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Finding the Lost Unicorns

Updated: Feb 23

There is something about unicorns. Their elusive nature beckons as an invitation for those of us who can learn to become still enough, and worthy enough, for them to reveal their presence.

 

Early Influences

Unicorns revealed themselves to me when I was coming of age. I began drawing them more often than I drew horses. In 1980, when I was fourteen years old I found a book titled, “The Unicorn” by Nancy Hathaway. This was where I first encountered the artwork of Susan Seddon Boulet. Her artwork had a lyrical, flowing quality to it that I admired and wanted to emulate. Seeing a professional artist creating unicorns influenced my dreams of what a fine artist could achieve in painting what they loved.



"Unicorn" watercolor by Kim McElroy ~ 1980

Inspired from a unicorn painting by Susan Seddon Boulet


Worldly Success

When I started painting horses professionally in 1987 at the age of twenty-one, my first paintings were of Arabian horses. Arabians were a perfect subject matter for me because they were beautiful, and admired at liberty as much as under saddle. Also, Arabian horse events were the only breed in those days that had elaborate indoor trade shows. The Arabian horse show world seemed like the best place to sell my artwork. That world was new to me, and I couldn’t help but be impressed and influenced by the popular culture of what constituted beauty in the breeding and performance of Arabian horses.

 

As my work gained recognition, in 1994 I was commissioned by Lenox China/Princeton Gallery to paint a series of unicorns as part of the elements of nature for a collector’s plate series. I was thrilled to include unicorns in my art in such a prominent way like the professional equine artists I so admired. I was excited to share these new original works at my booth at the Arabian shows, but I was disappointed by the public response. I was surprised that horse lovers showed little interest in what they considered fantasy paintings. Some even remarked the horses would look better without horns.



"Unicorn of the Sea" Collectors plate by Kim McElroy ~ 1994


To me, the love of horses and unicorns was the same thing, for unicorns are horse-like beings that are magical and mighty, and unrestrained by human bonds.

 

Trying to Fit In

After years of attempting to sell the originals paintings, I succumbed to popular demand and revised the concepts of the art to depict them as horses. I renamed the unicorn of the clouds, “Southerly Wind”, which was a suitable shift since it depicted Allah's creation of the horse depicted in the Koran. The unicorns played their roles as horses well, and the paintings did sell, but the unicorns were in hiding.

 

Pictures of art without horns

 

It never sat right with me that I had removed their horns. Historically, hunters took a unicorn’s horn as a trophy. I wasn’t causing the demise of an immortal being, but it still felt like sacrilege.

 

I came to realize that those who had scoffed at my unicorn paintings were like the characters in Peter S. Beagle’s popular book and animated film, “The Last Unicorn”. When they looked at the unicorn, they could only see a white horse, because the magic in their hearts had been diminished.    

“How can it be?” The unicorn wondered. “I suppose I could understand it if men had simply forgotten unicorns. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else ~ what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?”
~  Peter S. Beagle "The Last Unicorn"

Redemption

Then surprisingly, a few years ago, both unicorn paintings found their way back to me. This gave me the opportunity to redeem my integrity by restoring their horns and revealing their true nature once more.

 

As I gazed on the unicorn paintings I created thirty years before, I realized I was a different person then, filled with the excitement of my emergence as a young artist at the beginning of her career. I was like the maiden so often depicted in unicorn tales, the one who innocently seeks out the unicorn only to unfortunately reveal its location to those with ulterior motives. The unicorns had revealed themselves to me, and in my naivete and desire to be popular, I had compromised my belief in their magic, and the belief that every original painting eventually finds a home with the person who it is meant for.

