A horse is worth more
— Spanish Proverb
Practically from the time she could hold a pencil, Oklahoma City artist Kristen Vails has favored a particular subject matter, one known for its grace and athleticism, loyalty and companionship.
“I was one of those crazy horse girls,” she said with a laugh. “As long as I can remember, I drew them, I collected Breyer (model) horses, I had pictures all over my walls. Horse books, horse movies, I just loved them.”
Growing up in Piedmont, her parents would take her horseback riding on vacations, and when she was in middle school, they got her a Quarter Horse. While she doesn't ride anymore, she still owns and visits her girlhood steed, Fritzy, now 19.
“Painting horses has allowed me to kind of keep that connection to them,” said Vails, who is also executive director of the Plaza District Association.
Her acrylic and latex paintings of equines will be featured in “The Dog & Pony Show” at In Your Eye Gallery in the Paseo Arts District. The exhibit opens Friday night during the monthly Paseo Gallery Walk.
Along with their natural beauty, horses symbolize freedom, wildness and companionship, characteristics that have made them popular subjects not only in visual art but also in literature and film.
“I think the biggest reason is the romance, the love of horses that humans have had since recorded history, the freedom that the horse gives you to travel faster than your own two feet,” said Anne Morand, curator of art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Even with some galleries closed until April for renovations, horses have been so integral to Western life and lore that it's impossible to visit the museum without seeing artwork devoted to the creatures or artifacts made for working with them.
As with dogs, humans hold horses in high esteem because of the long tradition people have of laboring and living with the animals.
“I think it's why this story about ... selling horse meat and having slaughters of horses for meat is so distasteful to so many people,” she said. “They're our friends and part of our family.”
Horses aren't just cultural icons and favored artistic subjects in North America. Norman's Mainsite Contemporary Art is the first venue for “Entre huellas y arenas” — or “Hoofprints in the sand” — a popular exhibit of large-scale equine photographs by two Peruvian artists.
“Horses came to Peru with the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th century, and the Spanish also brought the horses here in the 15th century. And these two great horse cultures grew up ... so I think it's a really interesting connection,” said Mainsite Executive Director Erinn Gavaghan.
Alejandra Iturrizaga Andrich's work provides an intriguing, close-up look at the Peruvian Paso Horse, while Sandra Cannock Grana's photos convey the grace and strength of the Arabian breed. Both artists, who are horsewomen as well as photographers, attended the opening reception in February and then toured local horse farms with Gavaghan.
“They revere these horses as much as we do here,” she said.
Enrique Villar-Gambetta, Honorary Consul of Peru in Oklahoma, who worked with Gavaghan to coordinate the exhibit, plans to attend the closing reception March 8. The show will be on view until March 16.
“This is an animal that humans have related to very closely for thousands of years,” Gavaghan said. “And it's such a fascinating form for artists to study.”
Diana J. Smith, one of the resident artists at In Your Eye Gallery, invited Vails to join her in the circus-theme “Dog & Pony Show,” which pairs Smith's playful pooch paintings with Vails' elegant equine images.
“I'm kind of focusing on the movement of horses that do performance. I've got like horses bowing and balancing, but it's really still focused on the body of the horse and the muscles,” Vails said.
The show has a vintage vibe, she said, so she's been working from photos of horses in the circus, rodeos and Wild West shows.
“Historically, they've been a part of human story for so long,” Vails said. “For me, I'm trying to put human emotion and human experience kind of into the horse and into the painting so the viewer can feel that.
“The horse is kind of a spiritual animal. You can really see it in their eyes. People can just really connect with them.”