Thursday, July 27, 2017

Horses, Art, and Tevis Cup Fever

*To get you in the mood for this year's Tevis Cup, this article is the third in a 3-part series on some things Tevis. 
Part 1, The Tevis Board of Governors: A Year-Round Labor of Love, is here.
Part 2, The Wendell Robie Trophy, is here.

July 27 2017
by Merri

It's funny, this Tevis Cup Fever. It can grab hold of you before and twist you and turn you in directions you'd never have imagined. What really got it started for Diana Hiiesalu was a magazine cover in the 1980's, of a horse going over Cougar Rock. "I thought, What is this!!!???" Diana related. "I read the article, and was like, What is this ride!? I have to do this! I thought that this ride was made for me, that it was ingrained someway in my very soul, of who I was. It was a given, to ride it."

She owned her first Arabian at the time ("who I was kind of terrified of"), and she could picture herself doing Tevis and going over Cougar Rock with him. It didn't work out with that horse, and in fact she went through many horses before she got to her Khemali'i, but he was the one that fulfilled a long-time dream, after 27 years. She and Ali'i finished Tevis twice, in 2011 and 2012.

All those years, the Fever burned. "I was such a Tevis groupie. I lived in southern California, and every year I came up here to Auburn, and I sucked it in for the 3 days.

"And then once I moved here [to Auburn, in 2009] and I started getting involved with the people that live and breathe this every day - I became really obsessed with it. There's meetings you can go to; there's the Tevis Christmas party; and of course I met Bill [Gore, her boyfriend], and that changed everything for me."

For years, Diana had volunteered for Tevis, as crew, horse transporter, and vet scribe, and then she worked as a photographer for Gore/Baylor photography. (Rene Baylor and Bill Gore shoot the Cougar Rock photos for the ride.)

Bill was voted onto the Tevis Cup Board of Governors in October, and Diana was at that meeting to support him. This was when retiring long-time BoG member Kate Riordan proposed the Wendell Robie trophy for Tevis horses who have finished the ride 10 or more times.

Diana doesn't remember exactly what she heard - sculpture, or bronze - but she immediately raised her hand and said she'd do it for free, if someone paid her expenses and the foundry costs. "Right," Kate Riordan remembers thinking. "Everyone thinks they’re an artist." She didn't know Diana nor her artwork.

Art and Horses: A Potent Combo

Art and horses have been a part of Diana's life since her earliest memories. She was drawing and sketching by the time she was 4 years old. "My mom was pretty wonderful for supporting me. She was my biggest cheerleader. Whatever I did, she thought I was wonderful."

Her mother supported her love for horses too. Diana has memories of her mom letting her ride the pony riding horses as a little girl, riding around in a circle and wearing a seat belt.

That love of art and horses really meshed around age 11 when she read Walter Farley's Black Stallion books and discovered the ink drawings on the inside. "Oh my gosh, they were so beautiful, ink drawings of The Black and his sons. That's probably where I learned to love Arabians." Then, years later, mix in that magazine cover of an Arabian going over Cougar Rock which ultimately resulted in Diana's burgeoning Tevis Cup fever, and you can understand her desire to want to sculpt an art piece for the event she loves so much.

With a BFA in Illustration from the Pasadena Art Center College of Design, Diana worked in the commercial art industry even while developing her own art company on the side, Wind Dancing Art, doing watercolor portraits for dog and horse people, and logo designs for ranches and kennels.

She's always had a big love for bas relief sculpture, and though she never studied sculpture, she obtained a commission to do all the trophies for the 1997 Collie Club of America Nationals. "I knew what I wanted to do," she said. "I had a vision, and I said I would do it, although I wasn't sure how i was going to do it. I knew that someone would show up and help me. If you have an idea and you have a commitment to something, you have to commit to it and you worry about the details later. I learned that early in life."

Help indeed came in the form of a man who happened to see her working on her pieces; he happened to make resin pieces for a museum, and he offered to show her what to do. "He was just a godsend. I don't even remember his name. I spent an entire day with him, wrote down all the notes, and he showed me exactly what to do. I went home and I created all those bas relief resins, and they were beautiful. I ended up doing 22 originals and 220 trophies."

