unexpected discoveries

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 (www.inspirationalhorse.com) 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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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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