Strength, beauty, freedom — Jean Richardson distills the figure of the horse down to colorful abstractions that symbolize these compelling traits.
The Oklahoma City-based abstract painter has been an artist for more than 70 years. She took her first art lesson at the age of 7 at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas, where her inexperienced hands used tempera paints to attempt a likeness of a live model wearing a grass skirt and a lei. After a year of copying flowers in a teacher’s dining room, she was given an assignment to paint a series on Robin Hood, which led to her own show at the local public library.
In the decades since, Richardson has distilled technique and finished product to the fundamental elements that communicate the essence of her favorite subject. Starting each piece with just a brushstroke or two, she uses bright colors in acrylic paint and adds texture with a palette knife to style hundreds of horses.
We talked with Richardson, now approaching 80, about her career.
Cowboys & Indians: The book Turning Toward Home: The Art of Jean Richardson revealed that you were strongly influenced by photographer Edward Curtis.
Jean Richardson: My husband was on a committee to raise money for the arts here in Oklahoma, and one of the auction items was a set of Edward Curtis prints; so we bid on them. I loved his silhouetted figures and the mood they created. He would dress his models, set the scene of loneliness and serenity, and take the photos in the wild. He used sepia tones, but I thought maybe I could evoke those same feelings while using bright colors in an abstract style. So I followed that style in the late ’70s and early ’80s before moving on to more movement in my work.
C&I: In the early ’90s you created a series called Sky Herd, in which you eliminated the human figure. Tell us a bit about using the horse as a metaphor.
Richardson: I was very drawn to the early art found in the caves of Spain, where they chalked horses on the walls, and the centuries-old sculptures that have been part of equine mythology for thousands of years. There have been so many illusions throughout history and I thought there was something that people could identify with. I wanted to eliminate the judgment of my human figures, such as, That butt is too big, by taking them out of the equation and focusing on the horse.
C&I: What inspires and informs your horse art?
Richardson: I used to ride, and my grandfather had a big ranch near Laredo, Texas. He was quite the cowboy and calf roper, working cattle for most of his life, and would regale me with all sorts of tall tales. He wanted me to ride with him, so I would get out of the saddle and open the gates on the property. I grew up steeped in these stories, and later in college I did my first painting of a running herd of horses, with no feet and no eyes, and have continued with that style, considering each painting just a word from a poem I’m writing.