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.”