I interviewed Juliet Harrison, an artist and owner of Equis Art Gallery in Red Hook, Dutchess County. Juliet grew up on Long Island, and worked for some time in New York City in various custom photo labs. She has a degree in Psychology, and an MFA in Photography. She was exposed to equine art when she was five, and equine art became a lifelong interest and passion. Nowadays Juliet photographs horses, and runs Equis Art Gallery in Red Hook, Dutchess County, a space entirely dedicated to equestrian art.
Simona David: Juliet, please tell us a bit more about your background, and your interest in both art and horses.
Juliet Harrison: Horses first, I guess. I was one of those little girls who were totally horse-obsessed from a very early age. When I was five I was given a wonderful little book of photographs of horses. It fascinated me. And, I rode horses as a child, and then later, after I turned forty, I began riding again. The art interest has always been there as well. I grew up on Long Island, but my parents and I spent a lot of time in museums in New York City and Europe.
SD: You say that art is a craft that moves one in ways one had not thought possible – I’m paraphrasing. Would you like to elaborate?
JH: I think of fine art as more than a little description of something, but something that has more depth and can convey a story, an emotion, an interpretation beyond the literal representation.
SD: You do refer to the fact that art is something that moves us in a certain way. Traditionally speaking, beauty had been central to art, but in the 20th century we rather shifted towards expression as central to art. But whether be beauty or expression, art is still something that moves us in a certain way.
JH: Absolutely. An artist creates a piece of art for their own needs, and to convey a message that they need to get out into the world in a visual form, or if it’s music, in an auditory form, or in a literary form when it comes to writers, but the artist interprets the work through his or her own experiences, and rather creates a dialogue between the artist, the artwork and the viewer.
SD: About photography you say that it’s “the process of distillation and elimination.” “My photography is more poetry than prose.” Please, explain.
JH: This goes a long with what I said before. But also with my own photography – I choose to work in black and white. By eliminating color, I reduce the elements that I have to work with, and each choice I make becomes more powerful. That way each photograph is reduced to its most salient pieces, and everything in that image has to speak to what is it that I want to say. I don’t take pretty pictures of pretty horses; my photography evokes something more, and goes beyond the literal representation of the subject; that is difficult to do. How I shoot a scene and what I choose to show to the viewer becomes more important than how I print the image.
SD: Cinematographer Gordon Willis was talking about black and white movies, and was saying that, in film at least, color can be distracting – it could distract the viewer from the message. It looks like you feel the same way about photography.
JH: Yes. When photographing horses – and I don’t control the location where I take photographs – most photographers would recognize that the color red is something that would immediately catch the eye. For instance, the orange traffic cones that are sometimes used on the grounds would be the first thing a viewer sees if I were to choose photographing those.
SD: What is the primary drive when you build your composition?
JH: I’m not very controlling about it. I really trust my eyes. I have done series of close-ups focusing on the body of the horse, the muscles, and the way the light falls, but I do not follow the traditional rigor of horse photography – traditional photography has very precise rules. What I do is more modern, and aims to convey the personality of each horse, and my visual relation to it.
SD: Let’s talk a little bit about equine art. I believe this goes back to pre-historic times: humans have always drawn or painted horses. Horse portraits and equestrian sculpture were actually very popular in the 18th century. In the 19th century equine art spread widely to include thoroughbred racing, jockey clubs, so forth and so on. Can you tell us what exactly makes this form of art so fascinating?
JH: I think part of that is just the human connection to the horse. We as human beings would not have been able to advance our society, our culture, our world the way it is without the horse. Without the horse we would not have had agriculture the way we’ve had it, we would not have had transportation and human mobility in the way we’ve had it, we would certainly not have had war in the way it had been fought. If you look at the art of the horse, it is really a representation of the way we’ve moved through the world, and created our world through our relationship to the horse. One of the things that fascinate me is that horses are prey animals, but they allow us humans on their back, and right near their neck where predators would jump on them; it’s a pretty amazing relationship that we’ve developed with these animals, and that they trust us human beings in that way. For instance, monumental sculptures like Napoleon on a horse back, were done in a way that showed power. I think that the depiction of horse in art is a depiction of human history.
