“Bonfire” ~ One rearing ruler and his court of six
“He is pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him”
Awesome, beautiful, frightening, essential… these words describe a few of the qualities of fire, one of the most powerful of elements. So many varied emotions revolve around fire. It can be either beneficial or destructive depending upon one’s viewpoint and life experiences. In my paintings, I seek to convey the dynamic and symbolic aspects of fire, through the fiery nature of horses.
In astrology, fire is the element of inspiration, movement, change, and creation. Fire has influenced my astrological birth signs. I was born in August under the sign of Leo, a fire sign. The year 1966 was the year of The Fire Horse in Chinese Astrology, a leap year in the twelve-year cycle of animal signs that occurs only once every 60 years. I named my first art business The Fire Horse to celebrate this connection.
Perhaps the astrological influence of fire has given me a desire to express this powerful element in my art. I only know I have been fascinated with fire as long as I can remember.
When I first started my equine art career, my style focused on portraying mostly realistic horses. The departure came when I had the idea one day to create a horse in fire. I wanted to portray the horse as a spirit appearing in a magical fire, as if some unseen magician was calling forth his visage through alchemy. Despite my inspiration and enthusiasm for the subject, I struggled with the composition because I was having trouble with portraying the rearing horse. Then I had trouble with the paper I started the drawing on. Finally, in frustration, I put the unfinished piece away in my studio closet.
Two years later, I had the inspiration to paint horses in a cloud after seeing the shapes of horse heads in a cloud formation. I had actually forgotten about the fire concept. Shortly thereafter I saw horses in a breaking wave and realized that there was potential for a series of horses in the elements of earth, air, water and fire. The unfinished drawing patiently waited in my closet.
Some time passed, and one day while looking for some art paper, I ran across the half completed fire painting. Looking at the piece, I suddenly realized it was the prelude to the elements series, though I hadn’t known it at the time. I remembered my frustration, and I was relieved I hadn’t discarded the drawing, for now I had the skill to complete it.
I put the unfinished piece on my drawing board and started where I had left off, only this time I knew how to create the rearing horse. I worked diligently, adding fire on the sides of the center horse to fill in the composition. I worked from my imagination, creating flames in the magical colors of orange and green and luminescent blue. As I created the flames, I started seeing images of horse heads in the patterns. I began to focus on these areas, letting the shapes of the flames guide me in creating the attitudes and expressions of six more horses. I began to enjoy the process and lost any sense of trying to compose or plan the creation. It was the type of rare creation that had a mind of its own.
When it came time to title the finished painting, I was conscious of trying to select a title that would accurately convey my interpretation of the fire horses as benevolent spirits magically appearing in the fire. I needed to come up with a word for fire that surrounded it with good emotion. I settled on “Bonfire.”
When Sean, my twelve-year old nephew saw the piece he said, “Is that “The Fire Horse”? Strangely enough, it hadn’t even occurred to me to connect this new piece with my birth sign and the name of my first art business.
When I began showing “Bonfire” at my displays at horse exhibitions, the response was primarily positive, but a few people had trouble with the theme, viewing the fire as negative rather than positive. Though I would explain my intent they sometimes couldn’t change their interpretation. At first this upset me, I wanted everyone to understand the piece the way I intended it to be interpreted, but I learned that people could only respond from their own subjective viewpoint.
The next piece in the series was inspired by the phoenix – a mythical bird that rises from the ashes of its own funeral pyre to soar free as a powerful element. My phoenix would be horses, rising on wings of flame in celebration of their wild power.
One year I displayed my art in a tent at the Scottsdale Arabian Horse show. The weather was freezing cold, and many people paused to stand in front of “Phoenix Rising”, commenting that the fire seemed so real it actually made them feel warmer!
A few years later, while watching the movie, Lethal Weapon 3, I became spellbound by the opening title scene of the number three being spelled out in ethereal and seductive gold flame. The images of the movie faded before my eyes as I began to imagine a rearing fire horse appearing out of the darkness, flames following in his wake as he danced in “Wildfire”.
When I had almost completed the rearing horse, I felt something was missing. Then I decided that the lone stallion needed a herd to protect. Then it became clear that he was distracting the viewer’s eye from his four mares as they slipped silently by in plumes of smoke.
I later learned of the song “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphey
Another movie reminded me of more magical associations regarding the element of fire. The wonderful movie, “Into the West” is about a magical horse from the legendary Irish land of Tir Na Nog. In the movie, a white horse mysteriously appears and travels to the slums of a modern Irish city to help a gypsy widower and his two small sons recover their lost roots.
In the closing scene, the characters set fire to their gypsy caravan to symbolically release the spirit of their mother who had died. The image of the horse (symbolic of the mother) appears in the flames, communicating her acknowledgement to the family that all is as it should be. The sight of the horse in the fire, so like the horse in “Bonfire”, was deeply moving to me. The context of the scene was a powerful confirmation of what I believed in as a message of healing.
The theme of the movie made me realize that there was yet another interpretation of fire, that of release, cleansing, and new beginnings.
I once watched a documentary on forest fires, and learned that it is often man’s attempt to prevent fires in forests that is sometimes destructive. Fire can be nature’s way to allow the earth to regain its life by burning away the old to renew the soil and nourish new growth.
Some people fear fire; it is an element that is beyond our control. Yet it is the fiery nature of horses we so often admire. Their wildness and passion, are qualities that we consider powerful. When honored and respected, both fire and horses can be appreciated for their dynamic beauty.
“Fire and Ice” by Kim McElroy