A Journey with the Horses

Sometimes things in my world get started in unexpected and unplanned ways. Through several experiences over the years I have learned to trust my instincts and instead of saying, “let me think about it” something deep inside me says, “why not?”
That was the case when, a casual-but-important conversation about things-that-really-matter with friend and neighbor, Aimee Brimhall McCord ( somehow evolved into the invitation to come to Solstice Ranch just “down the road apiece” where Aimee has her own horses and welcomes “horse people” to come and explore and learn how to communicate better with their own horses. Aimee has become well known across the country as a sensitive and gifted teacher in these circles.
I am not one of those “horse people.” I had painted a few horses from photos and had attempted drawing them at a handful of equestrian events in the area over the years. Frank and I had lived with horses as neighbors since moving to the south 25+ years ago. I truly knew little about them other than 4 legs going down and 2 ears headed up but I had never really spent time with them, something you really need to do, if you want to draw them well,
The backdrop of the conversation with Aimee was Frank’s death last fall. In addition to being my soulmate and best friend, he was my biggest fan and supporter over my entire art-filled career. His support for me never wavered from the moment he came to one of my very first exhibits at Schuster Gallery in Erie, PA in the early 80’s. He bought a small painting, came to my studio to pick it up, and the rest, as they say, is history. Losing his physical presence has brought a grief like I have never experienced before. Many of you who read this will know exactly what that is like. There are no words. This writing is not about my grief. It’s about what is helping me get beyond my grief. And it turns out, horses have been a large part of it. When the opportunity came along, the idea of exploring something new seemed just right for moving my heart forward in life-giving directions. It did, but in ways I would never have predicted.
Equipped with a brand new sketchbook, a portable chair, and a variety of my favorite pens and pencils,  I traveled the “long ” distance of a whole half mile to Solstice Ranch where a group of about 10 riders and their horses had arrived for a clinic with Aimee. My plan was to simply sit on the sidelines and observe closely and do gesture drawings as much as I could. A gesture drawing is one done quickly to catch a movement simply, in just a few strokes, in contrast to a contour drawing, done with slow attentiveness to the contours of the subject. I have been drawing both types for a very long time: cats and dogs, fiddlers, banjo pickers and pianists with some success. I quickly realized that drawing a horse is considerably different. All the parts are moving
and even the slightest movement changes the line of the back or the position of a leg rather dramatically. So I drew fast and furious and by the end of that first session I had pretty much filled that sketch book with scribbles that vaguely resemble horses. It was almost as if my hand was searching for a line that said “horse,” My strokes were uncertain and hesitant, but occasionally inside I could feel a gentle shift happening toward awareness, when the vision my eye saw was connecting directly to my heart and from there to my hand and then to the paper I was drawing on. That eye-heart-hand response that bypasses the analytical brain is something I learned over 40 years ago from friend and mentor Frederick Franck, whose books on seeing/drawing as meditation (The Zen of Seeing) have shaped my history as an artist. The only way to learn this is by drawing with mindful awareness. But how was I to learn how to meditate on a horse? to become one with a horse? to see deep inside the horse’s spirit and let that flow through eye, heart, and hand?
Simple answer:”keep doing it.” And for several months of bi-weekly visits, often alone with them, I have drawn and drawn and drawn some more, encouraged by the paraphrased words of Kimon Nicolaides, 19th century artist and author of The Natural Way to Draw, “the sooner you make your first 5000 mistakes, the sooner you can correct them.” I was well on my way! My muscle memory of drawing them gradually got a bit keener, allowing me to get a line down easier, much like your hand remembers how to form the letter of your signature without consciously thinking about how to form each letter.
Some days the horses presented themselves close to the rails out in the pasture or in the barn, as if to say to me, “Do I look good from this angle?” “Don’t I have pretty eyes?” ” I think my legs are quite nice…” They seemed aware that I was really seeing them and they in turn started to watch me with that same attention.

Other days, they would be intent on their grazing and they would stay far out in the pasture and I could only draw them as small parts of the landscape or just draw the landscape itself. Those days, I felt as if they were trying to tell me to see them as part of a whole, to see them in context of their home and environment.

I let them do the “lesson plan” as I continued to draw, each time coming home with a new insight and yet more drawings. After weeks of pencil drawings and ink drawings, I gradually moved into painting with a brush and watercolor. That’s when my art-heart jumped for joy at the feel of not only the line, but the form and dimension of the horse. Somewhere along the line when I wasn’t looking, we started to connect. It happened slowly and inconspicuously. Small steps from me and small steps from the horses. The horse stopped being a horse and became this horse. It wasn’t a progression of steps 1 through 10 or this to that or here to there. It was a progression in what favorite poet Maria Ranier Rilke would describe as “growing circles,” like the ripples that form on a pond when you throw a stone in the still water. Aimee had suggested that a connection might happen, but to be honest, I didn’t think it would. My interactions were remote. There was never a treat involved. I wasn’t riding them, so very little physical contact was made. We were simply seeing each other.

