By Devon Jackson
Sophy Brown grew up in England, where the equestrian scene is a bit more reserved and proper than it is in the United States. So it may seem surprising that Brown eventually found her artistic calling depicting horses of the American West. Rodeo horses, ranch horses, bucking broncs—horses of action and drama.
“I was quite dramatic as a kid,” says Brown by way of explanation from her home in Colorado, where she has lived since 1999. “Maybe it was from going to so many Shakespeare plays as a child.” Her father, who directed in the theater, at one point moved his teenage daughter and her two siblings to Stratford-Upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare’s historic Globe Theatre. “I’d even thought for a time of getting into the theater myself,” she continues. Instead of a career in the footlights, though, Brown discovered her voice on the canvas, and rediscovered her lifelong love for horses and drama on ranches and farms, in barns and rodeos. “There’s a lot of drama and theater in the rodeo,” observes Brown. “There’s a lot of show biz in it. But the adrenaline is not pretend in a rodeo.”
Born in 1963 in Birmingham, England, Brown confesses to lacking direction early on in her life. Even when she moved to London to be on her own, taking a job in the circulation department of a magazine company, thinking that as long as she earned enough money to make a living she’d be okay, she was still just sort of drifting. Brown spent much of her time in London at the Tate Gallery (formerly known as the National Gallery of British Art). It was around that time that she decided she would go to art school. “I was never that much into art as a child,” admits Brown. “But I suppose I chose it because it was difficult and challenging enough, and once you start, it’s very compelling.”
She chose Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London. “I had to backtrack and get some qualifications before going there,” she explains. The school provided her with her own studio in additional to financial assistance. “It was very much self-starting,” says Brown. “I was trying to learn and draw and find some self-direction. But I was being taught by people who went to school in the ’60s, and it was all very conceptually based. So I’m not sure I got a very good practical education.”
Nevertheless, Brown earned her bachelor’s in fine art from Goldsmiths. Then, without any clear career plan, she left England for the United States to attend the University of Michigan. Her father had already moved to Michigan to teach, and her sister was then in school in Boston. “It was a good choice, and it seemed the most sensible,” says the artist. She spent two years in Ann Arbor working on her master’s in fine art. “It was very different from England,” she says. “It was such a structured situation, and they graded you—unlike at Goldsmiths. And just being in America affected me. I was amazed by the large open spaces in this country. I started painting big.”
Big, but not figurative. Back then Brown was very much into geometric shapes and color-field painting, or, as she puts it, “repetition as a form of color. I would do all these color swatches of sky against the sky,” she recalls. “I was painting myself into a corner, though.”
What eventually got her out of that corner was returning to her theatrical roots. She had entered the University of Michigan intent on earning dual degrees—one in painting and one in set design. “Set design was what I started out to do, and it turned out to be very useful,” says Brown. “After finishing my two years at Michigan, I ended up painting murals. The understanding of scale I needed to do the murals came from my work in set design.”
The mural work suited both her need to keep painting and her peripatetic postgraduate life. She painted her first big mural—of an adobe house—in Ann Arbor. She then moved to New Jersey and later to Oregon, leaving murals in her wake. She painted scenes of Greek isles, Tuscan hillsides, and herons in flight. When Brown was commissioned to paint a dressage arena with 15 life-size horses and riders, she suddenly realized she’d found the perfect blend of form, style, and content.
“By that time, I’d spent a lot of time with horses—working with them, playing with them,” says Brown, who rode as a child and bought her own horse, which she still has, while living in Michigan. “I was riding horses a lot, but I didn’t start painting them until 2000, when I was commissioned to paint the dressage arena.” Obsessed with the project, she soon took over half the house with 34 sheets, each measuring 4 by 8 feet. “And I never gave them back,” she laughs.
“I was painting all these horses in very precise frames and in very precise movements,” she says. And today it’s that precision that appeals to Brown as she tries to show the free and uninhibited personalities of horses and their unique blend of alertness, physicality, gracefulness, and unpredictability. She conveys this with broad, sweeping brush strokes that seem to pare away everything but the most essential details and gestures. “I want there to be some precision. It might be anatomically or about the movement or the composition. But what I really try to do is get the root of a physical expression or an instinctive response. Everything bends to that—color, composition, or the particular focus of the subject matter. That is key to what I’m trying to achieve.”
Brown says she admires horses for their guilelessness. “Everything shows in horses; from fear to curiosity to alarm, it’s all very visible,” she explains. “People, though—we’re so covered up. We hide things. We very often try to cover up because we’ve got to get through a conscious life. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have instinctive reactions add behaviors. Horses, though, aren’t good at hiding any of that. Not at all.”
Knowing more about horses than other animals, Brown finds these creatures endlessly resonant, alluring, and paint-worthy. For reference she relies on primary source material—rodeos, ranches, her own horse that she keeps down the road from her house—as well as shelves of anatomy books and hundreds of photographs of horses and rodeo cowboys. “It’s striking to see horses in the rodeo environment,” she muses. “The history of the whole thing is quite peculiar.”
In NEW MEXICO SADDLE BRONC, her expressionistic depiction of a rodeo rider atop a bucking horse, Brown captures the physical power of the horse at the exact moment before the animal is about to kick its hind quarters—and its rider—upward. “Again, it’s an adrenaline thing,” says Brown. “It has to do with man trying to harness nature, and both parties, in those eight seconds, are using their fundamental natures.”
Brown works out of a studio in her house, working on about 15 paintings at a time, each in various stages of development. She concedes that her paintings look as if they are painted fast, but they aren’t. Not at all. “I try to match the way I paint things with the energy of the subject,” she says. It’s an approach that’s certainly true of her triptych-like studies of a single horse pictured in three different poses, such as in her paintings TURN TAIL and RED ROAN.
Ultimately, though, Brown seems drawn to horses for the sense of uninhibited freedom they represent—animals of magnificent beauty that convey sheer drama in every movement. No less significant are the cowboys that ride them. Brown is well aware of the roles—real and imagined—that horses and their cowboys play. “They remain a valued part of the American identity—even in this very, very different world we live in today.”
Featured in July 2008