By Claudia Smith
Horses, once so significant in the life and affections of people, were commonly the topic of artistic expression. Prancing horses with flowing tails, trotting horses, horses carrying riders or pulling carts, muscular draught horses and horses at rest were variously carved, painted or hooked. The strong connection was reflected in decorative and functional household items from weather vanes to hand-painted signs to carved children’s toys.
The objects termed “folk art” were made by people who were not formally trained. The rules of proportion and perspective are not always evident but the artistic expression often goes straight to the fundamentals of art – rhythm, design and balance which the folk artists feel instinctively. The works often show an intuitive use of colour and line, not based on artistic conventions, but on feeling.
Hand-painted wooden signs for inns, taverns, farm gates or barns often featured stylized horses that emphasized their grace and beauty while some celebrated a specific, local horse of special merit or strength. Artistic natures also found outlets painting rearing horses or heavy teams on wide, barn doors that became distinctive local features.
People with a creative bent sketched on birchbark or on a tree fungus called artists’ fomes. Personal artistic visions were done with pen and ink and primitive paintings of a favourite horse or team in a farm scene were hung on parlour walls. Stencils cut from cardboard were used for painting decorative figures and lines on furniture that added colour to a room and gave pleasure to the artist. In 1870, a stylized, prancing, white horse carrying King Billy was carefully cut from cloth and hand-stitched onto a Loyal Orange Lodge banner for July 12th parades.
Horses were etched into the wood on the top of homemade boxes and sometimes a stylized horse was sketched on a barn beam or board and then the image was incised into the surface of the wood. When cars began replacing horses, one fellow painted an image of his horse on the fender of his new car. A horseshoe was sometimes attached to the grill for good luck.
Many men and youths always carried a sharp pocket knife to whittle interesting shaped sticks or pieces of wood in their spare moments. Basswood was especially favoured for carving. The whittlers and carvers took pleasure in releasing horses or other animals from the wood. Children delighted in the small carvings and many have been kept in families as precious mementoes from Grandpa or Dad.
In preparation for Christmas surprises, parents used to work away by lantern or fire light after the little ones were in bed. Besides crafting gifts to put under the tree like rag and corn-husk dolls, tops and whistles, animals were carefully carved and decorated with a bit of paint. Sometimes a child’s carved horse was fitted with a harness of thin, leather straps and hitched to a wooden cart or sledge. Rocking horses, hobby horses and pull toys with a whittled horse set on wheels or on a wheeled platform were all made by hand with love and varied degrees of skill.
Weather vanes were examples of some of the earliest sculptural art. Pioneer settlers with artistic talents carved horses or fashioned horse shapes from thick boards and then installed their equine “silhouettes in the wind” on their barn roofs.
Untold numbers of weather vanes were made by blacksmiths – those most essential tradesmen whose services were indispensable in communities at one time. Their weather vanes were frequently iconic horse motifs – some expertly made from sheet tin or hammered metal while others were more crudely fashioned by an apprentice.
Horses were an important feature in advertising. A large trotting horse weather vane on the roof of a blacksmith shop could be spotted easily from a distance down country roads or in villages. Some blacksmiths advertised their work to passing travellers with a large iron horse hung on a chain from a tree limb or from a bar fastened to the front of the shop. Smithy signs were also made of configurations of horseshoes.
Blacksmiths’ metal work showed creative individuality from their weather vanes to early metal trade signs to advertise businesses like harness shops, livery stables, hotels, and stagecoach depots. The galvanised steel sign of one town livery stable had pierced lettering in the horse shape so that it could be seen at night when it was lit from behind.
Other horse related examples of folk art were flowers made of configurations of horseshoes nailed on a stable door or a horseshoe-bodied bumblebee with wings of halves of a broken horseshoe tacked beside it. Horse-themed whirly gigs spun in the wind and gable-end boards and rural mail boxes were decorated with images of horses.
The cold, draughty floors of rural farm houses were warmed by thick, heavy mats hooked by women with strips of old clothing on burlap backgrounds. The rugs were primarily utilitarian but often reflected the desire of their makers to express themselves. Creative, hand-drawn horses were favoured themes and while the designs rarely fit with the standards of realism, many were timeless and whimsical. Primitive pastoral farm scenes with apple trees and horses, horse-drawn hay carts or a man ploughing frequently had a natural vitality, spirit and humour.
Folk art decorated and brightened houses, recorded rural life and traditions, and people took pleasure in their artistic impulses to create. Art historians consider folk art to be the true ancestor of the modern art tradition with its simplification of design, abstracted elements and exaggerated shapes and colours. The homey designs and timeless themes of folk art – the primitive art of the people – have a special charm and have earned a deserved appreciation.