A Helping Hand

In 1986, after graduating from Northwest College of Art, I was anxious to see what possibilities my new artistic style in painting horses had in store for me. I wanted to sell my art, so my first step was to contact some gallery owners in Seattle to see if they would show my work. Some galleries didn’t think my work was suitable, but then I was accepted at Legends Gallery which had a beautiful selection of original art and sculptures. They selected three originals for consignment. It was a wonderful feeling to have my work hanging like a professional artist, but then the weeks turned into months without a sale and I began to become discouraged. Also it felt strange leaving my art at a gallery. It felt like leaving one of my own animals at the pound, not knowing when or who would adopt them.

“Flair”, 1986, 19×25, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Rick Kessler

“To see the wind’s power, the rain’s cleansing, the sun’s radiant life,
one need only to look at the horse.”
– Author Unknown

Along came a family friend named Rick Kessler, who was involved in thoroughbred racing. I shared my pastel line drawings with him and asked his opinion. He was enthusiastic about the pieces, saying they were very beautiful and unlike any horse art he had seen. He wanted to buy two of the pieces. I was inwardly overjoyed and a bit nervous, as I had never really sold any of my art directly to a “client”. I thought fast and came up with a figure of $100 each and he agreed! There is nothing like that first sale to boost a beginning artist’s confidence!

In the ensuing months, Rick encouraged me to keep drawing. He sent me racing magazines and pictures for references. Then, when his racehorse Slyly Gifted was running in the Longacres Derby at the track nearby, he invited my mother and I to attend. It was the first time I had ever been to the racetrack, and I was fascinated. It amazed me to think of all the people that had come here for this one day – some of them for the money, some for the spectacle and most for the love of a sport involving horses. What was even more exciting was that Slyly Gifted won the Longacres Derby! I was thrilled to stand in the winner’s circle with Rick and his partners. Then my excitement reached an all time high when Rick said, “I want you to paint a portrait of my horse.”

“Slyly Gifted” reference photo

“Slyly Gifted”, 1986, 21 x 29

“Man is partner, not master, of the thoroughbred.” – “Polo” magazine

Slyly Gifted was my first commissioned portrait. It was also the first realistic piece I had attempted in pastel, which was very challenging because the win photo was in black and white. I decided to crop the image to enhance the long, lean line of jockey and horse with the tote board in the background. In truth, it also probably was to avoid having to paint all those long legs! Then, I began to color the image with the pastel chalk, discovering as I went how to further blend and soften, overlay and define the colors as I put them down in patches rather than my previous style of abstract background and sketched lines. When I had laid down most of the color, I decided I wanted to capture the sense of speed and motion I had witnessed that day at the track. So, I began blending the pastel in the same diagonal way as I had with the line drawings. This technique gave the sensation of motion that I was hoping for. It was another artistic leap for me as I realized the diagonal strokes I had used to create motion in my line drawing style could also be used in a realistic piece. It was the motion that was the essential element.

“Anticipation”, 1998, 22×28

“My temper is just now for action ripe
On the high horse my courage sits astride.” – Moliere

My pursuit of Rick’s suggestions introduced me to the world of thoroughbred racing. He put me in touch with Joe LaDuca, vice president of Washington Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association (W.T.B.A.) and editor of Washington Thoroughbred magazine. Joe liked my work and was intrigued by my interest in starting my career as a professional artist. He offered to feature a piece of my art of the cover and an article about me in the magazine. I was on my way!

I will never forget watching my first morning workout with Joe LaDuca from the backstretch of Longacres. It was a memorable experience of mystery and aura of the often unseen world of racing. The place, people and events seemed as foreign from the rest of the city as a circus. In the painstaking preparations for the big event, I could see that each groom, exercise rider, trainer, and outrider had a specific function. Like practicing trapeze artists, they appeared casual in their routine, but there was an undercurrent as taut as a safety wire. It was awareness that every second counts, and that every action can mean success or failure.

“Emerging”, 1989, 20×26

“All emulous, he hears the clashing whips
He feels the animated shouts; exerts
With eagerness his utmost powers; and strains
And springs, and flies, to reach the destin’d goal”
– Robert Dodsley

Of course, my camera was clicking non-stop. I remember one exercise rider pulling up from his gallop. As he slowed, the horse playfully bounced sideways. It was a striking vision: the rider standing upright in the stirrups, while the horse pranced with neck arched and hooves extended beneath him. This image I titled Ready became the drawing that later appeared on the cover of the July 1987 Washington Thoroughbred magazine.

“Ready”, 1987, 19×25

“A hundred yards away I saw a big bony colt acting up.
He’d just returned from a gallop and was feeling good.
He pranced along with that challenging winner’s gait.”
– Bill Barich

That year, I entered the annual W.T.B.A. Juried Show at Longacres with two originals: Ready, the cover art, and a dark, dramatic piece called Masked Trial. On opening night, I arrived early at the sales pavilion to see if I had won an award. To my amazement, something more important had occurred. Ralph Vacca, the president of the association, nearly ran up the sales pavilion aisle to tell me that Morris Alhadeff, the owner of the track, had bought Masked Trial! For the owner of the track to choose my piece out of the entire show was such a great feeling. To me it was even more important than a jury’s award based on my ability.

