The History of the Horse in Art
In conversation with Amy Laugesen.
July 25, 2023
In this conversation, sculptor Amy Laugesen unearths some of our ancient connections to the horse as a partner in human civilization through her art, as well as her personal history with one life-changing horse in particular.
Madeline Jorden: I think it's always interesting to explore where someone's origins of what they're doing now show up at the beginning of their life. I've read and heard you say that horses have played an important role in your life for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about where the beginning of your personal interest in the animal of the horse came from?
Amy Laugesen: I started drawing horses when I was pretty young. I have drawings from when I was in preschool, drawing horses. There were horses not too far from my house growing up in Southeast Denver and then going to the National Western Stock Show and on trail rides with family. So there's a natural connection there. Then as I got older, adolescence was really where I discovered the profound connection to horses, and especially one horse that came into my life when I was about 13 and has been my inspiration and my muse, ever since. During my adolescence and a very turbulent time in my life, my horse, I believe, really saved my life.
My horse was a rescue horse and with that bond, that trust, that relationship, I helped him regain confidence in people, while I was trying to figure myself out as an adolescent with some learning challenges and having an eating disorder. He really grounded me and gave me a sense of purpose.
For college, I went to California first and then to Massachusetts and decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to take my horse with me. I felt I had to make a choice either being with TicTac or going art school, and I chose art school…making that decision, horses really started showing up more and more in my work, first in drawing and painting and then in sculpture and mixed media.
MJ: You said you were drawing pictures of horses when you were in preschool or very young. Has your interest in art been there for that long, or when did you sort of start taking more of a “professional” or serious interest in being an artist?
AL: Definitely the art was there from the very beginning. I'm dyslexic, so art really became my language, my means of communication, while I struggled in other areas, with reading and writing and spelling. Art and working with my hands was the place that I felt that I could best express myself. I definitely gravitated to the art room throughout elementary school, throughout high school, and then decided this is the direction I want to go as a career.
I originally wanted to go into graphic design and illustration, thinking of both a career making money and somehow utilizing my skills in drawing. I started my studies on the West Coast and then realized that, as it was becoming more computer-generated, as a hands-on artist I didn't feel like my path was to be doing everything on a computer. Having other classes in painting and mixed media, I realized that I was being pulled in the direction of studies in fine art.
There were sculptures around me growing up. My great grandfather, Bela Lyon Pratt, was a sculptor in Massachusetts. And when I was in college in California, my aunt, Cynthia Kennedy Sam, started a project to acknowledge him and his work. It made it more clear to me that I have a family lineage and connection to sculpting. My work started to go in the direction of three dimensions. I was drawn to Massachusetts and decided to go to the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, where my great grandfather taught and developed the sculpture department at the school. I felt a deep connection to my family being there and felt I was carrying on my family's art lineage.
MJ: The lineage piece is really interesting, especially how you kind of situate your work within a very, very, very long artistic history of the horse in art. But before we get to that, the point you bring up about art being a means of expression for you, because of the fact that it doesn't rely necessarily on language, which to me sounds so much like what it's like to work with a horse, too, and why that's sort of a part of our brain or consciousness that's nonverbal that I think we could all use more exposure to, or opportunity to use, but especially for someone who is dyslexic. I can just imagine that, those two things combined, the art and working with horses, would be such a relief or outlet to be able to work with.
AL: Very much so. And I often relate to people, especially those who work with horses and understand that nonverbal communication and the nuances and the subtlety. How you approach a horse is often times how I approach my sculpture. If I come in tight, holding the reins with a strong agenda, oftentimes the horse has different ideas and tells you so one way or the other. And when you are open and let the communication flow, there's give and take, but there's also a letting go and being present in the moment. That’s when the best connection with a horse happens, and I find that in my work as a sculptor.
Being in that place is what I'm trying to communicate in the story comes through the piece in that moment. Sometimes when I push too hard or try to control it a certain way, and it's showing me that it needs to go a different way and if I force it or I rush it, oftentimes those pieces blown up in the kiln. Like a “blow up” with a horse, like "Nah, no, I'm not ready." So there's definitely a similarity.
MJ: In your process of creating your sculptures, how tied is that to in-person experiences with horses? Are you working from live models, or more just on memory?
