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Three Horses

 Three Horses. Oil on canvas. 24x30

Take a long, hard look at the painting. For as long as you like. Just soak it in. Let your mind wander around it. Done? Good.

Question 1: Would you make a statement about the gender of any of these horses? For example: “that horse is male”, or “this horse looks feminine”?

I was absolutely astonished by how many people told me flat out, with no prompting, things like “that’s a girl horse” or “this horse is a boy - you can just tell!” These were kids and adults, boys and girls, making these bold gender declarations. This happened in multiple, separate classes, with unconnected individuals.

I heard little kids in the back of the room debating the genders of the various horses. While painting them, I didn't think about what genders they might be, and didn’t have any intentions or opinions on the matter. I was surprised not only by the comments themselves, but by the surety with which they made their statements. I had considered that one of the horses looked kind of “feminine”, but I would never have said it was a female horse. In the interest of full disclosure, I also thought of one of the horses as looking perfectly androgynous. I would never have mentioned those thoughts to anyone (and would not be writing them out right now) had the matter of gender not been brought up by my classmates and teachers.

Question 2: Do you consider the horses to share some sort of bond? For example, would you say they’re sisters? Friends? A family? A team of superheroes prepared to save the world?

A little girl came up to me and said that the horses are all sisters. Again, I’m amazed by the surety of all this stuff; that wasn’t a question, that wasn’t an “I think”, it was a statement - also a gender statement! She proceeded to point out which one was oldest, which was youngest, and which one was in the middle. Of course I thought this was adorable and was delighted beyond belief. My memory is rather fuzzy, but I believe she then proceeded to change her mind and made one of the horses their mom. Which was also awesome. While painting the horses I actually did think about the connection between them, to a certain extent, but I never imagined that they were a family. So that was a really interesting perspective.

Rarely do I have any sort of solid story behind my paintings (the "sequel painting", Forest Fire, could be considered a rare exception). I have some vague notions, usually, but nothing very clear cut. So I had the vague notion that these horses were connected, somehow, and I wanted to show that in the painting. I got the sense that maybe they were a team, that they all worked together (friends? co-workers? superheroes? mythical deities?). Although I also got the notion that they might all be independent, never working together, maybe even enemies, but perhaps they all had the same sort of power, or something like that. But the important points were that something connected them, there is some reason they are being presented together like this and they are all individuals, and though they might work together or interact in some way, each has to be able to stand alone. So it was very important to me, while painting it, that each horse was equal, that each would command attention and hold it, and that while each person would surely pick their favorite, none of them would fade into the background. I didn’t want a clear hero and I didn’t want a forgotten horse, and if they were indeed a team of superheroes they couldn’t all be the same now could they? Very early on in the painting one of my teachers said that the eye would naturally be drawn first to the horse in the middle, which I found alarming, so I immediately made the mental note of make sure the other horses are cool enough not to be ignored. Their eyes might zap to the red horse, but the other horses need to be awesome enough to draw their attention, to make the eye move. I made sure to give each horse a unique spin, and tried to put equal work into all of them. I wanted each horse to have fans. I wanted people to be able to pick favorites and make up stories about them, whatever stories they wanted, and for that I felt equality was important. Because isn’t it annoying when one character is really good and the rest are boring as soggy cheesecake? So that leads into my next question.

Question 3: Do you have a favorite horse?

Technically I’m not supposed to have one. I love them all; they are my babies. But I do have one I’m particularly fond of, I’ll admit it. 

Thinking back on the comments of classmates and teachers, I can see no clear favorite. Each horses gathered their own share of kind compliments.

Question 4: What do you believe the horses represent, if anything? Elements of nature? The ocean? Personality traits, qualities, temperaments? Something else entirely?

One of my teachers was really interested in this question. First she told me she thought it looked like the horses represent the ocean. I thought that interpretation was really cool, and it hadn’t occurred to me at all.