 

I carefully removed the frames and beheld the pastel strokes and colors created by a younger me. The paper had a different texture than I work with now. I marveled that I had been able to create such vivid imagery with more transparent layers of color. The pastels were elusive, like the unicorns themselves. I wasn’t sure if I could match the strokes to recreate the colors and three-dimensional effects of the horns in all their sparkling beauty, much less create the critical union where the horn meets the forehead. But, as I drew the tiny spirals, my hands remembered the feel of the paper and the way it worked with the medium. The horns were, at last, restored. With the finishing touches, I felt a thrill of recognition and beheld a lightness and life return to the unicorn’s visage. In doing so, I felt like I had restored my inner faith in the spirit of the unicorn.



"Unicornus Maris" (Detail)


"Unicornus Divinus" (Detail)


Rechristening the Unicorns

I decided to rechristen the unicorns with new titles. I chose the language of Latin to honor their ancient wisdom and their unique connection with nature’s elements. 



"Unicornus Maris" 

“Unicornus Maris” is the mystical unicorn of the sea. It appears to us when we are standing on the shore of our life and when we need clarity to show us the way. The unicorn forms from the storm driven waves, taking shape from the vastness and power of the ocean. We receive its gift when we recognize that it has been coming to us even before we knew to ask for it to appear.

You are a witness to the incarnation of the rare sea unicorn. This occurs once every few thousand years, when the sea, which is normally mutable and formless, chooses to become embodied. On the horizon, there appears a series of waves that have traveled thousands of miles across the ocean. Within each swell of the incoming waves a consciousness begins to swirl and coalesce, rise and subside. When one of the mighty waves reaches its crescendo, the majestic sea unicorn lands upon the beach, amidst the crashing roar of the waters that gave it birth. As its new hooves touch the sand, a wild whinny erupts from the graceful throat, and it gallops off, disappearing into the shadowy dense trees of the dense rainforest. Like an echo of the first amoeba which evolved to crawl upon land, the sea unicorn begins its terrestrial life.



"Unicornus Divinus"

“Unicornus Divinus” is the glorious unicorn of the sky. This unicorn assists us in seeking guidance from a divine source. Often, we can only see the light when there is some semblance of darkness present. The glorious light of this unicorn appears when we glimpse the contrast of light and dark, perceiving the difference, and receiving the gifts from both.

You may have heard of sun halos or sun dogs, but have you heard of sun unicorns? The sun unicorn appears on the edge of a storm cloud. These clouds contain millions of

of tiny ice crystals. When rays of light from the sun are cast at a very precise angle, the light aligns within these crystalline structures to create a magical event. The crystals refract, splitting the light, and reflect, glinting light off their surfaces. Since they are oriented and positioned at that moment to your unique point of view, only you will be able to see the sun unicorn appear. The result is a spontaneous incarnation of Unicornus Divinus, a being with the power to restore hope to the human heart.


The Healing Power of Unicorns

In the last few years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in unicorns. Nowadays, even adults are permitted to enjoy unicorns without being seen as eccentric. Unicorns have come to mean many things in modern culture, but for me personally, they have always represented the power of healing.

 

In her book, The Unicorn, Nancy Hathaway writes about the healing powers of unicorns, “Even the depiction of the unicorn was sometimes seen as powerful in and of itself. In Germany, an alter illustrating [the unicorn] was believed to have the miraculous ability to heal. Up to forty-four thousand pilgrims visited the shrine annually.”  

 

My personal experiences are a testimonial to the unicorn’s healing presence. When my husband, Rod was in the hospital in 2018 undergoing cancer treatment, our dear friend Eleanor sent us a beautiful plush winged unicorn toy to uplift our spirits. When we petted her mane, she would light up and play a unique random melody that sounded like sweet windchimes. We gave her the name, Reverie, to honor her ability to return our imagination to a happy, childlike state of mind.


Our healing mascot, "Reverie"

 

Rod had nearly died in ICU, and after months of chemotherapy treatment he was seriously ill and could barely walk. But no matter how weak or miserable he felt, we knew it was important for him to keep moving. A ten-minute walk was sometimes all he could manage.

