One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

31 December 2013

Gift Horses

by Lyn StClair

There are countless books written about "visualizing" the life you want…but visualization has never worked for me.  Oddly, the more I tried to visualize something…the less likely it seemed to happen.  To say that has been frustrating is an understatement…at times, it has been downright heartbreaking.  Yet, every time I was "denied" what I "wanted"…something better seemed to come along.

What I have learned along the way is that life is not about getting what you want…
    ...nor is it really about learning not to want.

Our dreams and desires have the power to move us forward…but sometimes we must be willing to let go of the originally hoped-for destination.

We should not only be aware of the doors that open along the way…but also appreciate the value of the ones that shut.

So many times I have looked back and marveled "who would have thought I would be HERE a year ago?".  In a society that seems to value security, it seems odd to say that I have come to LOVE the polar shifts that have marked new chapters in my life again and again over the years.

Having experienced the loss of a child, divorce, the death of a parent, cancer, the passing of friends, not to mention the infinite "minor" stumbles along the way...I have learned that gifts lie beneath the pain, if you are willing to look for them.  Every tear shed has been a drop of moisture to the soil of my soul…and the ever-present laughter is the sunshine.
Early last summer I joined a couple of friends to look at a home one of them was considering for purchase.  Before I'd even made it up the driveway, I realized it was the kind of house/studio/barn/location I'd dreamed of…and, for the first time, it hit me that I would likely never have that.

Several years ago I'd saved enough for a substantial down payment and was actively looking for a house to buy.  Then I was diagnosed with cancer.  Being uninsured meant that all the money I had saved for a downpayment on a house would disappear like a puff of smoke into stacks of hospital bills.  

With my friends, I looked over that perfect property until I couldn't hold back the tears.  After saying my goodbyes, I left the house and ran to the solace of my horses.

For the first time, I really cried over the cancer thing…and, as I did with the horses of my childhood and youth, I hugged my ponies until the tears stopped.

Then, with a deep breath or two, I let go of that dream house and remembered all I had to be grateful for (including the horses whose coats I'd just cried into).  

A few weeks later I was surfing craigslist and found a post advertising a little schoolhouse for rent.  Long story short:  my new home is better than anything I could have dreamed of…

Time and again I have had to learn to let go of what I "want".  Even when "letting go" has meant it had to be painfully, and involuntarily, ripped from my grasp.  When I finally let go, the reward was often a gift better than I imagined.

Many people believe that our mistakes and personal tragedies are something to bury, leave behind, forget…at best, we "should" learn from them and let them go.  Others hang on to their failings/injuries/losses and drag them along throughout life, continuing to carry the pain or anger or grief indefinitely.  Recently, I have come to believe that the most soulful approach lies in embracing the pain as much as the happiness.  What a marvelous gift to be alive to feel not only love, happiness, hope and joy…but also pain, failure, regret and loss.

My path has never gone where I imagined it would…yet here i am in the most marvelous place.  I would not be here had I been able to buy a house instead of having cancer.  My fabulous horses and a remarkable dog came into my life as a result of having cancer.  No one considers it a gift when they are diagnosed with cancer…but, in hindsight, maybe it was.
How do we learn to appreciate the gifts that may come wrapped within our tragedies and disappointments without having to find them in hindsight (if ever)?

How do we learn to appreciate the gift of every moment and every single breath we take?
Five years ago I woke from surgery less curvy, free of cancer and soon to be bereft of savings.  

Today my life is full of family and friends that I cherish, work that I love, pets that make me laugh, ponies that carry my dreams, a view that astonishes me every day, a home that I adore and life…precious life.  

The hopes/dreams/loves that have been left behind are as much a part of who I am as the ones realized and yet to be.  

No doubt, more heartbreak lies ahead….but I will never stop hoping/dreaming/loving.  

Rather than holding too tight to my dreams and desires, though…I hope I will have the courage to set them free and the wisdom to appreciate the gifts that come in unexpected packages.

As another season of giving winds down, let us appreciate the gifts we receive…
          whether it's what we wanted or not.

17 December 2013

Good Morning Moon

Good morning, moon. 
Last night I couldn't sleep...that magnificent moon was making magic out the windows. From my bed I saw the resident mulie herd cavorting in my yard...just a few yards from my window. I watched them play and tried to point them out to Newt but he wanted to sleep, lol. 

