Equine artist Lesley Humphrey, who was the featured artist for the 2011 Kentucky Derby, comes from a long line of coal miners — including women — in the Wigan coalfields of England.
“Over one hundred years ago, even the women in my family worked down the mines, defying the status quo to save their families from famine and the workhouse, when husbands were injured,” says Humphrey, whose solo exhibition of equine paintings, “Lean On Me,” opens this weekend at New Editions Gallery with a Gallery Hop reception Friday and an opening event Saturday.
The Texas-based artist has lived thousands of miles from her homeland for the past three decades, but the qualities of her ancestors — hardy determination and a willingness to dig deep and get dirty — were in her mind as her family endured a dark period in the grip of her daughter’s addiction, the subject of the exhibition’s visual journey.
“Addiction captures people you love and won’t let them go. You recognize their eyes, but when you look into them, their spirit is gone, and all you can do is hope ... hope they will reach out for you, for the Light!” Humphrey writes in a series of self-revelatory essays in the show’s catalog.
“And when they do, no matter how deep the pit, you have to go in and grab that hand! You cannot let go, or they could slip away in the blink of an eye.”
You recognize their eyes, but when you look into them, their spirit is gone, and all you can do is hope ...
Lesley Humphrey on loved ones struggling with addiction
When it became clear that her daughter needed treatment, Humphrey’s family went “all in” to help her, going to therapy and taking advantage of any resources available, including, for a time, the Hope Center, which will receive 10 percent of all sales on Humphrey’s work. The Humphreys have a decades-long relationship with Lexington and its equine community.
“When we first took her to rehab, we thought it was all her and her inability to handle alcohol and that she’d overindulged and got herself into a horrible mess,” says Humphrey. “But when she was there and we went to the orientation, we realized that it’s a family pattern. We had our rose-colored spectacles taken off.”
During her daughter’s recovery, Humphrey’s relatives were each, in their own way, digging deep into their shared inner lives to help Ashley get better.
For Humphrey, the most transformative and effective way to do that was through her art.
When you’re with a horse, your mind goes to a different place, and you kind of go to a different part of your brain, and that’s where she likes to paint from.
Frankie York, New Editions Gallery owner
Having already begun moving from a representational style of painting to a more emotionally expressive style, she artistically dug deep as well, putting all of her fears and hopes onto the canvas. The figure of the horse became a vehicle for expressing and working through complex emotional states.
“Paintings became windows, glimpses into my inner landscape; colors, lines, gestures and marks became the lyrics and provided the visual, silent music of my soul,” she writes.
“When you’re with a horse, your mind goes to a different place, and you kind of go to a different part of your brain, and that’s where she likes to paint from,” says New Editions gallery owner Frankie York. “The horse in this case is the vehicle for that expression.”
Featuring approximately 40 oil and mixed-media paintings of varying sizes, the show chronicles Humphrey’s interior journey, from the darkest days to the joys of recovery.
She describes one painting, “Pulling Through,” as an example.
“There is a black, almost tarlike abstraction on the left, and then it sort of goes to this gold on the right,” she says. “It’s this white horse, which is always the emblem for the spirit of life that carries us that we think we have control over but we don’t. It’s our vehicle through life. You’ll notice there’s two figures, very faint, not obvious right away. I painted that when we were just barely coming out of the pit together. It’s very raw material.”
Like the women who came before them, Humphrey and her daughter’s descent into “the pit” helped them save each other and their family. Her daughter recovered, and she worked for the Hope Center while attending Transylvania University, where she graduated with a philosophy degree last May. She is now enrolled in a master’s program in psychology in England, hoping to work to help others who battle addiction.
“She’s the shining gift at the end of it, and she’s on her path,” Humphrey says. “She’s a radiant individual.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
When: 5-8 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: More than 50 galleries and venues in and around downtown Lexington
‘Lean on Me: A glimpse into my inner landscape’
What: Exhibit of works by equine artist Lesley Humphrey
When: Nov. 17-Dec. 22
Gallery hours: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.
Artist’s reception: 4-7 p.m. Nov. 18
Where: New Editions Gallery, 500 W. Short St.