition, I have exhibited at notable British establishments including Christie's, London, Mall Galleries, London, and Royal Horse Guards/Hyde Park Barracks. I have taken one other corporate commission, that of the Sam Houston Race Park, Houston, Texas. I have also been commissioned by many remarkable and generous patrons, most notable to the equine field: Mr. and Mrs. John Paul Miller, Mr. and Mrs. Sonny Knight, Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Friedkin, Mrs. Wayne Lyster, Doctor and Mrs. Lavin and Mrs. and Mrs. R. Brown, to name a few.
Of particular interest to you may be the fact that I was presented to H.M. the Queen by the Royal Grenadier Guards, after I had done a painting for them of the retiring Brigadier General. This I did in honor of, and for my wonderful Uncle Norman and his fellow servicemen from World War II. I would like to refer you to full story in the following link to my website, if you have a need of it: http://lesleyhumphrey.net/the-artful-life/2010/11/15/the-day-i-met-the-queen/
Q: What sorts of materials/paint do you usually work with? What did you have to do differently for the Derby paintings?
My primary medium is oil. However, I love to use watercolor, acrylic and charcoal too, but always in the same manner. My technical execution is exactly the same, no matter what the medium. This astonishes watercolorists, until they see me paint! Often, even when oils and watercolors are exhibited side-by-side, people cannot easily identify the media I used.
The Derby image was executed in my usual way; i.e., "excavate a powerful idea and express it from the inside of the canvas, outwards!" It's a very expressive technique. However, the Oaks and Paddock paintings were orchestrated with close direction and input from the publishers, which required a more illustrative approach, yet utilizing the same design principles.
Q: Have you ever been to the Kentucky Derby? If so, what was the experience like and how did it inform the pieces you produced? If not, are you coming this year, and what do you look forward to most about the event?
I have never been to the Kentucky Derby. It's always been a dream, and I knew I would go one day. I just didn't know when and how.
Since my good paintings always come from a personal response to the subject, I had find a way to make the project personal. I had, years before during one of my artistic residencies, driven to Churchill Downs when it was not even open, just to see the spires and backstretch through the fences (It is like hallowed ground to me), but that wasn't enough for an emotional connection. If I was chosen for this commission , I considered that it would likely be one of the most important pieces I have ever done and I wanted it to be so much more than self-aggrandizement. I love to quote Vincent Van Gogh who said "Every good piece of art is an act of generosity." I interpret this by meaning it ought to illuminate the best qualities, and if possible what connects us, and not what divides us. The artistic journey, the kernel for the Derby piece came in April 2010 at a racetrack just outside of Louisville, Kentucky. I wrote about it in my journal and so I'll copy it here.... I think it's a great story....(as you can already tell.... I love to write and do so every day.) Here goes:
“It probably started when Clare Jett said to me, “If you are the Derby artist, what would you need for your art?” I said “I want to feel the Derby. Perhaps if I could stand in the dirt, on the finish line? Talk to the people who live with, train, groom and care for the horses here, every day?” You see, I know that I wanted to capture the spirit of the Derby, not just the visual image. I knew my inspiration would come from feeling the heartbeat of the Derby and its people. I knew my quest would begin when I went to Lexington to stay with my good friends Judy and John Paul Miller.
I felt that this opportunity, this vast potential for audience, which had come to me through a series of synchronistic events, had come to me for a reason. Knowing myself, I realized that my greatest challenge would be to carefully manage my own thought processes; to not let my ego run amok and jeopardize my chance at creating something truly worthwhile, that everyone could enjoy. You see, whilst I know I can paint rather well, I believe that Art should be born out of generosity, rather than personal achievement. I would love it if, when seeing the work and feeling beauty within it, rather than see it as something beyond themselves, I want the work to be a mirror of what is best and common to all of us. I want them to recognize themselves within it, and love what they see.
With thoughts like these germinating inside of me, I went to Lexington to teach my horse painting workshops at the American Academy of Equine Art. When I shared my recent news with my friends and patrons Judy and John Paul Miller, and my plan to meet Clare about the Derby commission over the weekend, Judy came up with a wonderful plan to give me a real flavor of the Derby. She said, “After your class on Friday, why don’t we go to Louisville, stay at the Brown Hotel (a Derby society ‘crown jewel’ since 1923), then we’ll get up Friday morning and watch Timeless Fashion train, meet Clare for lunch at Churchill Downs, and watch the races?” What lovely friends I have. (Thank you Judy.) What a lucky break there was a race meet that weekend....
Well, this seemed like a stellar idea to me. I’d been wanting to see Timeless Fashion, Judy’s wonderful racehorse, for a couple of years and jumped at the chance to do both things. It would give us the chance to catch up on art, life and the occasional gossip (we are women, after all....) so off we went.
As I walked into the Brown Hotel, viewing the brocade, lavish marble and art, I imagined I could hear the echoes of excited voices, smell the intoxicating aroma of fine cigars, see the women in the beautiful gowns of days gone bye. I thought to myself , ‘Whether I win this commission or not, this is wonderful experience is enough’ and felt such gratitude. To complete the experience, we treated ourselves to a ‘Kentucky hot brown’ for dinner. I decided I would allow myself a ‘mint julep’ on the day, if I was fortunate enough to attend the Oaks or Derby, wearing a fabulous hat.
