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Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape

March 2 - Sept. 2, 2002


Honest Horses, A Portrait of the Mustang in Nevada's Great Basin

n same gallery March 2 - July 8, 2002


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even when that beauty is a wild horse.

In the Midwest, many people would never question whether the wild horse of the American West should be protected and preserved. To Midwesterners, the wild horse is simply beautiful, the symbol of a freedom they can't enjoy anymore. And so Midwesterners relish the devil-may-care attitude of an elegant mustang that doesn't have any boundaries, one that might let a human catch a glimpse of it, but then will snort its unconcern and gallop off into the hills. (left: John Farnsworth, Buckinstock, acrylic on canvas, from the collection of Stan and Sandra Hurt, Indianapolis. The Eiteljorg has added cowboy and Native American horse equipment to the exhibition (Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape) organized by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, along with this painting from local collectors Stan and Sandra Hurt)

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art will bring the wild horse to Indianapolis with the exhibition Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape, March 2 through Sept. 2, 2002.

The federal government grants explicit protection to the wild horse as a living icon of the frontier West and a vital component of the environment. East of the Mississippi, people applaud the government's dramatic preservation of this souvenir of our country's past.

West of the Mississippi, though, the wild horse becomes an enigma. The wild horse thrives in the West, where no significant predators remain to threaten it. The horse has carved out a place in the Rocky Mountains among deer, elk, bighorn sheep and domestic livestock. But the horse's effect on these animals is not fully understood. Horses compete with cattle, elk, bighorns and deer for food, and they eat proportionately more than these animals and nip grasses closer to the ground. Thus, they have the potential to do some real damage to the landscape and to threaten the long-term existence of other animals.

In fact, said James Nottage, vice president and chief curatorial officer at the Eiteljorg Museum, many people regard the wild horse as nothing more than stray domestic livestock that should be removed from the open range. "This animal epitomizes freedom and wildness in this country. But freedom comes with a price," said Nottage. "This is especially true in a world where wildness is fading in the light of human domination. There remains much controversy about how horses should fit into the American landscape in the future."

Unfortunately, in a consumer-driven America, the wild horse has no significant economic value to bolster its case. It's not even native to this continent. If the West continues to get smaller and the competition for land, food and resources gets fiercer, Americans -- those who live around the wild horse, and those of us who live only with its spirit -- may be forced to choose which visions of America we want to preserve.

"This exhibition explores the paradox between the human desire for control and our passionate admiration for the uncontrolled," Nottage said. "What emerges is a dramatic portrait of an animal, a landscape and the human culture that seeks to manage both."

The original exhibit was organized by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., and curated by the BBHC's Charles P. Preston, curator of natural history. But the show to be presented by the Eiteljorg will include Spanish horse armor, horse accouterments from cowboy and Native American cultures, and well-known bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell from the Eiteljorg Museum's collection and from private collectors.

The exhibit will consist of a variety of media. Photographs will show real horses in the wild -- foraging for food in the winter, streaking across the plains in summer, gazing placidly over the edge of a purple canyon. Oil paintings and sculptures by such luminaries as William Leigh, Remington and Russell will show the artist's interpretation of the horse as brawny worker, charismatic companion and romantic renegade. Taxidermy mounts (horses that died from natural causes) will let visitors glimpse a frozen moment in time.

The horse doesn't exist in a vacuum, however, so Nottage and his staff are taking pains to show its effect on human cultures. Spanish armor will mark the introduction of the horse to North America in the 16th century. Horses took part in only a fraction of the history of Native American peoples, but that brief period transformed those cultures. Similarly, the heyday of the cowboy was only about 25 years, but the horse and the cowboy are welded together in our imaginations. Equipment used by cowboys and by Native Americans will demonstrate how diverse cultures have broken the spirit of the wild horse and harnessed it to their needs.


Honest Horses: A Portrait of the Mustang in Nevada's Great Basin

Wild Horse Annie (Velma Johnston, whose advocacy for the wild horse eventually resulted in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971) didn't know photographer Paula Morin, but they shared a common passion: the wild horse. (left: Natural Balance, a hand-painted photograph by Paula Morin)

Along with Unbroken Spirit, the Eiteljorg Museum will present Honest Horses: A Portrait of the Mustang in Nevada's Great Basin, 31 black-and-white photographs hand-painted by Morin, a Montana artist and horsewoman.

The writings of such respected Westerners as J. Frank Dobie and John McPhee lured Morin to Nevada, where more than half of America's wild horses live. There, she documented the state's wild horse community and traditional ranching culture through photographs and recorded conversations with people whose lives are entwined with wild horses.

Morin's exhibition, coordinated by the Nevada Arts Council, is intended to raise public awareness about the significance, meaning and impact of mustangs in the Great Basin region. Her images, combined with poems, stories and commentaries, put the significance, meaning and impact of wild horses into context.

See our earlier article and the essay Wild Horses: An Integral Part of the Natural System, by Charles R. Preston, Curator, Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape (7/17/99)

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Eiteljorg Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. Rev. 12/29/11

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