Updated: May 9
Kim and Kay at 1993 Arabian Nationals
My mother, Kay was born Florence Elizabeth Phillips in 1922 to her mother Martha Vaughn who was a light opera singer, and her father Nathan Phillips who was a playwright. Her mother wanted to continue her career so she sent little Florence to California to be raised by her grandmother. Though mom had a beautiful voice, and even sang in a Rumba band professionally when she was 17, the absence of her mother in her life, and lack of her emotional encouragement or professional support, quelled her pursuit of a singing career. Instead, during WWII, she went to work for the military until she married.
Florence Elizabeth Phillips 1926
Unlike her own mother, my mom was always there for me and very supportive of my art talent. I never lacked for art supplies or encouragement. Because of her foresight I have a few copies of my earliest paintings from about the age of 4 which clearly show my love of horses. The horses are lovingly drawn eating grass or hay fed by me as a little girl.
Drawing by Kim
My mom continually praised me for every attempt to draw, and she probably kept every drawing and craft project I brought home from school. She enrolled me in art classes all through school, and as my talent continued to be apparent she encouraged me to pursue education and a career as an artist.
In 1987 after graduating Art College, my drawings of horses began receiving accolades from family friends who had horses, we found out there were horse shows that rented booths. Mom immediately went into action and called up the Region 5 Arabian Horse Association and found out how to rent a booth. I went to work painting and she invested in the framing, easels and business cards and brochures, and we went off to our first show and set up a tiny booth under the Yakima Racetrack grandstands.
She was as excited as I was in May 1988 when we received a phone message from Don Usher, a reporter from KOMO 4 News, asking me for an interview for television featuring a story about the Kentucky Derby. She kept the answering machine tape to remember the moment.
That first horse trade show was a great success, and the rest, as they say, is history. My mom suggested going into business together, and we did. She was the financier and the business negotiator. I was the artist and the promoter. We spent the next ten years traveling all over the country to major horse events.
My favorite memories are of us driving up the mountain passes heading to another horse show, with the soaring notes of our favorite music soundtrack from the movie, “The Mission” accompanying the natural beauty around us as we embarked on another adventure. We enjoyed breakfast on the road with bowls of muesli cereal from the cooler, shared at some roadside rest stop as we traveled the long hours to Albuquerque, Louisville, Scottsdale, and other parts of the country.
My mom was a genuine people person so she took to trade shows like a duck to water. It always tickled her when people walked up to her and said how they admired her talent, and she would smile and gesture to me as her 20-something daughter, and say, “my daughter is the artist”.
We exhibited my art in our condominium on Bainbridge Island, Washington. People would see our advertising and think we were a commercial gallery, so sometimes they would arrive at our doorstep at 9 am on a Saturday morning, to be greeted by her standing in a bathrobe saying we’d be happy to give a tour but they’d have to wait for us to dress! Less cordial were her responses to the unfortunate clients who forgot the time zone and called us on our personal/business phone at 5 am!
Her guidance throughout my art career continued. She was my biggest fan and also an astute critic. I admit, it was daunting sometimes to unveil a painting to her and have her point out some flaw. But she had an excellent eye and her ability to sense balance and proportion was a much needed aspect of my growing skills.
One of her proudest moments was when I presented the portrait of “Tribute” of his horse El Alamein to President Reagan in 1995. As we stood in his office in Century City awaiting introductions before the unveiling, there was a momentary lag after I had been introduced. Promptly mom took the opportunity, and stepped forward to President Reagan on her own with her hand outstretched, and said, “Hi, I’m Mom”. President Reagan smiled and his eyes twinkled at her importune spontaneity.
Mom with President Reagan
One year my mom bought me an antique copy of the book Smoky by Will James. She said she had read it as a child because she had also loved horses. I didn’t realize the extent to which she had been “horse crazy” too. Years later I found a photo of her riding a horse. I hope that she has seen her dream horses in the hundreds I have painted.
Kay riding in 1940
From childhood on I was constantly begging for a horse of my own. It was difficult since we lived in Long Beach, California and keeping a horse at a stable hours away wasn’t practical. But when my parents divorced and we moved to Washington when I was 15, she had promised me a horse someday, and though that dream didn’t manifest until I was 29, she would have kept that promise earlier if life had directed me that way. When I finally had that dream come true in 1995 when I got my first horse, Darma, she was a proud horse-grand-mother. She even just smiled indulgently when Darma raked her teeth across the hood of mom’s brand new cadillac!
Mom and Darma, my first horse in 1996
Her other love was for Jersey cows which she called ‘big deer”. I created this portrait for her as a gift to remind her of a favorite family story of a cow she loved named Daisy.
Daisy by Kim McElroy
My mother passed in 2000, but her love and support continues to allow me to do what I love, and to have the freedom to follow my creative muse. I can speak for her in saying how happy she is that you have all made her daughter so welcome.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you.