September Vhay strips away the excess to focus on serenity and beauty
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the August 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art August 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art August 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
The ravens came around for Italian food, but they were also there, one might say, to nudge September Vhay over the edge of the scary cliff that was total commitment to art. It was 2001, and Vhay was a young architect living in Jackson, WY. She was working full time for an architectural firm and painting on the side, but the “side” was beginning to consume virtually all her free hours and was creeping into her thoughts at work. Every day as she sat in her second-floor office, ravens would perch on the parapet just outside her window, overlooking an alley behind an Italian restaurant. “I remember wishing I had time to paint them, but I had no time,” she recalls.
Soon another experience made it even more clear that she needed to choose art. She took a morning off from work to photograph horses in nearby Buffalo Valley, to use as reference for paintings. “It was such a beautiful spring day. It had rained the night before, and everything was effervescent green. I thought: I just need to be in charge of my own schedule, so I can have more days like this.”
Now she does. With a summer breeze wafting through the open window of her second-story Jackson studio, Vhay is immersed in the shimmering green of cottonwoods and the sound of tumbling water in Flat Creek, which runs behind her condo at the edge of town. On a shelf in the comfortable, uncluttered studio (the condo’s converted master bedroom), a pair of vintage Breyer plastic horses from the artist’s childhood holds an honored spot. They’re a reminder of the special place that horses, wildness, and beauty have always held in her life. Since turning to full-time art, Vhay has focused that passion into drawings and paintings that capture—in watercolor, charcoal, and oil—the graceful, fluid lines of the equine form, as well as other animals and other aspects of nature. Along the way, the 44-year-old artist has garnered numerous awards, including a first-place award in the 2012 Ex Arte Equinus, an international equine art competition, and purchase awards from the Wyoming State Museum and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Her subject matter may be traditional, but her approach leans gently away from tradition toward a more contemporary, subtly minimalist style.
Paring away the excess and focusing on the essential in horses and wildlife is a skill Vhay attributes to a deep connection with nature all her life. Among her earliest memories are days spent along the river in Idaho’s Sun Valley, where she lived as a young child. After living briefly in Reno, NV, the family moved to an alfalfa ranch outside Reno. Most of Vhay’s growing up took place in that open, expansive space, with horses and riding an integral part of her world. Intimate exposure to art came early, as well. Her architect father occasionally painted in watercolors; her mother painted in oils.
Vhay remembers being mesmerized by watching her grandfather paint. Another generation back, her great-grandfather, Gutzon Borglum, was a painter and sculptor best known for designing and carving Mount Rushmore. Even as a child, Vhay admired her great-grandfather’s art in her grandmother’s home. Clearly, the family had a strong creative bent. “I think it’s an artistic way of being in the world, a way of seeing,” she reflects. “On both sides of my family, there are a lot of genetics for art.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Vhay’s own dreams—at least growing up—did not involve fine art. She followed her father’s footsteps into architecture, studying at the University of Oregon and the Denmark International Study Program in Copenhagen. Precision drawing, watercolor, and composition were important aspects of architectural training, and she was immensely influenced by her Danish professors’ artistic skills. Through a Rosenberg Traveling Scholarship award, she spent a year in Scotland, where she studied and created watercolor renderings of the Craftsman-style buildings designed by architect and watercolorist Charles Rennie Mackintosh [1868-1928]. She received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Oregon in 1993.
Vhay’s move to Jackson a few years later was intended as a temporary, ski-season stay. But she fell in love with the mountains, the beauty, the quiet, and the town. She found a position with an architectural firm whose aesthetic, like hers, had a contemporary feel. But the pull to paint never left. Eventually, the ravens on Vhay’s windowsill and the morning light through cottonwoods worked their magic, and she quit her job, although she kept a safety net. She had saved enough money to give art an honest chance. Her parents offered full encouragement, and her employer said she could return if painting didn’t work out. “That support gave me the courage to follow what I love,” she says.
The gamble paid off. Vhay taught herself self-discipline and, even today, keeps a regular work routine. (On her studio wall, an inspirational quote reminds her to “Make Art Your Addiction,” but she’s already got that part down.) With her dachshund, Uma, curled up nearby, the artist puts in nine-to-five days, reserving evenings for riding and friends. Her leased horse, an “amazing, phenomenal” thoroughbred named Tej Singh, resides at a stable 10 minutes away.
Relying on a vast resource of photographs and drawings and a lifetime of being close to horses and nature, she intuitively chooses a subject and compositional approach. “The entire process keeps me engaged,” she observes. “When I first see something I want to create, it’s a glimmer, but then, in the process, I see so much more.”
Paradoxically, for Vhay, often seeing more translates into saying more with less. Many of her paintings are highly “edited,” as she puts it, to avoid the distraction of a busy background. As a result, each image expresses the essential visual, compositional, and emotional elements that drew her to it in the first place. FALL’s GLORY, for example, portrays a mule deer fawn against a simple, abstract setting of tan and white. “When you see these fawns, they have huge ears, beautiful eyes, and they’re so leggy and graceful,” Vhay says. “This piece is all about those things—about the precious expression of the face and how the fawn is all legs. It’s that sense of innocence, the grace of young life.”
Vhay, who began her painting career in watercolor, later taught herself oils with help from a workshop with painter Scott Christensen, Richard Schmid’s book Alla Prima, and plenty of practice. She was drawn to oils for the larger painting size and more saturated colors she could achieve. Yet, as her works reveal, she carries aspects of the watercolor approach into working with oils, in particular the exacting planning that precedes the first brush stroke. “I paint on primed linen, and if I paint thin enough, I get the feeling of watercolor,” she explains. “I rarely rework a painting with oils. That keeps it fresh.”
Also, as with watercolor, white space is as vital to Vhay as the painted form. Indeed, negative space and white areas create shape and movement in images such as DREAM WALKERS DREAM. His head slightly lowered, the muscular white Belgian Warmblood stands still. Yet the viewer’s eye moves around the painting in a circular pattern impelled by the contrast of lights and darks. This visual phenomenon reminds Vhay of a quote she heard somewhere, whose source she can’t recall: “Composition and values do all the work, but color and subject matter get all the credit.” She smiles. “It couldn’t be more true!” she says. “I have an affinity for the subject matter of horses, but ultimately it’s the shapes I love.”
In the large charcoal drawing CHIEFS OF DAY, Vhay conveys the massive presence of a pair of bison by cropping the shapes, top and bottom, so the powerful animals seem to more than fill the space. One side of the drawing is left white, however, giving the eye a quiet place to rest. The artist’s ongoing RED HORSE series opens that space and employs the power of suggestion even more. Inspired by the ancient Japanese art of sumi-e (brush painting), these serene, precise, gestural paintings embody the values at the heart of Vhay’s life and work.
“If you can quiet down your world, you can see beauty because you’re not so distracted. That’s what I hope for in my work: to bring that divine pause to other people, to let them slow down and see something beautiful,” she reflects, adding, “I see the animals as kindred spirits, and I hope through my work other people will see that as well, as these are the creatures with which we share our planet.”
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