By Lauren R. Giannini
As a child, Yvonne Todd loved gifts and her favorites provided the means to express her passion for art: a box of 64 crayons with built-in pencil sharpener from her mother and package of typing paper from her father. She found creative bliss among all the colors she used to fill the sheets with her drawings. She devoured horse books, savoring everything illustrated by Paul Brown. When her family lived in northern New Jersey, Yvonne’s 8th grade art teacher organized little field trips to museums in New York.
“Loretta Pierson took three or four of us into the city on her own time,” said Yvonne. “We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I saw Rosa Bonheur’s ‘The Horse Fair’ for the first time — I sat on the floor and didn’t move for an hour. I’m still fascinated by that painting. I’ve drawn pieces of it, but never tried to do the whole painting. It’s overwhelming. It’s huge and so complicated. I’ll never forget that I made the decision to be an artist while sitting on the floor looking at ‘The Horse Fair.’ That painting changed the whole trajectory of my life.”
During her New Jersey years, Yvonne spent time at Seaton Hackney Farm that produced seven world champion hackney ponies. “Bert Beck ran a riding stable there with 28 school horses,” Yvonne said. “He made me even more horse-crazy, giving me extra attention during lessons and when I helped around the barn. He was a wonderful teacher, an old-fashioned horseman, and the horse always came first.
“In 1965, I went down to Kentucky to go to Transylvania in Lexington, but I wasn’t really happy about it until I drove into town and saw horse farm after horse farm,” she continued. “That’s when I got back all my youthful exuberance. The entire area was my idea of horse heaven on earth.”
Yvonne earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts, but realized from the start that she didn’t fit into Transylvania’s art program. “I was more interested in painting realistically and everyone else was into modern and throwing paint onto the canvas,” she recalled. “I got As in my courses, but I was on my own, especially when I refused to stop painting horses.”
About 10 years after graduating and settling in the Lexington area, Yvonne ran into her teacher/faculty advisor. “I told him I’m married, I have a couple kids, and I’m still painting horses,” she said. “I’ll never forget what he said to me: ‘Of all the students I had at Transylvania, you were the only one who knew exactly where they wanted to go and I was too stupid to know it.’ He was a wonderful guy. He did incredible welded sculptures. After that, he called me several times to tell me about an art show he thought would suit my work.”
Yvonne continued, “He always told me, ‘Even though you’re painting realistically, don’t just rely on photos. You have to paint from the heart and put some emotion into it.’ He passed away a while back, but painting with emotion is something I continually think about in terms of my art.”
Golden Age of Art
Yvonne lives with her tolerant husband, Donald Todd, a cat, two dogs and eight horses on their farm in Lexington. They have two sons and a daughter, and four grandchildren. Yvonne started riding when she was 10 and, although she hasn’t ridden in about a year, has never fallen out of love with horses. She still has that connection with equines and it shows in her work.
“I paint primarily in oils and the largest canvas I’ve ever done is 30 by 40 inches. More recently, I did a 30 by 24 inch painting of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah,” said Yvonne. “Each year, I do the Kentucky Derby winner for a corporation in downtown Lexington and we’re negotiating about doing the Triple Crown winner in color. Every year, I go to the Blessing of the Hounds at Iroquois Hunt and Woodford Hounds. I’m surrounded by inspiration, and the Kentucky Horse Park is a regular destination for me every couple of weeks.”
Yvonne was commissioned by the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games to do pen-and-ink drawings of the three-day cross-country fences and the marathon obstacles for combined driving. For 38 years, she has provided sketches of the cross-country fences for the official program of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Yvonne’s work currently hangs in Damselfly Gallery in Midway. In September and October, she participated in the Breeders’ Cup exhibition with six scratchboards at New Editions Gallery in Lexington.
One thing Yvonne noticed is that people tend to have room for smaller paintings rather than bigger canvases. “I’ve been doing smaller pieces because they sell,” she said. “You can rearrange things on your walls more easily for a piece that’s 8 by 10 or 11 by 14. I also paint 6 by 8s and put them on little easels. I’ve sold a lot of foxes in that format. I’ve been working with a new medium, scratchboards, used in the late 1800s for medical illustrations, because you can get very detailed with them. I’ve been experimenting with colored inks, which maintain their true values, on my scratchboards of horses, foxes, squirrels, wolves, backstretch racing scenes, etc. Scratchboards are very different from working in oil and graphite. It’s been a bit of an adventure.”
Yvonne has established herself as a sensitive painter of animals. Her work reflects 19th century “animalier” artists who specialized in realistic portrayals of animals. However, Yvonne, like Rosa Bonheur, goes farther, injecting her paintings with artistic legerdemain and magic, allowing a glimpse into the creature’s very nature and essence. Sometimes, the focal point is the eyes, but more often an attitude — joie de vivre, wisdom, humor, scolding — expressed in the physical corporeality of horse, dog, fox or bird. Her landscapes, even those seemingly devoid of animals, invite exploration.
“I’d like my art to help people embrace the magic and beauty of the world around them,” said Yvonne, “be it an incredible tree, the curve of a horse’s back, or the spectacle of horses standing in the field, flicking their tails, communing with each other and nature. I feel very lucky to be able to get up every morning and go into my studio and do what I love, creating images that reflect what I love best about the world.”
For more information visit, www.yvonnetodd.com.
Photos courtesy of Yvonne Todd