Later (well "earlier", actually), I wandered about the house in the dark looking with awe out the windows at the brilliant moonstruck landscape. Finally drawn out onto the deck around 2 a.m., I stood there amazed. The brutal wind that has pummeled the house for days was gone and the temperature was a wonderous 41F. So much light! The aspens in the yard threw delicate shadows across the snow and I could even see the little game trail that follows the creek through the woods by my deck. The soft gurgling of that creek was the only sound. The hills were lit in every direction. Above, the "smallest" full moon of the year hung among a field of stars. 

Mesmerizing...I tried to take a picture but the camera saw only the black of night so I was left to try and etch this night into memory, a gift for my eyes (and soul) only.

04 June 2013

Finding Karma

by Lyn StClair

At my solo gallery show opening in 2009 one of the women attending mentioned she was selling a horse.  Though I was in no way looking for a horse, I could not resist the opportunity to go with my wonderful horsey neighbor Donald, his partner Mick and their friend Gregg to look at "Billy Jean" as a possible horse for Gregg.

Billy Jean was Percheron/Thoroughbred cross owned by a young woman named Molly.  

Molly rescued Billy's pregnant dam from a PMU farm in Canada and brought her to Santa Barbara where Billy was foaled.  Born coal black with a star, Billie was a deep charcoal grey three year old when I met her.  

Molly had begun her training beautifully, but had recently met the love of her life and was moving to Sweden...so Billy needed a new home.

She was gorgeous, but I had trouble justifying the cost of boarding the horse I already had (and they could accept no more boarders even if I could).

More importantly, though I have ridden since I was a toddler, I had never trained a horse...and Billy had a lot more to learn.

My pragmatic Scottish side kicked in.  I admired her, loved on her...and then hugged her goodbye.

Afterward though, I could not stop thinking about her...and Michael Jackson's song had become stuck in my head non-stop.

"B-B-B-Billie Jean..."
A few weeks later, we were riding with a friend.  I was on her huge Percheron/TB paint and falling in love with draft crosses.  As we rode, I told her about Billy Jean and she said "Of course you could train her!'  When the boarding dilemma came up...she came back with "you could keep her at my place".  An intense feeling came over me...I HAVE to do this!

At home, I stepped out of the truck to see the daughter of the woman who was keeping Billy for Molly.  Perfect timing!  I beelined for her and told her I needed to reach Molly to buy her horse.

Her response was a crushing blow: "Molly left for Sweden yesterday...Billie was sold to a neighbor, the sprinkler guy."

Brokenhearted that I had missed the "dream horse", over the next couple of weeks I turned to Craigslist searching for a draft cross and began working with a green Quarter Horse that our friend wanted to sell.

The MJ song refused to leave my head though.

So, I tried emailing Molly for more information...she was sympathetic, but couldn't help.  Billy had been sold and that was that.

Never one to give up easily on a dream, I emailed every sprinkler guy in the area:  "Did you recently buy a big grey horse?..."  Amazingly, one of them responded "yes".  He was happy with her, the farrier was coming out the next week and then they'd know more.  That last part seemed a door open to possibility...

A few days later I wrote him back and made an offer that was more than Molly had been asking.  He thought about it for a couple of days and then agreed.

Billy Jean was mine.

Her name became Karmelita, in part to keep that MJ song out of my head.  Instead there is a Warren  Zevon song to sing to her.  

She can be "good Karma" when she is and "bad Karma" should she ever be rotten (rolls eyes dramatically).

This funny, tough, beautiful, quirky, intelligent, goofy, spirited mare has been a priceless addition to my world.  She has been a challenge at times...but she makes up for it by being an extraordinary soul who continually enriches my life.

She has taught me far more than I could ever teach her.  Together we have weathered some pretty tough stuff and always come through smiling.

As to training...I have come to realize that I knew more about it than I thought...and nothing at all.  What I continually draw on is what I learned with the horses I adored as a child and teen:
Love unconditionally
Cultivate trust
Be kind
and Have fun.

Beyond that...I am always trying to learn something new.

Horses teach you that calm, quiet, patience, humor and kindness are not only good qualities with which to approach them...they are the way to approach life in general.

In my opinion (for what it's worth)...training horses means learning to find a way to bridge a gap between yourself and a soul that sees things very differently than you.  The world can certainly use more of that!

Horses, like art and life, are a work in progress.

They are sensitive and they react to what we bring to them...so the most important step to training is learning to leave your stress, temper, impatience and worry outside the arena (or off the trail).

Like people, horses have their good days and their bad days...so, as one trainer says, you learn to work with the horse that shows up.

Rather than get mad and frustrated that my horse is not doing what I tell them, I look for reasons why and different ways of "asking".  What builds from that is trust...

When you and your horse trust one another...you can do anything.