“Masked Trial”, 1987, 24×30

“The chase, the sport of kings, the image of war without its guilt.” – William Somerville

Rick’s influence continued. In the summer of 1988, he recommended my work to his friend Dr. Joe DeMichael, manager of Evergreen Farm in Kentucky owned by C.N. Ray of SeaRay Boats fame. Joe wanted to commission a portrait of a filly, Pattern Step, as a gift for Mr. and Mrs. Ray. They had bought the filly at his suggestion and she had gone on to win the French Arc de Triomphe.

“Pattern Step”, 1988, 22×28

“…The birds of the wood alone
might match her in the race.
Just like the wheeling of the mountain winds
is the action of the galloping mare.”
– Gaelic poem

This was really the big time for me! Joe flew me down to California to photograph Pattern Step at Charlie Wittingham’s training barn. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Mr. Wittingham, but I was told that when he saw the finished portrait he said, “Yep, that’s Pattern Step; I’d know those nostrils anywhere.”

I created the piece as a montage of Pattern Step winning the 1988 Hollywood Oaks, her head portrait, and an allegory of her name created by her “stepping” on a “pattern” made of the Evergreen Farm’s tree shaped logo. As my understanding of how to work with pastel progressed, I began to depict the horses and settings more and more realistically, while still attempting to portray the movement as the essential elements.

Later that fall, my mom and I met Rick and his wife, Pat, in Lexington, Ky., to deliver the finished painting. During that trip, Rick also introduced me to his bloodstock agent, Lonnie Owens. While giving us a tour of his hometown of Paris, Lonnie introduced me to his client Bobbie Keller, who decided to commission me to paint his filly, Lt. Lao as a gift for his father.

“Lt. Lao”, 1988, 22×28

“The blood runs hot in the Thoroughbred and the courage runs deep.
In the best of them, pride is limitless.”
– C. W. Anderson

While gathering references for Lt. Lao’s commission, I had the opportunity to visit picturesque Keeneland racetrack to watch Lt. Lao run against the famous Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors, in the Spinster Stakes. Neither of them won that day, but I couldn’t get over the odd sensation of watching the races there. For when the gates opened, instead of the usual loud commentary of the racetrack announcer there was an unexpected silence. The races were not called. The only sounds were the occasional voices of the fans escalating to a crescendo as the horses near the finish line.

“Vaguely Noble”, 1989, 22×28

“He is vaguely noble. He is a fiery king.
His eyes are like a thousand years. His love the greatest gift”
– Bonnie Lewis

One of the other places we visited was the famous Gainesway Farm. Though we didn’t get a tour, I picked up one of their brochures. The inside cover featured a striking photo of the stallion Vaguely Noble. Though I never met him his presence was palpable. I obtained permission to paint him, and the portrait went on to be accepted in the prestigious 1989 American Academy of Equine Art Juried Show at the Kentucky Horse Park. This was especially remarkable because my first submissions in 1988 had been turned down. The next year, I had ignored the prospectus rules that prohibited “head portraits”, and submitted Vaguely Noble.  Vaguely Noble was not only accepted, but it went on to win both the People’s Choice and First Place Drawing awards.  These marked my first prestigious awards. I was honored and thrilled that I had been selected to receive an award chosen by artist who had been painting the horse for decades. But the People’s Choice Award was especially gratifying; for the public attending the opening to pick my piece as their favorite among such esteemed company was the greatest honor for me.

All of these experiences and more were due to the efforts of one man who believed in me. Just as he would judge conformation in a prospective yearling, Rick recognized my potential as a young artist and started me on the right track. As I look back over the works that spanned those years, I can see the growth that came through the pursuit of my art and the challenge of the commissioned portraits. Thanks to Rick Kessler, I had many opportunities to fulfill my potential.

“Taking a Hold”, 1988, 24×30

“As he knotted the reins and took his stand
The horse’s soul came into his hand,
And up from the mouth that held the steel
came an innermost word, half thought, half feel…”
– John Masefield

Kentucky Fall

by Kim McElroy

The clouds are scattered like cows
grazing in pastures of sky.
Hawks circle, feathers spread like fingers
to catch the wind.
Tattered fall leaves, rusted and golden,
sway to the ground, wreathe around roots
and chatter along quiet two lane roads.

Whispering streams send warm breath
rising into valleys of stone
standing like nature’s castles.
That same stone adorns the drives of great houses.
Constant fences seam the rolling hills,
as here and there you see the purpose of the land…
a nursery full of long necked creatures
grazing amidst waves of grass
their tails sifting in the occasional breeze.

The people are welcoming,
proud of their prosperity.
The heart of their heritage
beating with the hot-blooded pulse
of the Thoroughbred.

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