SD: Let’s briefly go over various equestrian art styles: some Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci used to do studies, Baroque painters like Rubens used to paint royal scenes involving horses, Romantics like Géricault would paint war scenes, Impressionist artist Edgar Degas loved races, other artists preferred rural scenes. American painter Frederic Remington loved painting the American West. What can you tell us about the styles you’re fond of?
JH: I’m really fascinated by contemporary artists. But I do certainly love the da Vinci’s horse studies – he spent hours and hours depicting the horse anatomy and attitude. I also love the work of modernist painter Franz Marc, who reduced horse painting to simple lines, but still conveyed the horse anatomy. I love contemporary artists that go beyond traditional equine art style; it’s important to be able to convey the correct anatomy and to have knowledge of the horse – an artist has to know how a horse moves, how the muscles and the bones move, and convey that on a painting. But I really do love art that goes beyond the literal representation, and conveys more either about the emotion of the artist, or the connection to the horse, the landscape, or something even more that goes beyond what is possible to define. There is a tradition of horse portraiture or sporting events like polo, depicting horses either individually or at events, but I really do like art that goes beyond just the horse.
SD: The American Academy of Equine Art was founded in 1980 in Kentucky to promote equestrian art – I believe the Academy organizes one big exhibition each year bringing together leading artists in this field. Are you affiliated with this organization?
JH: I am, and many of the artists I have worked with have been members of this Academy. Early on when I applied for membership they didn’t take photographers. Their mission is to exhibit art that is focused on the correct anatomy, and for the most part in the traditional representation of the horse. It’s an amazing organization; they also offer workshops that cover various aspects of equine art.
SD: Let’s talk specifically about Equis Art Gallery. Where is located? When was it founded? What artists are represented in the gallery?
JH: I opened the gallery just a year ago. It was a dream of mine to do so. Being an artist myself, I had a clear understanding of what an art gallery should be and should do; I also have thirty years of retail experience, so I understand that end of the business as well. I am part of a community arts organization that I helped found several years ago. We have a rented space here in Red Hook. I had an eight by ten feet space that I used for my photography, and I opened Equis Art Gallery in that space. I asked a number of my friends who are amazing equine artists to submit works. I received works from all over the world, and pretty quickly – about a month and a half later – I ran out of space, and rented an additional room. Now I represent twenty-seven equine artists from all over the world. I have paintings – oil, acrylics, graphite, sculpture, photography from countries like Germany, Italy, South Africa, Canada, and all over the United States.
SD: You also carry some vintage art. How do you collect those pieces?
JH: Primarily the vintage art is what I’ve personally collected over the years. I rotate these at home, but there are also pieces that I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t need to hold onto anymore.
SD: How do you go about running your business: finding artists, attracting collectors, educating the public?
JH: Like I said, I started out with artists that were personal friends, and artists I met through the Equine Art Guild, an online forum. I was the only photographer in that group, because the work I do is more fine art than commercial photography. After that, I started asking people whose work intrigues me. I have a rather non-traditional taste. Now I have artists – about five or six a week – that contact me, and ask me to represent them. I’m very limited by space, but I do have a nice waiting list.
SD: When is the gallery open?
JH: The gallery is open Friday and Saturday from 12 noon to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 12 noon to 4 p.m., and also by appointment.
SD: You mentioned the word “space.” You are currently located at 7516 North Broadway, but I know you plan to move to a bigger location soon. Let’s talk about that.
JH: Yes, I’d like to be able to represent more artists; the space I have now is very crowded. Also, I don’t have room for larger pieces that I’d like to carry. I am currently looking for a store front that would also give me more visibility. I hope to be at the new location by May.
SD: Do you have any upcoming events you’d like to talk about?
JH: Yes. I have one artist Diana Jensen – she is from Vancouver. She will be at the gallery for a reception of her work and demo on May 23. I also have another artist Karen McLain – a painter of mostly wild horses out West. Karen will be coming in November to do a demo. From May to December I will most likely have one artist reception per month. There will be information posted on the website.