Whatever I do with them, I am always on the lookout for them to "try"...and hopefully they appreciate my "try", too...
Thank you Molly for rescuing this lovely mare and her mama from the wicked Premarin farm program and shaping her young life so thoughtfully.  Thank you Hank for answering that email and being willing to let her go, albeit reluctantly.  Thank you Dody for telling me "you can!", for offering advice and for giving me a place to put Karma for the first few months.  Thank you Donald for getting me back into jumping...and Donald, Mick and Gregg for letting me come along to see her that first time.  

Last but not least...
thank you Karma for just being you.

29 May 2013

Drawing on Karma

by Lyn StClair

The first piece pictured here is the latest in a new series of works exploring an entirely different (and experimental) medium.

While I was absolutely captivated by Karma's amazing use of her personal airspace...to me, this piece (titled "Touch the Sky") is more than just a drawing of a horse.  It is about reaching for the stars and being willing to leave the security of the ground.

As artists we HAVE to try to go where the muse sends us.  That is how we grow...and, hopefully, what makes "art".  When we choose to spread our wings and reach for something new, it can be like stepping into the void.  This new series of "paintings" (sparked by one I did of Karma this past Winter) is a long leap from the work that I have become "known" for.  That alone is scary...wondering how they will be received...and if they will sell...

The first show where I showed these pieces helped a little...an "Award of Excellence" for the first one of Karma and a great response, even a couple of sales.  Then a rejection from a museum show for another.  Neither awards nor rejection mean anything in the long run, though...what matters is the originality you strive for and the soul that goes into your work.

Exploring a new direction is more than trying a new "style":  it is about finding your voice all over again in a completely different key.  It is about re-inventing yourself.  These new "paintings" (I am still not quite sure what to call them) have swung from fairly representational...to wildly loose and contemporary.  Each one brings its own set of challenges to the table as I not only experiment with design...but with surface and media in a way that has not been done (to my knowledge).

Once again, I have fallen in love with black and white...with contrast and line and negative space and value.  Subject-wise, I have tried some of the usual "charismatic megafauna"...in part because they are subjects I love...in part because I want to worry less about "subject" and more about style, comopsition, design, etc.  Again and again, I come back to Karma, though.

It is hard NOT to be inspired by Karma (Karmelita).  She is big, gorgeous and has a personality that, in itself, is a work of art.  She is grey...like a charcoal come to life.  She plays like no other horse I know...she seems to be as much a part of the air as the earth sometimes.  In a way, she is the personification (horsification?) of what I am trying to do with my work.  Not to mention...she is fun to watch AND draw...and there lies another factor in making art...it should be fun.

In my opinion...artists themselves are a work in progress.  We should be constantly trying to explore, to experiment, to raise that bar ever higher.  Along the way there will be some wonderful highs, some brutal crashes and some seemingly endless plateaus.  But if you constantly push yourself and your work beyond what you are comfortable with...you cannot help but become a better artist.

There is no getting "there" in the life of an artist...there is always a better way to try, a different way to express, a new thing to explore.  As with anything, it is easy to get stuck in a rut (especially if the "rut" means sales).  For me, it is vital to create for the sake of art, not just the market.  When I catch myself feeling restless or "working" too hard on stuff that is "easy" to sell...I know it is time to try a new direction.

That period of transition is always scary...and yet also exhilarating.  There are few things harder than feeling yourself not growing in your work...and few things as delicious as finding joy in your work once again.

When you can hardly sleep after finishing a piece because you cannot stop thinking about the next one...you might be on to something,

10 May 2013

Changing Reins (Part 1)

You never know who or what will be the spark that sets your life on a different course.

Sometimes it is a person...sometimes an event...sometimes a chance decision to take a different route home...and sometimes...
it is a horse.

In honor of his birthday, here is the story of one such horse...

Dunny originally came into my family as part of my Dad's dream.  He was the cutting horse Dad bought shortly before he got his dream ranch.  I remember how excited and proud Dad was when I first met "Dunny"...he grinned like a little kid.

Not that things were always perfect between them...
When Dad moved from the place in Monte Vista, CO to his dream ranch a few miles away in Del Norte, he thought it would be an adventure to ride Dunny cross country to the new place. Late that night, he still hadn't shown up and my step mom was worried...Dad finally arrived, without Dunny, and furious. Unfortunately, Dunny had issues about crossing water and they had come to a little stream that Dunny had flat out refused to cross. There was a battle, Dad would not have given up without a fight...but Dunny won this one. Dad had to turn around and ride all the way back to the house, leave Dunny there and drive to the ranch. Things like that were few and far between, though...and Dunny was something special even then.

