Artist Spotlight: Anna Rockwell

Anna Rockwell is a SF Bay Area artist I have been following for a couple of years after stumbling across her work on Etsy.  I recently had the opportunity to meet Anna at a show and shadow her for the day (awesome!).  Her horse was showing that day with a professional rider and she planned on doing a little painting as well.  There were a couple of things that were clear right away about Anna, the first was that she’s a funny and cool person.  The second was her dedication and love for her horse.  She watched him carefully while he warmed up and during his test and chatted very little.  After a successful test, I followed back to the barns and observed their post show routine.  After he was comfortable and happy back in his stall we left to go watch other horses, do a little shopping, and settled down in a seat so Anna could paint.

Anna works quickly with energetic, lively lines.  While fast, she’s also careful.  Each stroke has great precision of placement and great care is taken to capture the energy of the horse she watches.   Her style is dark and a bit dramatic, which is explained a bit when she tells me she grew up as a goth girl and she never really grew out of it.   There’s a power and energy to her work that speaks to the soul in a way most equestrian art does not.

We changed locations after she worked on a couple of pieces she wasn’t happy with and started again.  It is special to watch the struggle to create.  It takes just the right day, the right feeling, the right horse to inspire a truly powerful image.  Anything less is sub-par, even if it’s still creating artwork.  It’s all part of the process of being an artist, every single day.  Some days are better than others and some work will be more satisfying than others.  I loved everything she painted that day, but it was obvious she wasn’t happy with them.

As for her inspiration she told me “Recently I have been focusing on my Art at the Ringside series. My inspiration for these comes more from my riding and less from any idea of art making.  The watercolors I make at ringside are direct reflections of my “feel.”  The feel I imagine when taking that massive jump or collecting just before the pirouette.  I can “feel’ the horse and rider and I paint it like I feel it.  Sometimes, it’s not so glamorous and I find the rougher moments and fiery muses to inspire.  But, generally, I am attracted to horses who demonstrate a strength or power I’d like to try out.  Hell, if I can’t ride them, I can paint them!  And weirdly it’s really helped my riding too!  Connection and thoroughness apply just as much to the painted line as the ridden one.”

While she does do these small ring-side pieces she tells me she prefers working large. “If given full rein (sorry for the pun), I prefer working large, like 4’ x 6’, on Arches Oil paper attached to the wall.  I love a mix of drawing mediums, like charcoal and pastel, and oil washes, working in and out and building a few denser painted areas where warranted.  I have the same methodology using watercolors in other work but the feeling and pigment of oil paints is unique.”

We discussed PTSD and how there are successful efforts being made to find a cure for those afflicted; a way to remove the physical response to trauma.  Anna felt torn on the idea of a cure, because an artist can use that trauma to create powerful and emotional work.  It is an interesting subject to consider.

The talk of PTSD makes me curious about her past.  I asked her about her story and she answered.  “My story…I’m still working on it!  It unwinds daily but it’s tough to stay present with it.  A trip into my past, finds a very young “lady”  (I think I was 16 when I started in NYC at Parsons. I dropped out of high school and took the GED) in a very big city attending a prestigious art school but actually far more interested in nightclubs, music and fashion than tending to her studies.  I dropped out and moved to SF to attend SF Art Institute (the one on Chestnut street) where I “studied” more conceptual artwork and toyed with performance art…and dropped out again swearing to never make art again.  Heeding the advice of an art history professor there, I found a small liberal arts college and pursued my interest in cultural anthropology.  At Bennington College (in Vermont), I found studies much more focused and rekindled my art practice.  After I graduated, I returned to SF and spent a couple of years with a lovely studio down in the Mission district.  After losing this to the initial “dot-com boom” (and then bust), I worked from home which had its challenges (i.e., painting small was new to me).  I moved up to Marin a few years ago and was able to find studio space again and work properly.  Inspired, but once again without a studio, my husband and I bought a house in Crockett, CA which could accommodate my studio needs…I am now building a “forever” studio and hope to christen it with new equestrian art soon!”

She has been an artist since she was a child (as most artists have been).  “I started making custom horse art for “clients” in grade school.  I made a questionnaire which included things like breed, color, gait, markings, etc.  Horse nerdy friends would fill them out, mail them back and I would fulfill the commission.  I stumbled upon one of these recently and it reminded me of how much I enjoy creating art for people, commissioned or otherwise.  There’s something about the relationship between audience, artwork and artist, the visual language and interpretations of the work are important to me.  I have had some sort of art practice since college working on bodies of work geared more for galleries or creating commissioned work.”    

