A ‘Bumpy’ Ride of 400 Horses

It was several years ago when my artist friend, Dan Wahl, approached my cheeseburger and me at a table at Marshall’s Brau Brother’s Brewhouse with his sketchbook. “Here’s what I’ve been up to,” he said, opening the white pages to some of his first drawings of a huge personal mission. “My intent is to draw 400 horses.”

A couple of years later we were both part of a Southwest Minnesota Arts Council (SMAC) exhibit at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts. Dan had created a huge four foot by four foot “poster” of all 400 of his drawings and I found myself starring at the “postage stamp” images for much of the opening. Intrigued, and also somewhat stunned. There was so much to comprehend. Later during the initial Hinterland Art Crawl in Redwood County area, he strung fencing wire across a praireland pasture down to a small wetland and back where he hanged his drawings. Now they’re hanging on several cords across the second floor of a re-purposed building at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove.

This is an “interactive” exhibit, meaning that, as always, Dan is asking all who enter to create their own drawings of horses, which he is cataloging and keeping in a collection.

Before anyone comes to a conclusion about the exhibit they should realize that if they’re looking for 400 drawings that perfectly portray beautiful or famous horses, don’t. For this exhibit isn’t so much about the art as it is for the artist, and Dan’s artist’s statement offers such an explanation. He initially decided upon the arts project to “better understand the equine body structure” within the time line of a single year … 2015. For the record, each drawing is numbered.

“Why 400?” he asked. “Because 225 or 360 didn’t seem right. Four hundred seemed like a good, round number.”

Then something happened. And it’s all there, within all in those 400 drawings of an exhibit he calls “Don’t Doubt Your Horses.” “All” meaning the struggles he faced as an artist. This is the beauty of a well intentioned artist’s statement, where an artist treats us intimately to what and why of what they’re doing. A few years back artist Sarah Eckel had an exhibit of her paintings at the Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance in Morris that defied understanding until her artist’s statement was read … her paintings of hands searching over mounds of flesh, all hidden behind small black curtains, was a view you had to pry back the curtains to see and illustrated her frustrations of self image. 

Dan Wahl’s honesty was no less sobering, as reflected in both his statement and in his works … which vary from childish scribblings containing his notes of frustration to near “perfect” renderings of horses one might expect in such an exhibit, to some that would remind a viewer of a Bonnie Timmons illustration or a Picasso-like inked effort contained in flowing lines of artistic poetry. 

A few months into the project he faced what he describes as an “artist’s block. I didn’t know where to turn, or what to do. I was committed, although at that point I couldn’t continue.” Within the exhibit is drawing number 76, which looks like the circled sketches of a four year old over which he writes, “Haven’t drawn horses in a long time. I am forty-nine years old!” It was dated April 28, 2015 … a mere 69 days into the project. Wahl was some 324 horse drawings short of his projected goal. 

Dan said he journaled and meditated, and perhaps even said a prayer or two before realizing that the project wasn’t about making horse drawings, but “liking the horse drawings. If this project was to be completed at all, I would have to accept all the horses. Regardless of how they looked This was easier said than done.” Yes, it is all there in the 400 drawings, all of his angst and artistic frustration. And of the joys of mental freedom!

Yet that shift of focus from the act of drawing to the act of liking “necessitated a deeper appreciation of the horses themselves. In order to accept them I had to let them be who they were. Who they are.”

Yes, some would certainly be considered “bad art.” Those drawings an artist might either hide in their sketchbooks or perhaps even crumple up and ditch into a waste basket. “In the end,” he said, “it seemed right to include every single drawing into the one exhibit.”

To his credit this is precisely what he has done. At some point in the process Dan created a “limbo” box he used as a “repository” for his drawings. “They wanted to come out into the world but they weren’t quite ready,” he said, smiling his neon smile. “So I made them a resting place, a repository for waiting. It took me awhile to trust my horses enough to show everyone!”

The Hutchinson show was the initial “peek into the box” and thanks to a new SMAC grant, he and an aide are working on compiling both his drawings and the hundreds he has requested each and every viewer to draw. At his Walnut Grove showing a table has been set up with colored pencils and crayons and blank “postcards” for those so inspired, and many are. Along the outside walls he has hanged the drawings of the those efforts.

Every once in awhile there comes an exhibit by one of the prairie artists that requires a bit of time and effort to fully appreciate, to devour in depths of thought and eventual appreciation. Sarah Eckel’s exhibit at the PRCA gallery was one, and Dan Wahl’s is another. I have serious doubt that you can cross Wilder’s infamous Plum Creek on the way home without reliving and feeling some of the frustration, wonder and sighs of relief echoing from that second floor “repository” of Dan Wahl’s 400 Horses.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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