Updated: Oct 29
I have painted unicorns as long as I have painted horses. They filled my childhood notebooks and galloped across my homework. I never stopped to examine why I loved unicorns. I just did.
The unicorn is a creature that has existed in the minds and imaginations of the known world since before the beginning of written history. Historians and philosophers have struggled to explain the hold that the unicorn has on our imaginations. But like many legends such as the Sasquatch, and Loch Ness, their eternal mystery continues regardless of proof.
I once had a dream of seeing a unicorn fossil in a museum. Inside a glass display case was a skull that resembled a horse, but on the forehead were the unmistakable outlines of where a horn had grown, though the horn itself was absent. The area glowed with a luminous iridescence. My heart leapt with joy to see a confirmation of my belief that unicorns existed. I wanted to shout to the disinterested spectators, “Do you see? Now, do you believe?”
The idea for painting Believe came to me soon after while I was watching a video of running horses. The horses had unusual bridles, which crossed at the forehead. When they ran toward the camera, my attention to was drawn to their foreheads, reminding me of a charging unicorn. I hadn’t painted a unicorn for years. Perhaps it was time.
I found a photo I had taken years before of a beautiful white stallion named Caleyndar. His lowered forehead felt like an invitation for a unicorn horn, but this time, instead of painting the horn, I had the impulse to create the background in the colors and shapes of a circular aura. I remembered the theme from the well-known book and animated movie “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle, in which only those who believed in unicorns could see their horn; those who were blinded by life, and who didn’t believe in magic would only see a white horse. In Believe, the horn is on the verge of appearing, depending upon the viewer’s own belief. My mother used to quote, “Faith is a conscious condition that cannot conceive of its opposite.” One has to have faith to believe in the power of unicorns.
“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
At an art show I met a woman who worked in artist relations for a well known collectibles company. She commented on my painting of Believe. I told her about my dream, and of my insights about why I did not complete the horn. Though I had told the story of the meaning of Believe to many people at my art exhibits, only a select few had understood and appreciated the theme of the unicorn. Most people were content with seeing a white horse. But, this woman surprised me by listening to my story and becoming enthusiastic about the perspective it offered of her own interpretations of the piece. We talked for over an hour about unicorns, and art, and human nature. When she departed, she smiled and said mysteriously, “I have something I must send you….”
A few months later I received a package in the mail. Not knowing its contents I opened it with curiosity.. Inside was a card from the woman I had met at the show. I opened the inner package to reveal a replica of a life-sized unicorn horn topped with a wrought metal handle inlaid with amethyst. I stared at the artifact in quiet admiration, remembering my dream. When I opened the companion booklet of the origins of this creation by artist Michael Hague, I read the following:
“Faith… reveals more to the bearer than the necessity of having the Unicorn reveal itself to the skeptic. For, if the presence of the Unicorn exists within the heart, the exercise of proof is obsolete.” ~ Michael Hague
This could have been written for Believe. It said in a few words what I had been trying to say for years. I was deeply touched by the gift, though she could not have known the effect it would have on me, for the fact that she had thought to give it to me represented the enduring goodness of some people. It became a symbol of purity and of friendship. It showed me that my efforts in continuing to shine the light of unicorns into human hearts had reflected back on me in surprising ways.
“On earth I met him as a white elk. His domestic captivity did not diminish him He shone on the distant hill as sacred as a unicorn.”
~ Kim McElroy
As if I needed more confirmation of the magic of unicorns and my desire to write about them, I experienced probably the closest thing to a unicorn’s earthly counterpart. I was visiting my friend who lives in the rural hills of Tennessee. One day we drove past a farm that housed a large number of rare deer.
We pulled up to the farm and got out of the car many of the elk started vocalizing a strange call with a sound between that of an tropical bird and a calf. It was like a scene out of Jurassic Park. While listening to these unexpected and haunting noises we approached the house, but the occupants weren't at home. Several of the elk in the large enclosure nearest the house started moving toward the fence, hoping for food. It was then that I spotted the white elk. He stood regally at a distance on a steep, grassy hillside. I moved toward the fence to see him more clearly. After determining that I wasn’t a threat, he made his way slowly towards me. His body and carriage made him seem old and cautious, but he boldly walked directly up to the fence to greet me. Unlike the other elk that licked my hands expecting food and then departed, this one merely sniffed my hand in greeting and remained, watching me. His movements and attitude were so like a horse that I found myself wanting to relate to him at the same emotional level. Here wasn’t some distant and skittish wild creature, but an animal that was familiar with humans. He was willing to relate with me regardless of the fact that I had no food. I admired his elegant horns, so strong. I gazed into his luminous, slate blue eyes, so close. He was rare and beautiful and lovely and sad. I stared through the fence, knowing that it was his protection as well as his nemesis. I knew that if unicorns existed in today’s world, they would probably be behind fences too.
But when I looked through my camera lens, the fence disappeared, and I could look deeply into his wise and luminous blue eyes. I was transported out of the mundane human world, and for a few miraculous moments I saw him as a unicorn – for this wise and beautiful white elk had the same mystery, the same benevolence, and the same melancholy aire of that legendary creature.
Whether or not one believes in unicorns, we can appreciate their symbolic qualities of purity and goodness, and vulnerability in the midst of strength. In this fast paced world, it is nice to hold on to a little timeless magic.
“The Unicorn was a creature of love and compassion. As in today’s world, the never-ending search for those virtues ended in the destruction of the very object of that search. The Unicorn now lives only in the hearts of those who yearn to know that love and compassion which has become so rare.”
~ Bill (Vern) Pittman