Their Powerful Grace: Alysa Bennett’s ‘A Change of Horse’ at AVA Gallery

By Tom Haushalter

This spring, one section of AVA’s main gallery has transcended, you could say, into a paddock, and in it the majestic and meticulous representations of artist Alysa Bennett’s horses.

In sculptures formed of shimmering feathers, in chaotic charcoal drawings, and in photographs against the backdrop of Bennett’s father’s ranch in Arizona—the horses on display seem to belie their innate power by their very grace.

But that, Bennett assures us, is the point. To straddle a horse is to perceive both its exquisite contours and marvelous strength, and she finds in that spectrum virtually endless room to roam.

Bennett spoke to us about the versatility of her favorite creatures and their core influence on her work in A Change of Horse, her exhibition that runs at AVA through May 25.

What is it about horses—in your life, in your artist’s eye—that makes them an inexhaustible source of inspiration?

Bennett: Horses got under my skin early. As a kid, summers at my dad’s California cattle ranch, I could ride all day alone or with him. I would crawl all over my old paint mare, put tassels on her bridle, pretend she was some elegant Arabian. And I rode bareback often, where you feel the warmth of the skin and the muscles moving under you. I would run my hands over her, moving with the direction of her hair, smelling her all the while. It stays with you for your life.

I studied and then chose to be a figurative artist, but after a while I needed a subject that I had a passion for—and horses came back to me when Dad bought a ranch in Arizona. I spent much time there, and horses were abundant and close. I watched them as they played and interacted with each other, and I drew them all the time.

Horses have the ability to convey all the same emotions that people have, with their body language and the look in their eyes. That is what keeps them such a compelling subject for me. I try to make that come through by being true to both their large and small gestures. The possibilities are endless!

Let us into the process of creating the horse sculptures, and how it differs whether you’re working with feathers or straw.

Bennett: I first started making the straw sculptures then moved to feathers. For both I make a simple wire armature, fill it out with batting or rags, bend it until the gesture is right, and then wrap it in plaster to make it rigid. THEN I add the feathers ONE at a time.

Making the straw sculptures (though none of these are included in my AVA show), I would soak the straw in a medium by the handfuls and then mold them to follow the direction of the muscles. They were tied down and left to set in place and then refined with scissors. (Like a day at the beauty salon.) Both the feather and the straw sculptures have the delicate stick legs that I forage for in the backyard. They have to have the right turns and angles to represent the hock, knee, or just the angle of the leg.

In your drawings, as in the sculpture, I see a kinetic and formidable creature that is also quite delicate. Is this an equine duality you’re negotiating through your work?

Bennett: So you nailed the duality issue. It has been a major mover for me. Just the fragile legs on such a huge, heavy animal really captures it. In life, their legs are always the first part to get hurt and the hardest to heal. Also, their ability to use their strength at will, being a powerhouse under you one minute and then a gentle giant for a child the next—part of that duality and always one of the more intriguing aspects of life.

The kinetics of the horse I address a little more in the drawings. I started by using the chaos of the straw on the studio floor as an inspiration. Just as I tried to create form from chaos in the sculptures, I did the same with the drawings. Starting with a random stroke, then another, then seeing the horse and coaxing it out of the chaos of line. And, of course, going for the gesture. That really is the “overriding” challenge. If I can get that right then I feel I have satisfied my deep connection with horses and humans alike.