Lisa Gordon celebrates the precarious nature of life through the horse
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the June 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
The horse is often said to have done more to change human history than any other domesticated animal. The trusted steed has carried men into battle, helped settle the West, and ferried explorers to new frontiers. Amid these monumental feats, however, there are a million smaller stories. There are, for example, the less-chronicled tales of how horses have changed individual lives, like those of young girls who forge strong emotional bonds with their animals. On a recent spring day, sculptor Lisa Gordon sits in her Santa Fe studio surrounded by her bronze stallions, foals, and fillies and tells just such a story.
Gordon was painfully shy and miserable as a youngster growing up in Southern California—a self-described “moody artist in the making,” she says. But when she was 12, her gloomy outlook began to change. No fairy-tale knight on a white horse rode into the picture to save her, just a pony named Daisy. Her parents knew she dreamed of owning a horse. Although they were of modest means, they pooled their resources and made their daughter’s wish come true. Realizing she was struggling, Gordon says, her parents believed that a pony would give her a sense of self-worth. Their intuition was right. “Daisy gave me a sense of responsibility and also self-worth. I was considered a good young rider, and I received a lot of praise for my skills,” Gordon says. “I was a little girl who didn’t fit in, and then when Daisy came along, I found something I was good at.”
Soon Gordon was training, riding, and working at a nearby stable. By the time she finished high school, all she wanted to do was ride and train horses. Or possibly become a horse photographer or jockey. But her parents expected her to attend college, so she enrolled at California State University, San Bernardino, where she took her first sculpture class. Gordon says she couldn’t bear to leave her horse behind—by now she owned a gelding named Hobbie—so she brought Hobbie with her to college. It therefore should come as no surprise that Gordon’s debut sculpture depicted a miniature horse. “I was hooked,” she says. “It was the first time I remember being part of something. Sitting around the wax table and experimenting with the fussy material, I felt like I belonged.”
Gordon eventually couldn’t keep up with her art classes and also take care of Hobbie, so she sold him. The expense of caring for him was too high, and she felt it was time to take art seriously. But throughout her career, the sculptor has chosen to honor her dual passions, horses and art.
As this story was going to press, Gordon was hard at work finishing 15 new bronze horses for a show opening on June 23 at Terzian Galleries in Park City, UT. Today she is known for the whimsy she brings to her equine portrayals. Her horses may sport hula hoops or balance on playground teeter-totters like children. Some wear superhero capes. But there is often more to the whimsical bronzes than first meets the eye. The horses dressed in capes mimicking superheroes from movies and comic books, for example, are humorous for sure. But to many observers of human history, horses are heroic, performing such wide-ranging tasks as plowing fields or helping patients recover from traumatic brain injuries.
While Gordon’s bronze horses may elicit smiles from viewers, they can also be subtle commentaries on the human condition. It is not uncommon for Gordon to evoke tension and humor in the same piece. A horse may balance precariously on an oversize ball. Another may walk across a high plank like an Olympic gymnast. In one of Gordon’s monumental pieces, a horse straddles two tilted columns. All of these bronzes invite the viewer into a narrative: Will the horse succeed in keeping its balance? Or will it fall to the ground? The horse becomes a metaphor of sorts for humans—the four-legged creature expressing the precariousness as well as the tension and balancing acts of daily human life.
Gordon is all too familiar with the precariousness of life. One night in 1998 while she was working on a sculpture, she felt as if her hands were losing their strength. They felt numb, tingly, and “pinpricky,” as though they were asleep. At the time she was on the verge of entering California State University, Fullerton, to begin graduate studies in sculpture. Within a week Gordon was completely paralyzed. The diagnosis: Guillain-Barré syndrome, a viral illness that causes the immune system to attack the nerves. The cause is unknown.
Doctors hooked her up to life support for two weeks and weren’t sure she would survive. With the help of an experimental drug, though, Gordon started to improve quickly. It wasn’t long before she returned to normal routines and functions. Doctors termed her recovery “remarkable.” Gordon walked away from the hospital with a newfound determination and a real appreciation for the adage, “Life is short.” The experience also left her with a strong desire to find a balance between having fun and giving life purpose, she says.
When she returned to graduate school, however, Gordon faced new challenges. Fellow art students at the time were consumed with either abstract art or art with political themes; they thought her sculptures were passé, too traditional. Fortunately, instructors such as Rico Eastman encouraged Gordon to keep pursuing her vision. “He spoke to me as an artist, not a student,” she says. “He told me to follow my instincts. He saw me as a professional artist already, and that gave me confidence.”
It was also Eastman who suggested Santa Fe as a welcoming place to embark on her career. Gordon visited and agreed. In 1993, one year after receiving her graduate degree, she packed her bags and headed for the Land of Enchantment. With past experience working at foundries in California, she landed a position as a wax-department supervisor at a foundry—a job that also allowed time to create her own sculptures.
These days Gordon’s foundries of choice are Shidoni Foundry and Galleries in Tesuque, NM, and Madd Castings in Berthoud, CO. With years of foundry experience under her artistic belt, Gordon is able to have an atypical, “hands on” approach at the foundries; she keeps a critical eye on her wax ponies, mares, and mustangs as they move through the process. This detailed knowledge helps her realize her goal of creating original, one-of-a-kind pieces.
Gordon’s artwork often defies categorization—it’s not strictly contemporary art and not traditional western art even though her subject matter, the horse, is a quintessential symbol of the West. Thinking about where she fits into the wide-ranging spectrum, she says, “Everyone compares me to Remington. The highest compliment would be if they compared me to Deborah Butterfield,” Gordon says. Butterfield is a well-known, imaginative sculptor who creates bronze horses cast from wood or other organic material.
Gordon often works in themes or series of works. Or she may get intrigued with a particular event in the history of the horse. For example, in her sculpture STEEL PIER, she expresses her fascination with the horses that were a popular attraction at New Jersey’s Atlantic City Pier in the 1880s. In the act, a well-trained horse leapt from a 60-foot-high tower into a pool of water with a woman in swimming attire on its back as the crowd cheered. Gordon notes that there are many debates as to whether the boardwalk show was humane. But she says that the action is well within a horse’s capability. “As a sculptor, my goals for STEEL PIER were not to depict the politics involved. My goal was to catch the exhilarating act of that horse diving while simultaneously capturing the exciting experience of being one of the spectators,” Gordon says. “STEEL PIER captures the glory days of the boardwalks while exhibiting the tension prominent in many of my sculptures.”
For the most part, Gordon is moving away from creating editions. Instead she chooses to sculpt individual pieces that revolve around a central theme. Although they may look similar, she says, each one has been sculpted separately and has its own personality and character. For Gordon the horse is the conduit through which she actualizes her ideas. “It becomes a tangible bridge between the viewer and me,” she says. “My goal is to render the horse with empathy and respect without getting bogged down in realities. I strive to breathe new life into an often clichéd historical subject. By using tension and whimsy and by juxtaposing figure and form, my sculptures are carving out a space of their own in the world of equine sculpture.”
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