 

Navigating the hall was not only difficult, but boring, and sometimes depressing. Some of the nurses we recognized who weren’t too busy would attempt to smile and greet him, but others in the opposite corner of the ward would ignore us. Most other patients or family members we met in the hallway would avoid eye contact. I understood that people are often embarrassed to engage, especially when they see someone in that kind of compromised state.

 

We discussed this challenge, and in order to make it a more pleasant experience for ourselves and others, we decided to break the ice by taking Reverie along on Rod’s walker. Each day, Rod would manage to stand up and we would make the slow revolution of the hall. We began walking up to people and pointing at Reverie, saying “Would you like to make a wish?” Most people would be caught off guard, but they reacted to Rod’s positive demeanor, and even if only out of mere politeness, they would feel compelled to stop what they were doing long enough to humor him. He would direct them to make a wish and then pet the unicorn. They dutifully closed their eyes, made a wish, and then reached out to pet the toy. But every one of them was surprised and delighted when the lights lit up and the musical chimes played. A smile would erupt from their faces, and even the most battle-weary nurses, or disenchanted family members would immediately soften and brighten.

 

Other patients, who themselves were struggling as they could tell Rod was, truly took the wishing part to heart. We held that sacred space with them in the camaraderie of shared crisis. One could tell from their expressions that their silent wish wasn’t merely about sometime simple, but more likely a deep and fervent prayer for survival. When they petted the unicorn, and the lights sparkled and the music played, their eyes lit up with true wonder, because to them, the effects weren’t merely cute, they were magic, and they took the response as a sign that their prayer had been heard and answered.


I Believe in Unicorns

 

These experiences taught me that it is up to those of us who want to believe in unicorns, to believe in them. Unicorns live in the hearts and minds of those who know that magic is not passive. Believe is a verb. It is an  active/act of creation.


The finding of my lost unicorn spirit taught me to override my impulse to conform. To explore the unconventional in my art, knowing that people of like mind will resonate and join me in my fantasy. The unicorns taught me to trust and allow for the presence of miracles, for like the unicorn, they can be elusive, and require our patience and faith, to appear.


Unicorn of the Snow ~ 1986

Unicorns are inspiriring. I created this snow sculpture when we first moved to

Bainbridge Island when I was 15. Snow is rare enough here, and a unicorn snow sculpture was quite unique

so the Bainbridge Island Review featured a picture in a cover story about the snow along with a traditional snowman.

People still remember my sculpture from that article to this day.



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8 Comments


Wow Kim - your formidable talent was there from so young! The "beginning" artworks, the unicorn snow sculpture - these are the works of an already advanced artist. Truly remarkable. xo

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Thank you Jini 🙏I was so blessed to have the loving support of my parents from the start, and an excellent accelerated art education even in high school 💞 I went into business with my mom in 1987. She was the wind beneath my wings 🪶

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Beautifully expressed, Kim! Now, what ever happened to the unicorn in the snow, with the aspen-glow peach colors? It was magical and I've remembered it over the years (unless I am utterly mistaken and my mind was in some other dimension, which it does sometimes...)

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Ah ha you remember ❤️ it was called Norwegian Woods and will be shared soon

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Dear Kim - Unicorns take us into another realm, one of wonder, of hope. I can just imagine you and Rob walking the halls with the magical unicorn, which is so darling! Perhaps especially in times of physical or mental challenge, returning to childhood for a brief time can bring solace and encouragement when we need it most. The unicorns you shared with us here are gorgeous! My favorite is the first one, with the flowing rainbow mane. Thanks as always for sharing your art and giving us a glimpse into your wondrous world. Hugs, Lenore

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Dear Lenore, thank you for your warm and sweet response. That you love my rainbow unicorn, created when I was 14 years old, truly warms my heart 🦄

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Breathtakingly heart opening share Kim! Thank you with every cell of my being for sharing your gifts and words!

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Jill - it is such a joy always to receive your response and encouragement. My art shines more vividly when it is seen by a kindred spirit like you!🐎

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