Sophy Brown’s sweeping brushstroke and bold use of color and composition capture the explosiveness and expression of a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo bronc.
By Jennifer Denison
Rodeo is an all-american sport, and Sophy Brown can attest to that. Born and raised in England, the artist had never seen anything like the rough-and-tumble sport until she came out West in 1999, settling in Colorado.
“It is such an extreme, dramatic, adrenaline-fueled event,” she says. “It’s extraordinary and compelling to watch, and there’s a reality to it that is so instinctive.”
The idea for Straight Up evolved from photographs she took a few years ago at a local rodeo in Evergreen, Colorado. Attracted most to the action and the horse, Brown admits that she knows more about the bay gelding in the painting than she does the cowboy, which is usually the case in her paintings.
“The horse is called Hello Dolly and is from the Cervi [Championship Rodeo’s] string,” she says. “I have done four paintings of the horse, and he is so expressive.”
Hello Dolly is an 8-year-old gelding out of Cervi mare China Doll and by Magnificent Street, who is the sire of 2010 National Finals Rodeo Round 4 winning bronc Party Shop. The gelding was raised by the Cervi family and given his name before they checked his gender. Hello Dolly went to the NFR as a bareback horse in 2010, but now is used as a saddle bronc. At press time it was unknown if he would make an appearance at the 2011 NFR.
Devoted exclusively to painting horses, many of which are rodeo broncs, Brown strives to capture the physicality of a horse and rider as they struggle against each other’s wills. Her broad, sweeping brushstrokes are contrasted by the strategic, detailed lines in the horse’s mane and tail, as well as a flapping latigo. Both techniques combine to create Brown’s active painting style that is appropriate for her subject matter. She also uses vibrant colors, including red oxides, to show the heat of the moment.
“I chose not to include a background and not even focus on [the sport of] rodeo, per se,” she explains. “For me, the painting is about the horse and rider and the physicality of the sport. Rodeo is such an expressive event. Everything can be explained in the horse and rider’s body language. I try to capture that expression and drama in a painting.”
Most artists paint the classic bronc-riding image, the pivotal moment where horse and cowboy are moving in a common rhythm, the horse’s body nearly vertical, hind legs kicking into the air and front legs hitting the ground, the cowboy nearly parallel, his free arm waving in the air and his legs spur-ring at the horse’s shoulder blades. While many of Brown’s paintings also capture that moment, it was Hello Dolly’s unpredictable bucking style during the ride that is depicted in this painting.
“Hello Dolly was full of surprises that day,” she recalls. “I liked that there wasn’t a lot of forward movement during this ride. It was almost as if the horse had been thrown up into the air.”
Horses have been a part of Brown’s life since she was a child, but she didn’t combine her passion for horses and painting until a decade ago. Prior to that point in her art career, she was an abstract artist and a mural artist.
“In 2000, I was employed to paint a mural on the short end—70 feet long—of a dressage arena,” she recalls. “About halfway through the project I had a real ‘of course’ moment that I should be painting horses, and I haven’t painted anything except horses since that time.”
Though Brown could be considered “green” as a Western artist, her work is well-received by rodeo fans and art collectors who admire her contemporary style. Straight Up was purchased by a private collector and hangs in New York.
Painting from her white-brick studio in Longmont, Colorado, Brown had more than 15 works in progress at the time of this inter-view and is focusing on an open-studio event she is holding, as well as the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale, held each January in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo in Denver. Ironically, the NWSS was where Brown attended her first rodeo about 12 years ago.
Brown says that most of her paintings show “horses at odds with people,” but she is working on a series that depicts “horses in harmony with people.”
Once she gets started on a painting, she says it’s like a “conversation” between her and her work, and the story is compelling enough to keep her motivated every day. When she reaches a block, she finds the best remedy to be getting horseback.
“If I’m not painting, I’m usually riding,” she says.
Though much of Brown’s body of equine art focuses on broncs, she also has paintings of horses performing a variety of disciplines, such as roping and cutting. She also has paintings of mares and foals, and horses running at liberty. The artist has just started on her path in Western art and says she hopes to continue on the journey for many years to come.
“I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface of my subject matter,” she says.