Historically, horses of the Blue Ridge foothills were bred to work. Saluda, Tryon, Columbus, and Landrum, SC, were all born on the backs of blue-collar men toiling over the steep Saluda Grade, their cobs responsible for tasks surpassing manpower. Though the advent of high-end equestrian sports, still greatly popular in the area, relieved many steeds of railroad labor, the strict mores of horsemanship soon followed suit.
But for 16 painted-and-epoxied stallions, at least, the 9-to-5 grind just got easier.
Thanks to Art of the Horse, spearheaded by Our Carolina Foothills, these life-size fiberglass beasts will loaf. Affixed to 500-pound concrete bases via l-brackets, they can’t trot, and there’s no struggling up the railway grade like their flesh-and-blood counterparts. But there are, of course, photo ops. And also staggered unveilings. And, before that, hundreds of studio hours necessary to bring cultural life the statues.
The toil has been transferred to the artists — and parts of the process have been decidedly awkward. Tryon impressionist painter Christine Mariotti, one of 12 artists selected by jurors at Asheville Art Museum to paint the horses, will soon take to her basement floor, resting on her back to decorate the underbelly of her piece “Homage to the Chinese Horse.” To mirror a crackled glaze, she will hand paint individual fissures and employ a trompe l’oeil (French for “trick the eye”) tactic — a faux 3-D effect. Mariotti will then epoxy yellow and green medallions, a saddle, and other garb to the statue’s surface.
At 16 hands tall, the horse nods to the prosperous Tang Dynasty. He’s been affectionately dubbed “Ning” — but transforming the once-stark figurine hasn’t been casual: it’s proven to be an arduous act of love. “Painting on fiberglass is easy, but you have to be upside down and on the floor,” explains Mariotti, noting the marked difference between stallion decorating and her usual work with textiles. “It’s not a flat canvas.”
Hopefully, she adds, her groveling on the ground will pay off. On August 19, the horses will be auctioned off at the Tryon International Equestrian Center. Presented with the promising trajectory of a $500 minimum and no ceiling, Mariotti and the 11 other artists will receive 25 percent of what their pieces sell for. The rest will go back to Our Carolina Foothills.
Similar to Hendersonville’s Bearfootin’ Public Art Walk, the statues will line the streets before finding forever homes. Unlike the grand bear debut, however, the horses will gradually pop up across the quartet of cities through May 21, trickling out two by two. (A select few will be on view at the 70th Annual Block House Steeplechase, held May 7 at the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club.)
Mindy Wiener, founding director of Our Carolina Foothills, hopes the project will promote tourism from both “up and down the hill.” Though the storied Green River runs hard through Polk County and the landscape is christened with vineyards, the area continues to fly under the radar. “It’s a hidden gem,” Wiener says. “There is that simplistic, homey feel with an air of sophistication. It appeals to all walks of life.”
The 16 equines decorated by encaustic artists and silk painters may help dispel any preconceived notions about Saluda, Tryon, Columbus, and Landrum — proving, at the risk of sounding hokey, that the rural cities are more than just one-horse towns.
Christine Mariotti’s horse, sponsored by Daystar Enterprises, will debut May 6 at the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club’s Pre-Event Soiree, a kickoff to the May 7 Steeplechase. On race day, it can be seen near the mint-julep tent, and will spend the rest of its summer at Isothermal Community College (Polk Campus, in Columbus). For more information about Art of the Horse, visit Our Carolina Foothills at ourcarolinafoothills.com or contact Mindy Wiener at email@example.com.