Then one day as I wrapped up a session of drawing a single horse, something very special happened. I had been sitting under a shade tree between two paddocks and did not realize that I was being watched by a horse behind me until I started to pack my gear. Had she been watching over my shoulder the whole time? I went over to the gate to have a little chat. She came to me willingly, nuzzled a bit as I stroked her chin and then unexpectedly lifted her head and placed it on top of mine. I had been hugged by a horse! To this horse I was obviously not just a person, but this person, someone she was getting to know. This is Truleigh. She has acknowledged me often this way and it is truly a very special experience.

Several months into the process, I took a break from the in-person visits with the horses and spent hours of quiet time with the completed drawings, picking out a few that I thought may work with a little more effort. A single scribbled drawing turned into more hours of re-drawing, simplifying with each attempt, to see how few lines were really necessary to draw a horse. Turns out that it is not all that many. One day I jokingly said to a kindred soul, “I wonder if they will just get simpler and simpler until they become just a single dot on a page?” Later, after spending time with that very thought, I realized that the single dot is not the drawing but it is that still point in my soul where I find the peace where drawing takes me. At this point in the journey I have learned so much about horses, but I have also learned a lot about myself.

The time with them has been healing. When I am drawing them all I think about is horse and “horseness” Amazingly, I feel Frank’s presence there with me in ways that I don’t feel anywhere else. It’s really quite magical. I want to share this story, hoping that maybe it will inspire or help someone else know that there is a path out of grief, not the same path as mine, but one just for you. Maybe it’s music, or gardening, or writing or walking. There are many ways to find one’s still point. And we all need to do that, whether we are grieving or not. But don’t we all grieve for someone/something? a person? an idea? a pet? a healthy future? or the very Earth herself?

I don’t know what’s next and I am ok with that. It may mean pushing through to a new phase of drawing or using a different medium. It may mean drawing a new subject, like the cows in another neighbor’s pasture or the faces of strangers or familiar landscapes. It may be something that hasn’t taken form yet.  I had thought that a part 2 to this post,  an expanded list of lessons learned, would be  a good  follow-up to this post,. I even started a list entitled “lessons learned.” But a good brisk walk on a very hot summer morning told me that such an orderly list  suggested  they could be checked off like a to-do list. It doesn’t work that way. I keep learning the same lessons over and over in “widening circles.” Drawing, writing, composing, relating to a horse or to a person all involves awareness, risk, and trust. Right now as I write, it seems very simple.

I saw Venus rise just this morning. It only happens once in a while, but I happened to look up just at the moment it was bright in a rosy gray sky, a pinprick compared to Sister Sun that was very close behind her. Another moment later she was hardly visible. It reminded me that moments come if you let them, if you are open to them. Lessons that I need to learn are there when I need them, if I have the presence to pay attention. I think that is true in relationships of all kinds, with horse or human, the smallest flower in my garden or the universe itself. I am sure that Aimee’s students are looking for those moments of at-one-ness with their horses when the ride is effortless and beautiful. I experience it when I am drawing or painting and the image seems to appear without effort.

It’s a journey, one without an end, but plenty of interesting stops along the Way. I am confident that there is more that I need to discover and I invite you to join me in the journey. I post frequent updates on my facebook page and instagram and will be adding new images here in the weeks to come. There is a lot of wisdom to share from these beautiful animals I have been privileged to get to know.  Thank you for letting me share it with you.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” –from Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot

