The Presence of Spirit
As I prepared to add the finishing touches to the portrait of the horse I was painting, I paused a moment to reflect on the photograph his owner had sent me. She wasn't like most of my clients, with whom I have deep heartfelt conversations about their horse soul mate. She was more pragmatic about their relationship. She admitted that the photo didn’t really capture him and only gave me a fleeting description of his personality. She was very specific about wanting me to paint the portrait exactly like the photo, except she said that he had been tranquilized that morning so she asked if I could “add a little life” to his eye.
I always paint the eyes last. This is in part because the pastel chalk I work with produces a layer of dust that settles on the painting as I work, so the last layers are cleaner and crisper and more detailed. But primarily it is because I have always felt the body of the horse comes first, and then adding the eye allows the spirit to be present in this new pastel form.
So, who was this horse that I had never met? Behind his sleepy eyes I felt like he was an intelligent, gentle soul. The slight smile at the corner of his mouth and his attentive ears gave me the feeling that he had a wonderful sense of humor. I trusted my instincts. I began to draw his eye, adding a pastel highlight, then removing it and putting it down in a different place. I refined the shape and tilt of the brow, softened the lashes and then… a stillness inside me said… “that’s Amoretto”.
Though the piece was completed by my standards, I still waited anxiously to hear from the owner to see how she liked the portrait. A ripple of joy went through me when she called and her first words were, “I absolutely love it.” Then she said, “I am speechless, I don’t know how you were able to portray my horse’s personality so completely. The photo wasn’t truly like him at all, but you painted him as if you’ve known him all your life.”
Her comments sparked my curiosity. How am I able to seemingly imbue a portrait with the spirit of a certain horse. Is it my artistic eye, that picked up the imperceptible expression, the attitude underlying the pose? Or is it something more intuitive? What is the presence inside the horse that reveals itself when I give it my full attention?
A Portrait of the Eternal Spirit
Sometimes I am asked to paint a horse that is no longer living. What then am I painting? When I looked at the tiny, faded photograph of "Mr No", which was the only photo his owner had of her beloved horse, I could barely see his expression much less his eyes. The photo was a representations of the horse as he was in life. Yet I got the feeling as I worked that I was painting not a memory, but a spirit that was still present. I felt as if I were creating a window through which we could witness the horse’s state of being… “where” he exists now. The owner confirmed this feeling, saying that the portrait I painted of him allowed her to feel he was still with her.
"Colors of the Wind"
I was in the process of finishing the portrait, "My Eternal Dreams", for my client when her horse suddenly passed due to illness. The timing was such that I was scheduled to travel near where she lived, so we arranged to meet to unveil the portrait. Since the loss was so recent and so raw, neither of us knew how she would feel when I unveiled it. When I took the drape off, she stood silently for some time, then she said, "I expected to feel empty, but I feel filled."
"My Eternal Dreams"
I have come to understand that my portraits capture more than a likeness of a horse. They portray the essence, the spirit, of that being. Time and again my clients tell me that the art gives them a way of putting the beautiful, intangible nature of their love into focus, providing a window into their living spirit. In the case of a horse that has passed on, the portrait offers a portal to connect to their immortal spirit.
Photographs remind us of the past
Immortality is difficult to comprehend when we face the daily absence of our loved one’s physical presence, or we look at photographs that remind us of our lives together. When my mother was aging and in a nursing home, I found myself looking at photographs of her when she was young and healthy, I grieved for the person she used to be. As I worked through that grief, I realized how in the passage of time her body and mind had changed, but her spirit still remained the same. She was no less than she ever was, despite her appearance as an invalid in a wheelchair. I realized that the photographs were a false reality. When we look at photographs, we are looking at moments that existed in the past. We are aware of the time when someone took that “snapshot” in an attempt to preserve that moment. Therefore, when we look at photographs to remind us of our loved ones, we are always referring to the past.
Somehow, there is something different with the portraits I create. When I create a portrait of a horse, whether the horse is twenty miles away or on the other side, I am connecting with the eternal essence of that horse. With every stroke of my pastel I create the horse as it exists in the present moment. Amazingly, this moment then becomes a perpetual present moment every time one looks at the art, so the image, in its own way, is always alive. I paint what is, not what was. I portray the eternal essence, not the finite earthly experience.
Someday we too shall pass on, and perhaps then the art itself becomes a legacy of our undying love. A pastel version of a prayer flag, rippling its energetic threads into the universe.