We arrived at the training barn of Tom Drury Jr. The morning was hot and the horses were hotter. Everyone was so upbeat and happy, except the banty rooster who was completely offended at being caught and shown to me. As soon as we walked into the barn, the beautiful, 16.1 hand bay, stakes winning thoroughbred that is Timeless Fashion became very excited upon seeing Judy. I felt very touched. He strained to reach her. (The feeling was only slightly diminished when I realized it was the rustling bag of special treats that always accompanied her, that may be the cause of his amorous gestures.)
One horse in particular caught my eye. A most gorgeous dark brown/black stallion was about to walk onto the track. He took my breath away. I was soon introduced to his owners, ‘Doc’ and Mrs. Betsy Lavin, and shared my appreciation of the beautiful horse. Mrs. Lavin said “Handsome is as handsome does. We’re in this game to win!” As I watched the next gorgeous crop of hopefuls gallop into the misty blue and pink of the humid morning, it dawned on me that these were the people who live the Derby dream 24-7, 365 days a year. It flows through their blood like fine Kentucky bourbon, fuels their dreams and infects them with passion. I took a deep breath, turned to Betsy Lavin, and said “If, by some chance I am the Derby artist next year, I will hope to infuse my art with what the spirit of the Derby, rather than the look of the Derby. I know this is a lot to ask, but if you could sum up what the Derby is to you, would you be so kind........?”
What a generous soul. Holding on to the rail, Betsy looked out, not at the track, not at the horses, but over the rolling hills of the Bluegrass and said “.... It’s so much more than a race. It’s a life. It’s a big, beautiful tapestry of life. It represents the past, and it’s the future. It makes and it breaks people. It’s the breeders, the trainers, the people, hopes and dreams. Why, when a horse wins the Derby it keeps us all going for many years to come. It’s life.” She then began to tell the story of a horse she had raised for John Ed Anthony of Loblolly Stable, and had loved with a passion named Prairie Bayou. She told of the day he finished 2nd in the Derby, won the Preakness, and the devastation of his Belmont, where he was put down.
The cycle of life, and how lives are all woven together became apparent as Betsy and Judy told the story of Justin Vitek, a close friend and regular rider for the Drury Racing Stable who lost his young life to cancer in January, 2010 at the age of 36, leaving behind a large family and 6 year old daughter Bree Vitek. At his request, he was buried in the silks he wore when he guided Timeless Fashion to his maiden win at Turfway Park - the last race Justin would ride before being diagnosed with Leukemia. To honor the young jockey, Turfway Park decided to host a memorial for the family during the running of the Prairie Bayou Stakes (named after the great racehorse, now buried on their farm). The Millers and their partner Bob Liedel had intended to run Timeless Fashion in the Prairie Bayou stakes, and decided to donate a portion of any winning proceeds to fund Bree Vitek’s education.
I like to think of it as the spirit of life that sometimes takes opportunities of situations like this to show us all that, in the end, things happen for a reason.... Timeless Fashion won the Prairie Bayou stakes, with Vitek’s good friend James Lopez on board, wearing Judy’s silks, with the whole family watching and benefiting from his efforts. Timeless Fashioned blasted past the finish line with Lopez pointing to the sky. When Justin's mother Kathy Vitek presented the owners with the winning trophy, they handed it back to her. The families of Vitek, Lavin, Miller, Drury, Lopez, and a host of others now all woven together in the tapestry of life, if only for a moment.
Now that’s a Kentucky story.
Stories like this are attached to every life of every living creature and person, connected with the Derby trail.
I felt I had discovered the pulse of the Derby.
Betsy graciously invited Judy and I to her farm to see her home and her art collection. To person who hungers for art such as myself, who travels the world’s museums quenching my thirst, being invited to see a personal collection in situ, in the home, showed me the very life and soul of the family and it’s loves. A rich, textural variety of images with Prairie Bayou’s gentle image at the center. So I thought again to myself, “Even if I do not win this commission, this is enough, and I’ll never forget these past two hours.”
I felt privileged.
The magic continued as Doc and Betsy graciously offered us their passes to the Churchill Downs Turf Club for lunch, and their box from which to watch the races later that day. We had a wonderful lunch and meeting with Clare Jett, and I tried to contain the excitement that was welling up within me, whilst the feeling of kismet that was beginning to enfold me. We three happily got to know one another, watched the races, and took photos. I chatted with paddock officials whilst enjoying all the colors and life abounding there, then finished my Churchill experience by visiting the art installations and Derby museum. It was all just delicious.
Did it all end here.... this wonderful day? No, it did not. That evening I accompanied Judy and John Paul to a graduation party and outdoor barbecue at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Neil Howard at Lexington’s Gainsway Farm. As the sun went slowly down, intense colors bowed to muted grays setting the stage for a symphony of fireflies that set the rolling hills aglitter. I was encircled by horse people of Lexington, and their families, all having a good time as we shared stories of horses, hunting and racing together. All were characters, and all had life dancing in their eyes like the fireflies all around us, twinkling in the bluegrass.
This day cemented my love for the Bluegrass, forever.”
I didn't want to miss an opportunity to show you my friend Linda Graham's lovely Lusitano stallion Amuleto. He's appeared in some PR recently, but people keep forgetting to list his name, so I just had to give him a plug here. Thanks Linda, for lending me your best guy! Good luck at Pin Oak tonight!