Monday, March 17, 2014

Muddy Monday: A Walk In The Mud

As a resident of Tennessee and a professional equine artist, I get struck by the shrapnel of hate-bombs directed towards this state's native horse breed. I dodge the landmines of local horse people. The social and news media drive non-horse and AR people into such a froth that they have difficulty separating the Horse from what is done (to the Horse) in the name of Fashion. The Horse did not ask to have these things done to him. His only fault is being such a forgiving and compliant being, that this could even go on, at all. I've run into a few serious horse people who fail to grasp the distinction, and there is a tendency to throw the bay out with the bathwater. Or the black, dun, gray, chestnut, roan...

To see the breed before humans really took it to extremes, all one has to do is look at great old paintings, early photos, and sculpture (like last week's blog feature, Hagen-Renaker's Roan Lady). Why go to extremes, in the first place? One reason, although not the only one, is financial. The horse with the flashiest, most visually-arresting movement (in other breeds, it is flashiest color or most extreme skull shape) wins, by any means necessary. A World Championship meant lots of breeding money in a state, and a whole region, that had been economically depressed for a very long time. This is the sort of business that doesn't require higher education in the day-to-days, with the exception of needing veterinary services. Financial ambition, limited education opportunities, agricultural setting, and a state with weak or non-specific laws about animal welfare all contributed to the perfect storm of Fashion superseding Comfort. Some laws have been added, others amended. 

Today, enforcement is imperfect, as seen in the statewide "leash law"; every owner except three or four of us on my entire street let their dogs roam, without so much as a warning. Again, this goes back to the agricultural and hunting traditions that defy or circumvent paper laws: if the owner can prove that the dog is currently engaged in hunting or herding, it is exempt. Sadly, breaking from the history of soft enforcement will take an enormous coordinated effort, time, and an attitude shift. For example, our county animal shelter has made huge strides in the past seven years, including rescuing horses, not just small mammals and poultry/fowl. If I told you of the amount of difficulty, the number of concerned citizens and volunteers, the hours of meetings and labor, and listed just a few of the community events that it took to turn this single shelter around, your head would spin. If that's what it took to make one TN county shelter state and federal law compliant, I have some small perspective on what it will take to completely eradicate the statewide soring of Tennessee Walkers. To be honest, it doesn't feel like enough people reside here to vote and enforce it into extinction.

What Fashion and Greed have done to the Tennessee Walking Horse is not the Horse's fault. Please, stop blaming the victim. The TWH was originally a beautiful and handy all-around riding horse, sound with ample physical substance. They had bone. They had chests. They grew abundant manes and tails and didn't need wigs. They could live long lives. They had natural movement that made them famous, before anything was augmented or artificial.

I've seen educated horse people take stands on social media, but a photo or a shared link does not touch what I feel and experience. Most of these well-meaning people have the comfort of distance. A few of them turned their venom to the mistreatment of this breed, rather isolated to this region, but were silent about Thoroughbred racehorses, Arabians, Quarter Horses, or any other breed with even worse death, misuse, and inflicted injury/drug/soring/surgical records. Unlike most of those vocal folks, I live here. It affects my entertainment choices, my business, and my relationships with locals. I do not attend real horse shows here, for fear of what I'll see. Non-horse people, upon learning what I do for a living, attempt smalltalk, and ask if I will be going to the World Championships for inspiration this year. I have to gauge my response carefully, because you never know who is related to someone in that industry; this is a state where the pride is strong and a little dangerous. 

So, like any artist in the midst of a turmoil they sense around them, I needed to make a statement that no one else could make for me. I was going to make a natural TWH portrait. At ease. No parked-out stretch. I needed a vintage subject for the sculpture. The modern two-legs-out -of-one-hole log-head Fashion was not going to cut it. This needed to say, "Do you remember when they looked like this?"

There are people still breeding for this old type. They call such horses "Heritage" Tennessee Walkers. Here is one of the last breeding farms for this type, in our country.

While researching the blog post about Roan Lady's real life identity, I ran across retirement photos of her only mate, Go Boy's Shadow. While he was a two-time World Champion, and was show-shod in the early era of the Fashion, he was kept natural for most of his life. 

At age 23, photos taken in 1975 by Mary Ellen Areaux.
Photos used with permission of Walkers West webmaster Judy Handel.

At the stud farm, he was barefoot, had a natural tail set, and looked better at age 23 than most of today's representatives of this breed look in their prime. Even in an early publicity photo (see below), he had one hind leg casually forward and under him, as if already defying the future Fashion. This was my portrait horse. "This guy", is what I needed to say.

