Fleet of foot and easy on the eye: ‘Horse Tales,’ a new exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum, celebrates our four-legged friends

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 06-30-2023 1:45 PM

Is the dog man’s best friend? Or it is the horse?

Based on the longevity of their relationship with humans, horses might have the better claim. Researchers have estimated horses were widely domesticated at least 4,000 years ago and even further back for some groups of people – and for centuries they have played vital roles in transportation, agriculture, battle, and simple companionship.

As British poet and playwright Ronald Duncan once wrote, “Where in this wide world can man / find nobility without pride, / friendship without envy or beauty /without vanity? Here, where /grace is laced with muscle, and / strength by gentleness confined.”

Not just that: Horses have long been beloved figures in children’s books. And in a new exhibit, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is celebrating our equine friends and their important place in the history of children’s literature.

“Horse Tales,” which runs through Dec. 31, features 80 drawings, paintings, collages, digital illustrations and more from over 50 artists. The artwork, though drawn primarily from modern titles, is also culled from books from the early 20th century and some even older publications.

Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, says she began considering such a show several years back after spending time reviewing the museum’s permanent collection, looking for ideas for future shows.

“Horses are so universal, and they appeal on so many levels,” said Keiter, adding that she drives by a couple of horse farms in South Amherst every day on her way to and from work. “They’re beautiful animals, and they appear in so many children’s books.”

She noted that the Carle’s longtime director, Alexandra Kennedy, “is a huge horse person,” and she liked the idea of an exhibit that would feature artwork of horses.

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Keiter has curated the new show with guest curator Carla Carpenter, an Amherst resident who has worked with the museum on previous projects.

“It’s really interesting to see all the different ways artists have represented horses,” Keiter said. “Our relationship with them has changed so much over time, but they’re still very close to our hearts, and especially to children’s hearts.”

“If I Had a Horse,” for instance, a 2018 book by Gianna Marino, is built around rich, impressionistic artwork and a storyline about the emotional bond a young girl imagines having with a horse.

“If I had a horse, I would bring him the biggest apple I could find,” the text reads in part. “He might be shy. Like me. But if I stayed quiet, he would learn to be my friend.”

And in “My Pony,” by the late Susan Jeffers, another little girl who longs for a pony draws a picture of a mare, then dreams of riding it through a magical countryside – suggesting children can go anywhere or do anything by using their imagination.

As exhibit notes put it, “Horses make ideal leading characters – they carry us on adventures, race to our rescue, bear our burdens, and bring us joy. Whether in fairytales or historical narratives, stories of horses touch our emotions time and again.”

Work by a number of regional children’s book artists and writers, including Micha Archer, Ruth Sanderson and Astrid Sheckles, is featured in “Horse Tales,” as is work by illustrators who were showcased in previous Carle exhibits.

Though most of the artists are from North America, Keiter says the exhibit includes work from two illustrators from England and one from Iran; digital art has made it easier and much less expensive to secure that kind of overseas art, she noted.

“Horse Tales” also reaches into the past. One of the earliest examples of artwork comes from a 1921 book, “The Little Man with One Shoe.” In one scene, knights and ladies from the Middle Ages ride majestic horses past a castle.

Then there’s “Calico the Wonder Horse,” from 1941, a book written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton, author of the seminal children’s story “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.”

In energetic black and white images, it tells the story of Calico, the “smartest fastest horse of Cactus County,” who has a tight bond with a cowboy named Hank and helps outwit a bunch of cattle rustlers and other bad guys.

Keiter says the exhibit also has a table with varied art materials and “how-to” books on illustration to encourage visitors to draw their own horses. And, she notes, there’s a “barnyard” of sorts that’s stocked with horse books and a few other props.

“You can even ‘groom’ our galley horses,” she said with a laugh.

More information on the exhibit can be found at carlemuseum.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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