Over the years Diana sculpted a few other pieces, the latest being a bronze of her Collie that she called "Tirzah Gaiting."

Flash forward to the October Tevis Board of Governors meeting and the proposal of a trophy, and Diana volunteering to create it. The Board decided on a sculpture based on a Charlie Barieau picture of Wendell Robie at the finish line of the 1961 Tevis Cup, when he finished second on Nugget. (Robie won the first 4 runnings of the Tevis Cup, on Bandos and Molla.) Robie is reaching down to give his horse a drink of water out of his canteen. It was decided the trophy would honor not just the 6 1000-mile horses, but all the 500-mile Tevis horses (there are over 40 of them). BoG member Jeff Herten generously offered to oversee and finance the project.

This was a monumental venture not only because of her love for Tevis and art, but Diana knew all critical eyes were going to be on her and her creation. "The biggest thing that kept coming back to me from [Tevis Board of Governors members] Jeff Herten and Kathie Perry and Terryl Reed, was that this guy has got to look like Wendell.

"So research for me was hugely important. I learned this when I was in Art Center. If you're going to do art, and it's going to be accurate - meaning not really artsy or abstract - you have to be authentic. You have to know what you're doing, because there's going to be someone out there that will know you're lying, or you don't know what you're talking about."

Diana studied numerous old pictures of Wendell Robie and of images pertaining to the sculpture, and from every conceivable angle: a horse showing its teeth; a cowboy shirt, a hand holding something. "It took me a long time to find the kind of saddle he rode in. The tack had to look like what he used. I asked Terryl and Kathie and whoever I could a lot of questions about the bucking rolls on his saddle, and reins he rode with. There's some old-timer out there who will know if he didn't have the right kind of reins. It all had to be authentic."

She started on the sculpture on May 1st, creating the basic form with armature wire, then starting to mold the plasticine clay. Basic shapes and features came first, and the finer details after: the saddle, blanket, ears, fingers. "It's like building a house. You have to work on the guts of the house before you can work on the extras and outside stuff and pretty stuff."

Finally, after working for up to 13 hours a day for almost 4 straight weeks, nearing the finish of her masterpiece, there was a moment of horror. "I moved the whole piece and it almost went flying to the ground - the horse, Wendell, the whole thing. It was pretty terrifying. I would have died; that was the worst part. I was so stressed!"

The next most stressful moment was delivering the almost 14" high finished masterpiece to the foundry on May 31st. "I was so worried about driving it down through Sacramento in rush hour traffic. I ended up seat belting it, then turning the air conditioning on, afraid I'd have to stop suddenly and the whole thing was going to come apart."

Safely delivered to the foundry, the process of creating the Wendell Robie bronze is now underway, with Diana overseeing the steps. (If you want to see the fascinating basics of how a bronze is produced at a foundry, see this video.)

Engraved on the center of the trophy's base will be the names of the 6 horses who have 1000 or more Tevis miles*, surrounded by the 500 or more-mile horses. Diana created a bronze medallion in the likeness of the statue for the horses' owners. The new trophy will be unveiled at the Sunday awards ceremony following this year's August 5th Tevis Cup.

About equal with finishing the Tevis Cup, this art opportunity has been a lifetime dream accomplishment. "Ohmigosh!" Diana said. "For me to be able to do this... I feel so incredibly honored and blessed. Every time I talk to Jeff Herten or anybody about it, I feel like this was a dream come true piece for me to do.

"It's probably the greatest thing I've done to date as far as my art career. I am still blown away that they let me do it."

*The 1000-mile Tevis horses are:
Thunders Lightning Bar
Buffalo Bill
El Karbaj


Diana Hiiesalu said...

Oxoxoxoxoxoxoxox Merri ~ You are the best! Diana

Anonymous said...

Hi Diana!! I don't know if you remember me but I used to own Trails End and you did the scratch art for my note cards and catalog cover. I still have them and love them so much! I have always been a huge fan of yours and am thrilled to see that you are still involved with endurance. Your sculpture is breathtaking!! Beyond impressive and will be cherished forever, I'm sure! Congratulations and all the best, Darleen Cervasio