I tried sketching him in a few different ways. To get a feeling for the conformation of a portrait, I sometimes trace a show-prime photo, and stare at it a while. Then, I freehand a drawing, then stare at both to see what meshes. I then trace my own drawing over, about three more times, adjusting model size while examining his retirement photos, because I am trying to teach myself to shed perception vs. what the horse actually had grown into. His underline had dropped, his head carriage had risen, and his hips had rounded.

Then, I made the armature by laying it directly on the drawing. I have grown into a very untraditional sculpting method of finishing the horse entirely in sections, rather than working round and round in many, many stages. This method developed when I made models out of Aves Apoxie, instead of the plastalina, Chavant P-40.

In epoxy putty, I condense it to just three main steps: sculpting, sanding, veining. This is not how I was trained, and I do not recommend it to anyone. I can't explain why I can do it, other than my brain does organize/identify/process things differently. This method will only lead to frustration and mismatched body parts, if you are a beginning sculptor.

The real horse had a very large shoulder and neck, so when he matured, his deepened waist balanced him out nicely. I loved his diamond-shaped nostril flare in his older photos, so I went with that look.

In his retirement photo, he stands proudly with his forelegs under him, sort of like the Hagen-Renaker 6" Style Two Amir (whose real identity is the subject of a future blog post). 

His natural tail reached to his ergots, in the old photo. I sculpted a light breeze blowing his tail, mane, and forelock. 

This angle shows the soft undulations of his crest skin and muscle, and his handsome face.

The unpainted resin edition is only a single mold run. This means after about 30, the mold is aged. Sometimes, the rubber holds up for more. However long it lasts, we will not make another mold to make more resins. Thirty-odd resins of a natural TWH can't come close to outweighing the model horse world's Big Lick mold majority, but it will take lots of efforts like this to slowly change attitudes. Orders are open for this unpainted resin model. While I normally allow customization of my resins, I do not allow Big Lick conversions on this resin. I purposefully chose leg poses and pastern angles that would make such a conversion an enormous headache, if attempted.

The big question is, "Will he be ceramic?" Yes, I have scaled him to shrink down to Roan Lady's size in ceramic, so they can be displayed together. Happily, the original survived the resin molding process, so I cleaned the mold release off, and I will make his plaster directly on the original. The first plaster mold is the waste mold. This will be used to pour a rubber master. The rubber is what the future production plaster molds will be poured against. As the plaster dries, there is a degree of shrinkage. The rubber has so little shrinkage as to be inconsequential. But, the next generation of plaster, off that rubber, will reduce. Then, when the clay casting dries out, it shrinks more... and even more, in the bisque firing. The final product should stand just a hair taller than the average Roan Lady model. 

The ceramics will be announced as they are finished and available. A Walk in the mud never felt more freeing and purposeful.

On the subject of the breed and its use, it feels good to replace a small bit of the hate, frustration, and aggression with beauty. Despite what the formal art schools tell us, Art that makes the viewer consider issues, and where we are going as human beings, doesn't have to be ugly or unrealistic to give topics some abrasive therapy. On that note, I have some sanding to do...


  1. Wonderful! Can't wait to see him in the show ring and to perhaps own a china version!

  2. Kristina,
    Excellent article and beautiful sculpt. I was introduced to the TWH many many years a go. In fact I almost purchased a beautiful strawberry roan mare as my first horse. I was told she was 10 and the vet told me that she was in her mid 20's, so I did not purchase her. What a fabulous rid she gave me.

    I started doing research and reading up on the breed and at 17 I was appalled at how they were training the horses so I did not support the breed buy buying. I am still unhappy how some trainers train, but it has gotten better but I truly understand what you are saying about having to be neutral.

    Thank you again for a super article. I do not always write to let you know how much I love your blog but I enjoy everything and being an old horsewoman I still can learn.

    I have gone completely over to the china side of the hobby now and my collection consists mainly of Royal Worcesters. I was just able to pick up a very rare "The Boar Hunter" and am awaiting for his arrival any day. Thank you again. Take care and God Bless.

    Sharron Dunning, Texas

  3. Oh jeez, that farm you linked with the Heritage TWHs is incredibly close to my home town. I saw the pictures and went "that's eastern MT." At first, I was wondering if it was the TWH place I drive by on the interstate, but nope, much farther north. I wonder if they'd accept a visitor.... :)