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A Band of Mothers

In art, as in life, sometimes the journey leads us in unexpected directions.
Such was the case with the twentieth kimono in my series.(you can see the entire series and how it came to be here ) It has been a long and exciting journey with some very unexpected twists and turns and as so often happens the journey has been as important as the destination. Over a year ago (evidenced by scibblings in my journal) I started entertaining a final kimono in my series, commemmorating all the mothers, in my life. I started with the most obvious: my mother, my sister, my aunts, cousins, nieces, teachers, role models, friends …….those who mothered, not only my body, but my spririt, my mind, my soul, my heart, my art. The list kept getting longer and broader until it encompassed Mother Earth herself! Symbols of so many different aspects of these mothers percolated through my thoughts, including needles, garden books , letters, photos, fabrics, even clothespins! The “stuff” increased and the imagery became more and more complicated. The world events of the past two years created a complicated backdrop that included mothers visiting their children through hospital windows during covid; the mothers and grandmothers of Ukraine and the beautiful Polish women who welcomed them into their homes; bluebirds and nuthatches in their springtime nests around our home, the novel I was reading about the women of the Great Plains, young women giving birth, family stories…..all spoke of motherhood to me. Everywhere I turned I seemed to be met by mothers and their strength and beauty.
On an unusually warm early spring day, I sat near a star magnolia in my yard, and drew.That’s usually where my head clears best and my heart can see through the clutter. This magnolia in all its pure white beauty spoke to me of life and motherhood. The branches were twisted and complicated. Some branches bore new buds not yet open right alongside spent brown and withering flowers. Some branches even had greening leaves. “Simplify, simplify, simplify, “the magnolia said. I drew and then started to paint. Then I painted some more. I awakened at night sure I knew what direction to take to move this painting that had no real direction into a kimono, only discovering after another day down another path, that it too was not the right one. I “auditioned” ways to develop the core painting: weaving, piecing, stenciling, quilting, stitching by hand and by machine. I ended up rejecting them all after hours of unsuccessful attempts. The process itself became an integral expression of motherhood. I felt like the birth of this kimono was unlike any I had done before. I was in a very long hard labor, knowing

kimono image and magnolia flowers
For All the Mothers

as mothers do, that even the pain of creating is part of the beauty of motherhood.

The final image here was done in memory of the women (and some men) in my life that mothered me each in their own unique way. It is really very simple but has layers that probably will only be recognized by me, or some very perseptive soulmate. It has been an amazing journey as this piece came to life. Every stroke of my brush awakened another precious memory. I am filled with gratitude.
Will it be the last of my kimono series? At this point I am not sure. At one point I thought #10 would be the last. But they kept on coming. I hope to stay open to the possibilities of things to come………

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There’s No Place Like Home

There’s No Place Like Home

If you happened to catch a segment about the John Denver hit “Country Roads” on CBS Sunday Morning the Sunday after Christmas, you may have heard the word “hiareth”.  It caught my attention and I had to explore it a bit more.  Hiareth is a Welsh concept that means a deep longing for something, especially one’s home.  As used in the CBS segment, it reminded my of another term, “Spiritual geography'” that a good friend uses to describe the place or type of geography that makes one feel most at home, where one belongs.  That sense of belonging or home happened for me when I moved to the mountains over 25 years ago.  Of course,  I will always call Erie, along the shores of Lake Erie, my home, but something different happened when my address changed to the Appalachians. A new sense of home emerged.

It seems we all yearn for that sense of home, whether it is a a specific place or a kind of topography or maybe a particular room in one’s home or neighborhood. I recall so vividly and sadly how my Mom, in the throws of Alzhiemers would beg my Dad and I to take her home, while all the while she was sitting in her favorite chair in her own living room.  The medical folks explained that she was really asking for that comfort and peace we feel when we are truly at home.  It surprises me that the mountains have truly become “home” for me. since the mountain landscape was not part of my earlier years.

So, how does that influence my painting?  More and more, I find myself desiring to paint or draw the landscape around me.  I tune into the changes of the seasons more.  I watch my garden grow.  I nurture birds and butterflies.  Perhaps “home” has little to do with this place, but more the opportunity my current life affords me to see and experience the life around me, to be aware and to cherish simple things.  Or perhaps I am at that coming-home age, midway through my seventh decade.  It’s a good place to be.  I have a working theory that I am drawn to paint that which brings me that sense of home.  And I falso think that when a viewer finds a painting “speaking” to them, even enough to make it their own, it is because it reminds them of the “home” in their own hearts.

Yes, home is where the heart is and there is nothing like it.


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en plein air


“Spell check” may not like the expression “en plein air” very much but for some reason artists today still use this rather antiquated phrase for painting outdoors.  The term originated around 1800 and is attributed to Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819)  who first expounded on the concept in a treatise entitled Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape.   The concept is what I am most interested in and what I have finally come home to.  Years ago, I would ONLY paint from life either outdoors or in the studio.  When I think back to some of those paintings, like the ones I did on Presque Isle near my earlier home, I can feel a presence that I don’t  often feel from paintings I do from photographs. When I paints outdoors, I have to paint fairly quickly as the conditions can vary greatly within a short period of time. The light changes; bugs bight; temperatures vary; wind blows. Because of that I can’t get hung up on details.  I bring to the painting, not only what I see but also the smells and sounds and feel of the whole environment.  All of the senses become part of the painting.  Over the summer I was invited by a new friend and watercolorist in the area to join her and others at a plein air event.  I put it off until one day the group was scheduled to paint literally in my backyard, on the other side of  Sugarloaf Mountain, MY mountain.  How could I say no?