My notion was the boring one: the idea that they might be deities of the elements or something like that. Earth! Fire! Wind and water! Woo! And later my teacher told me she thought it could be that, too, and she asked me which it was, ocean or elements?

Desperately wanting to encourage free interpretation and not squish the awesome ocean interpretation under my own more typical one, I dodged the question and totally lied when she continued to press me, saying I have no idea what it’s supposed to represent and had absolutely nothing in mind! (Nowadays I wouldn't tell such untruths, but that was a different time, my friends! Oh, how we all grow and change).

But yes, I’ll admit, I painted them to maybe represent the elements maybe. I mean yes that’s what I had in mind.  What matters, though, is what the painting means to you. My opinion is that my opinion doesn’t matter. There are no "correct" interpretations of my work, and I believe that my own interpretation is just one possible version. As such, your unique interpretation of the work is just as valid -- and just as important, interesting and meaningful -- as my own.

But my teacher did want me to make a definite statement or decision on the matter of what these horses represent, because I might have to name it some day. So I thought a lot about what I could name it, and I thought a lot about how it could be interpreted. And in thinking about that I came up with another interpretation: courage, grace, and subtlety. So in my personal totally does not matter at all  theoretical interpretation, the horses also represent certain qualities, of emotion or personality. That would be a title that remains interesting while also being open enough for my liking - after all, it doesn’t say which horse is courage, or grace, so people can still debate about that, and the elements, and the ocean, and it’s more memorable than something like hey, these are three horses, yo. Although that title might not be so bad. And that's what I went with here, because I just don't care about the titles of my paintings! And I do tend to favor blunt and descriptive.

Question 5: Do you have any thoughts about the painting that aren’t covered in the other questions? Any miscellaneous comments you’d like to share?

Weirdest comment I got on this painting was one of my teachers saying the red horse was me. I was so utterly flabbergasted I failed to ask why. I remain completely puzzled about this. I don’t know if it was the hair, or the general attitude, or the fact that I was working on it a lot because it was the first horse I poured a lot of effort into, or what. I think it would be cool to be the red horse but, ha ha, I don’t think I am. I think I’d have to say that I’m a fusion of all three of them, or that all three of them could represent different sides of me, or something weird and philosophical like that. I don’t know. I only thought about that after the painting was long finished.

Another comment I’ll always remember is a little girl coming up to me and saying that she really liked the flowers in the green one’s hair, and that I should put flowers in the manes of the other horses, too. I said “ha ha, thanks, but, ha ha, I don’t think so”, and she gave me this look, this disappointed sort of glare, and I did my weird grin-shrug-laugh thing and mumbled something about “the green horse” and “special thing” and “the other horses aren’t really into flowers”. I think she walked away shaking her head or something. Too bad, kid! Yes, the flowers are cool, would mess up the balance for all of them to have flowers! A lot of people liked those flowers. The green horse received many compliments on them. 

This painting also earned me one of my most favorite compliments, what I consider to be one of the greatest comments I've ever received. Yet another little girl told me that this painting was “great art”, and she watched me paint several times when class was ending, and made comments, saying things like how much she loved the color of the green horse, but she liked the blue one too, and the flowers were neat, and she would just stare at it with such admiration. And one time she went to get her older sister and was pulling her over saying “this is great art” and I just wanted to scream, because this is why I paint! Because when little children find joy in my paintings it’s one of the best feelings in the entire world. It makes every painting I have ever done worth it. And it’s actually the opinions and the praise of children that I value most highly. When a painting means something to someone, when it stirs their heart, or captures their imagination? That’s when it all comes together for me. 

Lastly, an excerpt from my diary, around the time I was painting this: I was painting horses today. And horses make me question reality, perception, and the joy of living.
 I find painting horses to be inordinately frustrating, because I always feel like I'm messing them up somehow, like their faces are maybe too long or too short and they always look off no matter what I do
And, by the way: if you would like to actually answer those questions I asked, please don't hesitate to do so! Send all your words to

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