After an art show in California in May of 2003...I felt the sudden strong urge to take a rather big detour to go to Dad's ranch for a couple of days. While I was there, Dad and I went in a little antique store and I fell in love...with a saddle. It was a beautiful high cantled, wide swelled C.P. Shipley, probably made in the twenties or thirties. A saddle was an odd thing to want so badly...since I didn't have a horse of my own at the time (not to mention, I couldn't afford it)...but for some reason, it spoke to me. The store owner offered to let me take it for a test ride. Dad said he'd buy it if I didn't and joked that either way it would be mine since I'd inherit it. So we took this old saddle, went to the co-op for billets and a latigo, rigged it to ride and then caught the horses.

It was Spring and the horses were feeling
pretty frisky...plus they hadn't been ridden since the previous Fall. Dad tied Dunny to a fencepost while I saddled him.  A tumbleweed shifted and Dunny went in reverse with such power that he pulled the fencepost completely out of the ground. With the added trouble of a brisk wind...this could be an interesting ride. The horses were looking for anything to spook at...jumpy, crowhopping, little rears...generally just goofy and silly, nothing that didn't just make us laugh.

Dad and I were having a ball just riding together. Finally the horses settled down and it was a fine ride on a gorgeous day. I decided that I wanted this saddle...but once more across the wide, open pasture...just to be sure. After handing Dad my camera, I took off at a trot...then a lope...then all heck broke loose. The saddle shifted sideways and Dunny went for some spontaneous levitation. (Dad later said this was no crowhoppin', but all four feet off the ground serious bucking.) I stayed on for a bit, but the saddle didn't...it slid sideways and I hit the ground. Remarkably, I landed on my feet...with one rein tightly gripped in my hand.

Knowing that if he got away, he'd buck til the saddle came off...I was determined that this horse was NOT going to get loose and destroy "my" saddle...so I dug my heels in. Unfortunately, 115 pounds of girl is no match for 16 hands and 1200 pounds of quarter horse. Still, I refused to "give"...Dad said Dunny pulled me face down in the dirt then drug me for about twenty feet before I lost the rein. All we could do then was watch in dismay as Dunny bucked until the offending saddle was left in the dirt on the far side of the pasture.

It was a long walk to get that saddle. The leather that had gleamed only a few minutes ago was now dusty, scarred and pulled back from the tree. Three of the silver "longhorn" conchos and the saddle strings were gone. The billet had broken...probably what had sent the saddle sideways in the first place. I carried it back and then walked the pasture until I recovered all the bits and pieces. We put the saddle in the truck and headed to the antique dealer. I told him "Well, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is I want the saddle. The bad news is that we had a little wreck and I need you to fix it."

Thanks to Dunny, I had to return a few weeks later to pick up my saddle.  Dad and I got to ride another time...this one was much less eventful.

We had another great visit...it was, in fact, one of the best times I'd ever had with Dad since I was a kid. Then I headed back home and Dad headed to Scotland to follow another dream. Within days of his return, he was whisked away from his beloved Southern Colorado ranch to a Denver hospital and diagnosed with double pneumonia, septic shock and respiratory distress syndrome.  He was given a 20% chance of surviving that first night.

My family doesn't quit without a fight...and Dad fought for six months. At one point while I was visiting, he took a pad of paper (a trach had robbed him of his voice) and wrote a note that he handed to my stepmom. It read: "Tell Lyn to take Dunny". I protested and told him we'd be riding together again soon.

I'd been to visit often while he was in the hospital and had just finished a monumental traveling art project...so, when Christmas came near, since my brothers thought they would be going to visit him and Dad was due to leave the hospital in a couple of weeks, I decided to stay home. But Christmas Eve morning, another overwhelming feeling hit and I packed up the old dog and drove the 10 hours to Denver. During his hospital stay, Dad kept saying he wanted to be home for Christmas...on Christmas Day he took matters into his own hands and passed away.  My brothers had both had to cancel their visit...but thanks again to paying attention to my gut...I was there to sing him cowboy songs for his last hours.

For the longest time after Dad died, I would tell people that that second ride together was the last time I saw him. Then catch myself...I saw him many times over his six months in the hospital. Guess that's how I remember him, though...smiling and laughing as we rode, talking about antique saddles, horses, art and life.

Dad left no will...but my stepmom honored that scrawled note and Dunny became mine.

Dunny is an incredibly special horse in his own right...but he is more so because of the connection to my Dad. Every ride on Dunny has been like time with my Dad...and, where ever he is, I am sure that Dad smiles every time I look at the world through Dunny's ears.

By the way, Dunny and I worked out the 'crossing water' thing, too.

To be continued...