We painted along the Ocooee River for just a couple of hours and I fell in love again with plein air.  For the past few months I have been setting aside at least one morning a week to paint outdoors or  (if weather prohibits that) in the plein air state of mind.  It has become a weekly meditation.  The paintings are not necessarily spectacular but the experience definitely is.  When I draw or paint this way–outdoors, surrounded by the sights and sounds of flora and fauna–I am transported into another universe, no background music but the songs of the birds; no “breaking news” reports other than the breakthroughs of mindfulness. My preference is to paint alone.

One Sunday morning recently,  I spent close to two hours sitting and drawing near Cookson Creek.  I know the cooler months will not be conducive to sitting on a stool outside, so I  wanted to experiment with drawing and taking notes and then working from those to translate them into a painting back in the studio, kind of a hybrid of plein air plus studio work.   I wish  I could bottle the peace that came over me. Cookson Creek, which flows into the Ocoee River, goes right under the bridge on our quiet country road. The sun shone brightly filtered by thickets of trees just starting to turn to fall colors.  Carolina wrens sang.  Woodpeckers pecked.  Crows cawed.  Leaves fluttered and walnuts dropped noisily.  The slightly chilled  fresh air smelled of decaying leaves.  The drawing came easily.  My goal was to paint from the drawing, only using this short video to remind me of those peace-filled sounds and, to some extent, the scene itself.


This is the painting that came from that experience.  I called it “Remembering The Sycamore”.

Autumn scene
Remembering the Sycamore

That slanted silvery tree that is reflected in the creek is a sycamore, reminding me of my once Sycamore Gallery and this blog, too .  (Why “Sycamore Notes?” she said….)  My personal goal is to do more plein air painting as circumstances allow.  It doesn’t mean I won’t ever work from photos.  There are a lot of times when that works best.  It also does not mean I won’t experiment with combining media in my work or trying new surfaces to paint on.  But this old-but-now-new-again way of painting mindfully is what my soul needs to keep my work fresh and authentic.  My hope is that it will touch your heart as it has mine.

















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About that brand new box of crayons……

colorful kimono construction
A Brand New Box of Crayons

Do you remember the smell of a brand new box of crayons? I certainly do and loved the anticipation of what would become of those beautiful colors.  Someone who worked for Crayola actually was employed to give them names like cadet blue, razzle dazzle rose, and screamin’ green, a job I secretly envied for years.  Earlier this week I shared this quotation by Hugh Macleod on Facebook without really thinking it through: “Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.’ ”

I was fortunate that nobody every took my crayons away. In fact, “they” just gave me more crayons of a different kind to play with. Those crayons actually were some of those “dry uninspiring” subjects like biology and geometry and even chemistry. that were taught by teachers who showed me that they were crayons too. What is a crayon, after all, but a stick of pigment in wax, a tool to create something of beauty, a metaphor for a spirit of curiosity, creativity, and wonder?

One of my own former biology students challenged me to re-think what I had shared in that quotation. I did. The point being made by Macleod, I think, has to do with the disregard for the importance of the arts in education and the emphasis on the more “useful” disciplines (fortunately an attitude that appears to be changing). That was particularly true in earlier generations. Maybe we still need to learn and appreciate how all the disciplines can provide color in our lives. Then we can see the beauty of a scientist’s search to find the secrets of the genetic code or the origin of the Big Bang. We can marvel at the Fibonacci series in the whirl of a sunflower head. Then our minds can be opened to how a plant photosynthesizes or a bird sings a particular song. Then we can treasure the changes of the season and the evolution of life on earth and understand the reality of climate change. We can rejoice with Mission Control at NASA when a new satellite achieves orbit. We can ponder with amazement how a virus we cannot see was able to bring mighty nations to their knees and the world to a standstill.  We can delight in the stories that brought humankind to this moment in history. 

 ” I know artists whose medium is life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life… They are the artists of being alive.”  Frederick Franck


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Why “Sycamore Notes?” she said….