AL: It's a combination. Working with a horse live, as a model, definitely gives me information that I can gather and pull together as reference points. And sometimes there's a piece that is finished just from that study, but oftentimes I think most of my pieces go beyond where I take that information being on location with a horse and being with that horse. And then I bring that into my studio and finish it and allow the piece to unfold in a direction and follow that journey of where it's going to lead me, which then incorporates more of the story, whether it's of site, location, the horse's history, or the history of the place. And maybe there's something else that comes through that may relate to a heritage piece in gathering bits and pieces. Those details sort of come out in the end as I finish it with the base and the patinas and the surface treatment of the sculpture itself.
MJ: Looking at your work, you're not striving for an exact anatomical representation. It's clearly recognizable as a horse, but there's layers of cultural or historical or other symbolic meaning that you're viewing these pieces with.
AL: Yes. That's where, working directly with a horse, sometimes I can get some of those reference points or a gesture of pose and then carry it further beyond that point.
MJ: And you've written, too, that horses in art and in sculpture are ancient artifacts of countless civilizations, which is so true. Going back to the earliest human art in caves, horses were there, but it's hard to find any time period or culture where horses don't show up in art. So, you've been steeped in that sort of history and, based on your exposure to all that art, why do you think the horse is such a pervasive subject matter?
AL: They're such magnificent creatures, beings, and there is also a profound human-horse relationship that goes back centuries. There's this relationship, this trust, as they've been domesticated and of service to us, as humans, to advance civilization or move from one place to the next. The artists have become the documentarians throughout history, showing that connection with the horse. So the records in the caves, small artifacts carved in stone or sculpted in clay, are all sort of an awe and reverence to this being, the horse. That’s the record, that non-verbal, visual record of how important the horse has been to us on this planet in daily life.
And I love cross-cultural links of the horse as a subject matter. I mean, it's woven, like you were saying, throughout the centuries and throughout cultures. It's a thread that connects us together. And maybe they're not used as much as they used to be. Their jobs are reduced. Before, there was much more need for them in farming and ranching, in terms of the American West, and then for locomotion from one place to the next and as a warhorse, a warrior. So there's the different breeds that also helped us with all these daily life activities, helping us survive.
MJ: Well, whether some of the tools we've developed to replace the horse are actually better, I think is a bit questionable, but that's sort of the reality is that we don't use them for many necessary tasks anymore. It's more of sort of an enjoyment purpose that they serve. Do you see that change reflected in art today or your work specifically, in terms of sort of what that animal means to us now?
AL: That's a good question. I think some of my work connects to these changes, there's sort of a nostalgia, a thinking about the importance of them in history. And so I think that's what part of the core of my work is—bringing in other found objects or artifacts that have a history themselves. I think I'm trying to reach back and bring that forward into contemporary times to stress the importance of the horse in our culture and what it has meant to countless civilizations.
It's more about the history and heritage that my work really resonates with, which is then my own personal story because of my history with working and being with horses. I don't have my own horse at this point, and so there is sort of that reaching back and trying to reconnect with Tic Tac and my horses from the past.
I also love listening to stories from people, from viewers of my work, and the conversation that gets stimulated because of that one connection that we have, whether they're grandparents or somebody's great grandparents and that memory of a ranch or having a horse in their life or growing up with one. Those conversations are really rich to me and help feed the work and then connect us. I love it when somebody resonates with a piece because it brings forth a memory for them.
MJ: It sounds like part of what your work is doing is just honoring the animal, of the horse, in a lot of ways through history and through your own experience and what the horse has meant to you. You mentioned at the beginning some difficult times that Tic Tac helped you through. Can you talk a little bit more about what you were struggling with and how being with your horse changed that or helped treat that or heal that for you?
AL: Well, adolescence is such a hard time anyway, and then having learning challenges… I think that feeling of trying to find my own voice and self worth and feeling insecure in who I was, which then also led into an eating disorder to try and gain some control over that time in life and those challenges and feelings of being inadequate or not intelligent enough... There's all those conversations we create in our head. And so the eating disorder became a way to try and control it.
I had been saving money for a horse. It's something that I was interested in and I was feeling a strong connection to horses at an early age. Medical staff and my parents realized that maybe the best thing for me to help me heal would be to get this horse sooner rather than later. As part of my healing, having to care for Tic Tac and also realizing he was going through some challenges too, it gave me a sense of purpose that I didn't have before.
That outward focus helped me realize I have to be here for him so I've got to heal myself in order to have the confidence to be able to help him with his trust issues and help him heal and have confidence as well. So the two of us together worked through it. At 55 years old, it's still hard to express some of what happened when I was 13. And I've had other horses, but he definitely was a soulmate. There was a connection that was beyond words, and it's pretty special when you find an animal that you connect with that profoundly.