Her ties to the horse as a subject are divided, stuck between the directives of her soul’s connection to the animal and the snobbery of the art world she works in.  “The horse became primary when I was very young, as evidenced through my earliest commissioned work.  But I also have other bodies of work like the Horror of the Family (Haunting portraits of dead relatives, reanimated) and Subjection (large scale still lifes of bound and decaying vegetables) series which veer far from the subject of horses.  These seemingly disparate bodies of work and subjects have caused some confusion and conflict.  Galleries which were drawn to my “headier” work, were put off by my horses.  Even when I used the horses to illustrate the Apocalypse, I still felt that nagging voice, “The horse in art is not really serious art.”  Personally, I love Stubbs and Degas and I doubt many would say their horses fall short of being “serious art.”  But, I was sensitive and took the criticism to heart.  I only painted horses when I felt I couldn’t find other therapy to let myself out…they became self portraits I created when I needed to express deeply personal issues.  Time passed and I found myself pulled back to horses as subjects when I starting riding again.  I showed art at a few horse shows but it was by far more fun to be showing the horses themselves than sitting around a booth all day wiping off dust and shielding art from the wind.  But there at the shows I started playing around with very quick paintings, smaller works I could cart around from ringside to ringside looking for my muses.  I call this series “Art at the Ringside.”  From these paintings my Equus shop on Etsy evolved.  What a boon!  I have sold original horse art from Australia to Norway and have many followers.  My confidence and skills have grown and I now enjoy making these watercolors for their own sake.  Each one is unique and expresses a moment in time, they are like riding a horse, all feeling and being in the present.”

As we are both horsewomen, so naturally the conversation always came back to horses.  It’s rare when horse people talk about anything else together.  I asked her about her first horse and what her history was with riding and she had quite a story to tell.

“My first horse was a gift.  I was about 6 and they were unloading the cattle truck at our farm in Wisconsin.  My stepfather came and got me and told me to wait and see what came off the truck last…it was a beautiful buckskin horse!  Sadly, it was a bit “damaged.”  It took two of us, crawling up a 6 foot fence, to wrangle a bridle on.  We would clamber on, barely, only to be bolted with and promptly bucked off.  This ex-barrel racer never recovered from whatever ills had befallen it but I held steadfastly to my equestrian dreams despite a rather bumpy start.”

“Many years later, I was taking lessons with a hunter trainer in Oregon (Connie Tour) and I finally received my wish of a horse of my own. This time, the trainer made the prudent choice of an older “packer” named Simply Magic.  A grandchild of Seattle Slew with 8 years on the track as a claimer and a solid hunter career, he took care of me better than any parent!  My family moved around but he always adapted to the new places and events carting me through equitation classes, jumpers, 3-day events, 4-H, over picnic tables at an abandoned resort development and even got us back home when I lost our way on the logging trails (I was crying but it was his dinner time, I dropped the reins and he simply turned around and wound us back to the barn).  He was my first “real” horse and I am forever grateful to his kindness and friendship through many difficult times.  He passed when I was about 16.  I would be off to NYC and art school soon after…”

She then told me about the horses that had been the most important to her.  “Obviously, Magic was crucial to my life!  Each one (leased, owned or school horse) has come to symbolize a period in my life or being. Magic was perseverance and learning to find friendship outside the obvious.  Roo was a lesson in what we can’t control and regret.  Later came Heartbreaker, a schoolmaster, who taught me how f’ing incredible high level dressage could be and schooled me in what turbocharged extensions actually feel like.  He gave me hope and a bit of magic back.  Higgins I bought as a 3 year old and he taught me more about loss, regrets, dreams gone sideways and how deep the pain ran.  Letting him go was really tough.  He turned out to be a genetic lemon.  Fortunately, I hear he is in good care and loved.  Next, I leased Nino, a classic baroque Friesian with a four foot long mane….my Gothic Princess Pony at last!  He symbolizes restoration and a return to healthy innocence, of sorts.  He taught me perseverance and practice will often win out over talent and that love can be so quiet, you may walk right over it if you’re not paying attention.  So pay attention and enjoy the simplest things and quietest moments.  And it’s okay to still harbor dreams from childhood, hell, they may actually come true!  Now I have Chance (a “young” 8 year old American Warmblood).  I “bet the farm” on him.  He’s my “FEI Prospect.”  He’s showing me my weakest points but in a way I can work on them.  He builds on my strengths too and is insanely fun to ride.  He is sensitive, so am I.  He is a dork, so am I.  He is talented and beautiful, damnit, so am I.  He likes snacks, so do I.  He likes hanging out without a purpose, so do I.  He’s gotta a lot to learn, so do I.  He is right now, and so I try to stay present for us, right now.”

I left Anne and the show that day with a new appreciation for her art and a new admiration for her as a person.  I look forward to other days visiting with her in the future and watching her horse progress through the ranks.

You can find more information about Anne Rockwell on her website and purchase some of her equestrian artwork on Etsy.