If you knew me before my move to the South in 1996, you may recall my gallery on the campus of Villa Maria College/Gannon University.  It was a special place for me that I called Sycamore Gallery.  There wasn’t a sycamore in sight on the campus, but I drew inspiration for the name from the only reference to a sycamore in the New Testament.  Remember Zacchaeus, the little guy who wanted to see Jesus but couldn’t because of the crowd?  Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to get above the crowd and see!  For me, that’s what art does….music, poetry, the visual arts, dance….art of any kind.  It takes me ABOVE THE CROWD so I can get a glimpse of the divine.  It’s as simple as that.  The thought has stayed with me and is the inspiration for this blog and for all I do as I paint, draw, or write.  To keep reminding me to get above the crowd, the noise, the distractions, there are two sycamore trees planted on our property in Ocoee TN.

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John the Vagabond

Close-up of old man's face
John in Technicolor

In the mid 1970’s I was a student at St Bonaventure University in Olean NY working on a master’s degree in biology over several summers. During one of those summers I met and befriended a man with a long white beard, tattered layers of sweaters and shirts, and a braided knot on the top of his head!  Colorful?  You betcha.  John the Vagabond, as he referred to himself, told me stories of traveling the globe, meeting people and learning from them, and imparting his personal philosophies and guidance along the way.  He was there at SBU to take advantage of tuition-free classes for seniors, studying psychology so that he could better counsel the people he would encounter along his personal journey.  We talked at length while strolling around the beautiful campus  At summer’s end, I gave him my address in hopes that I would hear from this very colorful personality.  And I did.  In fact, a letter-writing relationship developed that lasted until his death in 1986 in Bradenton FL  Fast forward thirty years when I received an email from John’s grand nephew who had inherited a box of John’s personal items, among which were letters from me to his grand-uncle!  Email exchanges and phone calls followed.  I found among my own treasures a stash of letters from John that I had saved and two old b&w photographs I had taken of him at SBU.  More photos came from my new much younger friend and John’s relative,  and a collection of paintings and drawings followed (many of which are included in this portfolio.)  The story is ongoing and not quite ready for prime time yet, but on the way I have learned a lot more about John’s very interesting life, far more than I knew back in those student days.  This portrait embodies for me his colorful and caring personality.  He was an itinerant searcher of truth, a pilgrim of the universe, a teller of tales, and much more than met the eye.  It was my real privilege to get to know him then and now to learn about him all over again.

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A poetic inspiration

painting of early dawn
Dawn in the mountains

“In Gentleness and Kindness”

I was introduced to Mary Oliver several years ago and since then have grown to love her poetry and recognize it even before I read the by-line.  Her writing is full of awareness.  The day I painted this I had read her poem “Why I wake up early”    From that poem came the title for the painting.  It just seemed like such a good way to start a day.


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Inspiration from John Muir

imaginary landscape
Nourishment for the soul

Beauty and Bread

John Muir may not have had art in mind when he penned this: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”  I know he had places like Yosemite and Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks as he talked of places and I think I did too as I painted this.   I suggest that “places” can also be non-tangible spots where our hearts find some reprieve from whatever may be troubling us.

You can view additional paintings inspired by land or sea, click here.


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Morning Moments. the story behind the exhibit

Moonrise“Morning Moments: the Story behind the exhibit”

Well over a year ago I started preparing for another hometown exhibit, painting images of a variety of subjects in a number of my favorite styles, some detailed and planned; others, loose and spontaneous.

Then 2020 happened.  The show went on hold.  Life itself went on hold.  I continued painting but something different started happening.  I found myself drawn to small pockets of time on small pieces of paper, usually in the morning before the noise of the news cycle got in the way and with a fresh abandon, perhaps freed from exhibition expectations.  I started thinking of these painting times as “morning moments,” not necessarily because of the time of day but because I was fully awake, alert, and aware of gentle stirrings that seemed to bypass my brain.  The small simple paintings became heart-filled responses to an anxious sleepless night, a line of poetry, the song of a bird, or the whisper of the wind.  What was common to all was an absence of thinking and planning.

The results of those morning moments are collectively some of the purest and most honest paintings I have ever done — simple, spontaneous, and highly personal.  When the opportunity came about recently to revisit an exhibition time at Glass Growers Gallery, I knew that I wanted to share them.  My hope, my prayer, is that they will communicate between my heart and your heart and that they will stir something in you and bring you some of the peace they brought me as I painted them.

I am grateful to Debby Vahanian and Glass Growers Gallery for giving me this opportunity to share these paintings with you, to have this “heart to heart” conversation.  In my nearly 40 years of painting and exhibiting this may be the most unique exhibit I have ever had. Thank you for joining with me on this journey.

This exhibit is now over.


Marie Spaeder Haas

August 1 – September 8, 2020

Glass Growers Gallery, 10 E. 5th St., Erie PA

gallery hours:  11-3 Tuesday through Saturday; Monday by appointment (814-453-3758)


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