MJ: I completely get it. And thank you so much for sharing. I think anyone who has had that kind of experience or connection with a horse totally understands what you're saying.
AL: Also, Tic Tac was one of my best teachers. I was very serious and very focused on my horsemanship and Pony Club skills…and I dreamed of showing in the Olympics. TicTac had a clown nature, very playful nature, …I know he was trying to teach me to relax a little bit and play.
MJ: I think it's such a beautiful story—how horses meant so much to you and, as you said, possibly saved your life, and now you honor them through your art and that's sort of what your work is all about.
You mentioned reading and research. Can you talk a little bit more about how you go about researching the role of the horse in art and in history?
AL: It's ongoing and often led by an idea that comes up or hearing a story somewhere, so then doing more research. For example, if a winged horse is coming through in some of my sculptures, I’ll start to research the Pegasus mythology. Or where did the Quarter Horse lineage come from? Where did other breeds come from? Or certain ranches and what was the primary horse that was on that ranch? So that's how it unfolds organically and where, again, following where the sculptures take me or where my experiences in life and what's drawing me at that time.
MJ: That’s so fun. I wish I had a reason to go research all different types of horses. I mean, just preparing for this conversation and looking through art, historical representations of the horse in art, is so fun. And it's just, like we've already said, it's endless. There's just so much to always keep learning about
AL: In whatever direction. Is it just sculpture? So there's that. Is it painting? Is it drawing? Is it the horse breeds themselves? I know people that have traveled all over the world to research different breeds of horses and learn more about their unique traits important for that region and what pure bloodlines are out there. Sounds amazing. I would love to travel and study horses all over the world.
MJ: Does any of this research physically take you places to meet any of these breeds or people?
AL: Well, I’ve been invited to Zapata Ranch managed by Ranchlands. Also, in 2010, I was invited to participate in an artist residency through Colorado Art Ranch, a nomadic organization that traveled to different locations, and artists, writers, and scientists all gathered together around a similar theme and a similar place, to inspire a body of work. It was a month-long residency connected to Carpenter Ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy in Hayden, Colorado.
I was hosted by the Delaney family at Diamond-O Ranch and there's a rich heritage of the Quarter Horse in Hayden. It was really wonderful to spend a month on this historic ranch and meet families that helped establish the primary bloodlines of the American Quarter Horse.
Zapata Ranch has been an amazing connection, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to be part of the Artist Gathering. It’s really helping me put roots out near my new home in the San Luis Valley. Horses are continuing to play such an important role. There’s definitely the horse heritage of the indigenous people and of those that have come before me here in this Valley. So I'm hoping to have that inspire and feed more of my future works.
MJ: How was that experience of being at the artists gathering? How do experiences like that work into your process in terms of being around the horses, physically, meeting new horses, but also sharing space and time with a bigger group of artists?
AL: I think that opportunity is so rich, on many levels. There's a wonderful synergy that happens in being able to, as artists, share our perspective, having a shared location and experience, but then having different perspectives, different points of view, and then different ways that we express what we see and what we gravitate towards.
There is a rich conversation that happens amongst us, both verbally and through our art. I think there's also a push from each other to grow. It gets us out of our comfort zones, our private studios, gets us out and having a conversation and dialogue. And then Ranchlands and the function of the ranch itself is all part of that conversation too, which helps inform our work. We also hope that we can share the beauty and richness of what's going on with a different vocabulary, a different way of expressing it and capturing it.
I love that Ranchlands is creating these residencies for artists to gather, along with the working ranchers and guests from diverse backgrounds. There's a fullness that inspires me as an artist, and I'm looking forward to more conversations and seeing where it leads. I'm definitely gathering information for future artworks.
Jill Soukup, Sophy Brown, Stephanie Hartshorn, and I have also been so inspired by one of the old homesteads, the ruins out near the ranch. We are wanting to go back, play and collaborate together in creating works together. It’s really exciting to have an opportunity to creatively play with these amazing women, to continue that conversation and also see where we come together and what we gravitate towards. Again, sort of pushing each other and seeing where our work leads us. Definitely an exciting journey ahead.
MJ: Well, we're very excited to see what work results from your stay, but thank you so much for taking the time to talk about it with me.
AL: Thank you so much! Take care.
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