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Honoring the Horse in Art

For Savannah College of Art and Design graduate and former equestrian team member Julie Ferris, horses are inspiration for her art.

by Glenye Oakford | Oct 3, 2017, 2:19 PM EST

Horses have been a lifelong inspiration for Julie Ferris, but it wasn’t until she went to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., that she finally was able to bring her equestrian life and her artistic ambitions together. That fusion is now sustaining Ferris both personally and in her career as a visual artist.

Ferris’s art is realistic without being static; it’s infused with an equestrian’s understanding of how horses move and behave. “Especially if you’re looking at them in person, they have a lot of energy in them,” she explained. “To me, they have a lot of rhythm and movement with the brushstrokes and the way I put the paint on the canvas. I think that’s my way of translating the energy and rhythm that I feel when I’m riding. Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, when I’m painting I’m constantly being inspired my own personal experience with horses over my entire lifetime.”

Photo: Courtesy of SCAD

Ferris, who started riding at about age five, brings a lot of cumulative horse-related knowledge to her canvas. But her competition experience began at SCAD, where she joined the university's national championship-winning equestrian team and once won an award herself for having the best combined grade point average and horse show points.

“Because I hadn’t showed, I was easily placed into walk/trot/canter and then moved up to advanced as time went on,” she said. “I got to do a little jumping but was mainly focused on the flat. I loved it. It was awesome. I’m still riding now.”

Being on the team, Ferris said, helped her develop teamwork skills not just with people but horses, too. “And one of the biggest things I took away from my time on the team was learning how to commit to something—and how to commit to excellence. It’s all about working your hardest to achieve your goals and the task you have at hand.”

Those skills have carried over into Ferris’s post-college art career, and horses remain at the center of her attention.

Ferris places her subjects against a textured white background, putting the focus squarely on the horse. In her full-body portraits, the hooves and lower legs are also lightly reflected, almost as if the horses are standing on a mirror.

“The white background puts them in the pure, pristine space that isn’t realistic but allows the viewer to see the horses as they are,” she said. The reflections, Ferris adds, are a symbolic reminder to reflect on the animals, the mystery of their thoughts and personalities, and on life in general.

“When I’m riding, I have to have my full focus on it,” she explained. “If I don’t figure out how to communicate with this 1,200-pound animal, we’re not going to accomplish anything. Thankfully, horses and art are both therapeutic! It’s nice to have the three-dimensional relationship with a horse in real time, as well as the two-dimensional one on the canvas. Riding inspires me, and it also gives me a mental break from what I’m doing in the studio.”

The horses Ferris knew at SCAD have featured in her art.

Ferris's life-sized work "Steadfast" at Spalding Nix Fine Art in Atlanta this year.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Ferris)

“I told my professors from the beginning that I wanted to focus on horses in my art,” said Ferris, who was in SCAD’s equestrian studies program. “I never really had the opportunity to do that in high school. I was the only one in my high school who rode, and I’d never really been around a lot of people like me who were artistic but who also were horse people. Being at SCAD was wonderful, because I had a chance to become friends with people who are both horse people and art people.

“And I finally had a chance to pursue the kind of artist I wanted to be,” she added. “I was constantly taking pictures of the SCAD horses and using them as models. Over the years, they were a huge part of my growth as an equestrian and as an artist.

“My idea is that all horses deserve that kind of portrayal and to be memorialized through art.”

Ferris, who stayed in Savannah for four years after graduating, moved back to her hometown of Norcross, Ga., recently, and still finds time to ride.

“I found a farm not too far away,” she said. “It’s more specialized in eventing, which is a little bit of a switch from the hunters, but they know my background. I’ve got a plan to get a horse at some point and will probably go back to the hunters, but it’s been really great, because it’s allowed me to see things from another perspective, learn some different skills, and still focus on riding but in a different way. For me, it’s just great to have some time in the saddle.”

That time is also an investment in her art.

Ferris on SCAD's horse Paco.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Ferris)

“My mindset is that I want to be highly specialized in equestrian art and in horses: riding, art, knowledge of the horse and their versatility,” Ferris said. “The more I learn about my subject, whether it’s from indirect learning like reading or from direct learning like riding and spending time with them, that adds to my knowledge and informs my art. My continuing to ride is so important to my credibility as an artist.”

Ferris describes a number of similarities between art and riding. For example, she finds that goal-setting and visualization are important in both worlds, whether you’re imagining seeing the perfect distance on a jump course or envisioning exactly how you want a detail in a painting to look.  

“I see a lot of parallels between my art and my riding life,” Ferris said. “The horse is my muse, my focus, my passion. I have gratitude for them and what they’ve done for us. They’ll never know I did paintings of them or that people have loved these paintings of them. I love just capturing them as they are and thinking of the history and everything we’ve accomplished over the years because we’ve had horses as partners. They were such a vital part of society for hundreds of years. I want to portray them in the light that they deserve, and I hope that even people who have never had contact with a horse will somehow know them through my paintings.”

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