Jean Richardson | Metaphorically Speaking

By Wolf Schneider


Oklahoma artist Jean Richardson, who paints abstracted interpretations of the horse in bold color fields and with explosive brush strokes, is really painting horse mythology and metaphor, striving to convey the animal’s energy, strength, and heroic nature. In Greek mythology, she points out, “It was the horse that pulled the sun across the sky.” In Norse mythology, “They had a myth that the sweat from a horse’s journey was the dew on the grass,” she recounts. In more contemporary times, Richardson was profoundly affected by the play “Equus,” which opened on Broadway in 1973. The Peter Shaffer play is about a psychiatrist treating a teenage stable boy who blinded six horses. “It was very strange, and yet very moving and powerful,” she remembers. She also proposes that it’s no coincidence that so many commemorative monuments include a steed. “Why does the courthouse square in every small town in America have a mounted figure on a horse? Because it makes it more heroic. It’s about the mythology,” says Richardson.

Now 68, the Oklahoma City-based artist has been painting for six decades, and she’s only had three subjects in all that time: the figure, the landscape, and the horse, which she likes to paint large. Her painting GOLDEN GLORY, of a herd of horses, measures 4 by 8 feet. “I use great big brushes and big gestures and my arm moves all the way across the canvas. That’s a modernist point of view I’ve embraced,” she notes.


Richardson is a modernist influenced by both the abstract expressionists and the automatists. The latter focused on feeling rather than analytical thought and also on the automatic way that images shift from the subconscious to the conscious mind. “Part of the way I begin a painting is to take it out of my conscious mind,” she explains. “I do just an automatic gesture, just let the arm move, and then during the course of the painting it’s like I click back in with my conscious thought. I’ll think, ‘Well that doesn’t quite work,’ and I make changes. But I always start from that Zen-like gesture.”

As far as the abstract nature of her work: “I take something real and then I distort it. I change the image, but it’s still there.” The horses that Richardson paints are streamlined into images without details. “I know how to draw a horse’s feet or eyes or musculature or the way the hair grows,” says Richardson, who has owned quarter horses and Arabians. “I know how to do that, but I don’t think that gets my message across, so I lose those things in texture and color.”

It’s noteworthy that of all the artists she has been influenced by—among them Franz Kline, Edward Hopper, and Edward Curtis—the one with whom Richardson identifies most is Henri Matisse. “I’m just mad for his paintings. I like the way he distorts a line and how he uses color,” she observes.

“My paintings vary between the horses being very much ‘there’ to being so lost in the brushwork and the textures that you can’t see the horse unless you’re looking for it,” she explains. This tension makes the artwork more complicated, in Richardson’s mind. “I think that it makes the imagery more interesting over time. If you can take in everything a painting has to offer in the first five minutes you look at it, I don’t think there’s enough to keep you engaged over the years,” she believes.

The fractured form and color of her horse paintings have prompted the comment that her canvases “depict a head-on collision between the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux and 20th-century modernism,” as well as the observation that while using a contemporary vocabulary, Richardson is nevertheless connected to the frontier West. She’s happy with those assessments, and also with observations that her artworks emit power, energy, and motion.

The composition and placement of her horse subjects varies. “Sometimes they look like they’re floating, and sometimes I’ve brought in elements of the landscape so it looks like they’re standing in wind with grasses and clouds. It’s not explicit, but that’s the feeling,” she says. “I don’t change the basic horse imagery, but I change all sorts of things about it.”

Like the use of color, for instance. For a while, Richardson was partial to white. “I had horses that were cool white and warm white, and that’s all there was,” she recalls. Then she began working in jewel tones, with a palette heavy on bright reds, blues, and greens, where “the color kind of glows,” as in her painting MOONWALK. To achieve that effect, she says, “Part of my technique is in using thin color that you see through. It’s like looking through stained glass.” Lately, her palette has been strong in blacks and browns.

Richardson was born in the tiny town of Hollis, OK, in 1940. Living just five miles from the Texas Panhandle, she was surrounded by horses. Her dad had a ranching background, but when he was drafted into World War II and went overseas, her mom moved to San Antonio, TX, where she had family. There, the 7-year-old Richardson began taking art lessons at the Witte Museum. Her talent was immediately apparent.

When she was 9, the family moved to Columbia, SC, where her dad went into the insurance business and later became a farm lobbyist. Her mom worked as a buyer for a department store. After finishing high school, the determined Richardson obtained an art scholarship to Wesleyan College in Macon, GA. “My parents begged me to at least major in art education so I could teach school, but I wouldn’t do it. Since the age of 7 I was convinced I was an artist,” she states. She knew what she wanted, and she graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in fine art.

By age 21 she was married and then quickly had three kids. Before she knew it her life had veered away from a career in art. It was the early 1960s, and Richardson was living in Georgia and Alabama, struggling through an unhappy marriage and unable to pursue her art. “That was the hardest time of my life,” she sighs. She did, though, put her knowledge to work teaching art education in schools and museums.

She eventually divorced and, in 1971, relocated to Oklahoma City, where she had extended family. There she remarried and raised seven children with her husband, Larry, a businessman. Richardson has been in Oklahoma City ever since, painting full time.

In the late ’70s she went to New York City for a few pivotal months to attend the Art Students League, gaining confidence in her painting and a commitment to her art. She returned home and set up a studio. By the ’80s she had gallery representation in New York, Santa Fe, and several other cities. The ’90s led to even more recognition, with artwork in Marriott hotels, the Oklahoma State Capitol, Oklahoma House of Representatives, Oklahoma City Courthouse, and Southwestern Bell offices.

Oklahoma City suits her, she says: “It’s a very friendly, welcoming place. I love the skies. It’s flat and open.” She and Larry live where city meets country, in a house that borders on a 30-acre lake. She has built a large studio on the property, which is where she can be found weekdays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. “I like being by myself. I can get lost in what I’m doing, so it doesn’t bother me to not see anybody for a few days. I had to be disciplined in the years when I was really developing, and so I paint whether I feel like it or not,” she says.

Richardson usually works on four or five paintings a week, always in quick-drying acrylics. She’s learned over her 60 years in the art world that “nothing happens unless you try.” Yes, she’s been lucky, she admits. “But on the other hand, I’ve worked hard, too. I do it hour after hour, year after year,” says Richardson. “That people identify with my art because the paintings evoke a feeling, well, that kind of feedback makes me want to keep painting.”

What she is aiming to accomplish is to capture the spiritual nature of the horse and the symbolism it represents. “I love the animal. I was raised around horses and I know them well,” says Richardson. “But that’s not what my paintings are about. They’re about the horse as a metaphor. Unbridled energy, striving, sometimes heroic. The horse as a symbol of the human spirit.”

Featured in May 2008