Suzie Burgess has loved horses for as long as she can remember and always appreciated their beauty. As an artist, she was able to unite her passion for horses and art in the form of large oil-on-canvas paintings. Burgess admires the diverse people who love horses and how these amazing animals touch people’s lives.
As a child, Burgess did whatever she could to be around horses. “It was always in my blood. My grandfather was a cowboy, so maybe I inherited it,” Burgess said. “My family would drive by horses in a field and I would say, ‘Stop! Stop!’ and want to go to the fence and see if they would come over or something.” Burgess grew up riding an Appaloosa mare named Kicky who lived across the street from her house in Harvard, Mass., and eventually worked at a dressage barn in exchange for lessons.
In addition to spending time with horses as a child, Burgess enjoyed drawing them. “For me, the academic part of school was difficult, but art always came really naturally. It was the place where I felt most at home,” she said. Burgess began painting in high school and went on to earn a studio art degree from Wheaton College. Her primary subject was the human figure, starting as an undergraduate and continuing for the first few years of her career.
Burgess took a hiatus from painting when she moved to California and had her second daughter, but she craved getting back into the studio. Spending time at the barn with Danny, her Morgan horse, provided inspiration for her next painting subjects. “I started experimenting with photographing my horse and getting a feel for how to capture his movement and to see the real beauty of his form. I began to see the type of light that accentuated that form. There wasn’t really much agenda; it was a lot of just observing. It was in those moments that I made the transition to painting horses,” Burgess said.
She developed her plan of photographing her equine subjects first to get the ideal shot to turn into a painting. Burgess is a fan of large works of art and decided to emulate the style herself, often using canvases that are often eight feet by eight feet in size. “We’ve all experienced the power and majesty of the horse. I want the viewer to experience the same thing when standing in front of one of my paintings. I want it to feel as though they are in the room with you,” she said.
Burgess appreciates the versatility of horses and the numerous people who love them. “I love how diverse it is. I love that there is jumping and horse racing and rodeo and dressage,” she explained. “The culture is really unique. I think the people groups are interesting to watch and observe how they are all different. Then, a horse is just kind of a horse at the end of the day. There is something so healing about them.” Her observations helped her realize that there was a market for striking paintings of horses.
As Burgess began creating various paintings, a friend who manages a property with an old barn approached her about having an art show. They worked out a plan to have the show set in the barn to give people a complete experience. Burgess set up the venue, marketed the event, invited people, and had a string quartet, hors d'oeuvres, and three horses being led around at the show. “People could touch a horse and be with a horse and they kind of got it. They could experience the source of the work,” she noted. “There were some people who would stand in front of these paintings and cry. There is something about the animal that connects with people’s spirits.”
The horses seemed to enjoy the art show as well. “The horses walked up to the paintings, and it was so wild. I had a big draft in there and he walked up to the only draft horse painting that I had in the whole barn and he smelled its nose. He went straight to the nose and was sniffing its nose,” Burgess said. “Then, I had a horse who I painted that was there and he went up to himself and checked out his painting.”
Since then, Burgess has done more shows that allow people, and horses, to experience her work. In 2019, she showed her work at the Temecula Valley National Horse Show, which included a painting of owners and managers Ali and Francie Nilforushan’s Clarinius.
Burgess has continued doing commissioned paintings of horses from hunter jumper barns along the West Coast, as well as a reining horse based in Texas. She also has been interested in creating paintings that honor champion horses, and the opportunity came along to use Verdades, dressage rider Laura Graves’s Olympic and FEI World Equestrian Games™ mount, as a painting subject.
Burgess, along with her mother and daughter, flew to Florida to meet Graves and Verdades and have a photoshoot. Burgess and another photographer, Kristen Lee, worked together to capture photos of Verdades during morning and evening shoots. “It was unbelievable being able to experience him move in person. It is crazy to me; it was just beautiful,” Burgess said. “It was really inspiring. And his eyes are amazing, like this really orange-y brown.” Burgess and Lee were able to get some excellent shots, but Burgess also wanted a competition photo of Verdades at his peak performance level. She worked with Shannon Brinkman to acquire a photo of Verdades in competition to paint.
Burgess hoped to debut the Verdades paintings at the 2020 FEI World Cup™ Finals in Las Vegas, but the event cancelation due to COVID-19 forced a change of plans. Burgess generously donated her competition painting of Verdades, which took about 50 hours to complete and is sized seven feet by seven feet, to US Equestrian and it will be displayed at the Lexington, Ky., office. Burgess has three other Verdades paintings in the works, some of which will be available for purchase.
As an artist, Burgess appreciates beauty and tries to capture it in her paintings, enjoying the process along the way. “I am not this contemporary artist who is about things being edgy. I really like beauty; something beautiful matters to me,” she explained. “I love high contrast—light and dark. I pull out lots of different colors within the horse. My paintings are realistic and accurate, but you can tell it is paint. I’m working to capture the spirit and personality of each horse. I feel like I am really good at seeing things and feeling what is there.”
Burgess’s work is now being exhibited along the West Coast and demand for commissioned paintings is rising. Connect with her at suzieburgessart.com if you are interested in a painting honoring a horse in your life—whether it be a champion or a beloved friend.