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Thursday, October 02, 2008

After a summer on the town, ponies ready for auction

By Margaret Plevak/For Weekender

Call it art inspiring life - and death. Earlier this summer, a life-size, 50-pound fiberglass colt - blazoned in red, white and blue - was wheeled from a bank on Center Street in Lake Geneva into a local funeral home where it stood at the wake of a World War II veteran.

The man had served under Gen. George Patton, according to a female relative who made the request for the horse to appear at the funeral, said Francine Jacobs, whose book, "Horsing Around Town - The Trail of a Dream," mentions the patriotic pony, dubbed "Freedom."

The horse has a POW-MIA medallion, peace symbols, the American flag, and the words "God bless America" painted on it. Its head is painted to resemble a bald eagle. Family members had seen "Freedom" on display and thought it would make the perfect memorial for a proud veteran who loved horses, Jacobs said.

"Freedom" is one of 81 ponies that were uniquely designed and painted by area artists as a public art exhibit to benefit Special Methods in Learning Equine Skills, Inc. Darien-based S.M.I.L.E.S. is a therapeutic riding center for adults and children with disabilities.

The fiberglass ponies, which were placed at locations around downtown Lake Geneva earlier this summer, will be sold at a live auction Oct. 4 at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa. Online bidding started Sept. 19. One horse was previously sold at auction in June.

Public art exhibits of fiberglass animals aren't new. Both New York and Chicago displayed cows; Cincinnati used pigs; Miami tried flamingos and White Fish, Mont., exhibited moose.

Kathy Hansen, project coordinator for The Mane Event Auction, said horses were a natural symbol for S.M.I.L.E.S., but the choice turned out to be inspirational for participating artists, who included professionals, art instructors and even local elementary and high school students.

"The horse itself has a lot of different facets," Hansen said. "It means different things to a lot of different people."

Many artists followed equestrian themes from Pegasus to racehorse Barbaro. But designs ranged from whimsical - like a zebra sporting red sneakers or a Charlie Chaplin look-alike - to cultural, with horses that resembled a pop-art painting or works by Jackson Pollack and Georges-Pierre Seurat.

There are localized horses that depict Lake Geneva's beaches and pristine waters, and even a horse with an environmental message to "Go Green."

"A lot of inspiration came from a bottle of wine," Jacobs joked, referring to "Would you like some cheese with that Whinney?" and "Tuscan Love," whose designs are centered around grapevines.

Her softcover book profiles the artists of the exhibit and includes stories about their work. Terry Mayer, staff photographer for Walworth County Sunday, donated his time to take the high-resolution color photographs of every horse that accompanies the text. Sales of the book also benefit S.M.I.L.E.S.

A volunteer for the organization, Jacobs already had been writing articles for its newsletter when she was approached about tackling the book. She sent an e-mail to all the artists, asking what inspired the design of their ponies.

The e-mail responses she received "ran the gamut of emotions for me," she said. "Some were funny. Others were very touching."

"Foal of Hope," depicting a garden of flowering vines against a bright pink background, had a special meaning for artist Terrece Crawford, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

"She began her cancer treatment the same time she began painting her horse, so they went on a journey together," Jacobs said. "She went on her journey to good health, and he went on his journey to become a beautiful object of art."

Many of the artists bonded with their work, Jacobs said.

"The horses kind of became part of their family and home environment. When the artists had to deliver the horses to the kickoff reception back in May, they really missed them. A number of the artists - I heard this a lot - said they experienced 'empty nest syndrome.'"

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