Finding the heart in the human-horse connection

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MANCHESTER — After a lifetime of riding, local artist Rita Dee knows the heart that goes into the human-horse connection.

That heart is palpable in Dee's newest installation at Helmholz Fine Arts in downtown Manchester, which has attracted the attention of competitors at the Vermont Summer Festival, held in Dorset. Dee's work is joined at the gallery by the art of Lisa Cueman, a Dorset resident known for her equine photographs.

"I felt there was something so creative in both of their styles, but what is unique in both of their work is the heart and the love of the horse," said Lisa Helmholz-Adams, founder of Helmholz Fine Arts. "That really connects with visitors from the horse show, who start showing me pictures of their own horses when they come in."Perhaps the most visually stunning sculpture is "Magnificent Trail Guide," resting front and center in Helmholz-Adams' gallery. The large driftwood piece captures the two-time Olympic show jumper Trail Guide.

"I have to have a story when I'm working; I know each horse whether it's a horse we've had or one I've read about. It's how I get emotionally connected to what I'm doing," said Dee, who had previously produced a standing sculpture of Trail Guide. "The thoroughbred is known for having a lot of heart, they work hard for their rider and they'll give and give and give. He just gave himself to the end."

The champion thoroughbred was later euthanized at the age of 26 after crashing into a five foot fence at a Madison Square Garden competition, which was to be the final performance of his career. Later, it was discovered that the aging horses heart had failed.

"I have horses and I ride every day, so I get to know them very well and know all the little nuances in their personalities," said Dee. "I can understand how this horse was a very special kind of horse, a generous horse, and a horse you'd say was very honest — he always gave his best. I wanted to do something that would honor that."To capture the heart of the horse itself, Dee begins by capturing motion. The artists describes her sculptures as three-dimensional drawing, and often spends many winter sketching before sculpting outdoors when the weather warms.

"I struggle doing these, because they take a lot out of me," said Dee. "I try never to take a piece off once it's on. I work with it, and I think that struggle is what gives it more energy."

Dee works solely with driftwood collected from nearby rivers and streams, often leaving the artist with a challenging puzzle of her own design.

"There's times when I just have to walk away, but the next day I come back and it kind of flies together," said Dee. "I compare painting to dancing, and this would be slugging through the mud by comparison; it's really very draining, but in a good way."

Through this toil, Dee hopes to convey the essence of the equine's she sculpts while also eliciting an emotional response from viewers.

"With any kind of theatrical production you want to move your audience, and I too want to move them in some way," said Dee. "They're not just looking into the eye of this horse, but the inner core or the spirit of the horse."

According to Helmholz-Adams, Dee has been successful in moving the multitudes of viewers that have flocked to the gallery for the installation.

"With the Summer Festival here there are these incredible jumpers that come from all over the world, and the more I started seeing them I became fascinated by these young riders and their stories," said Helmholz-Adams, who is keeping the gallery open seven days a week for the duration of the Vermont Summer Festival. "These are total strangers, but when they come in here and see these pieces they start opening up about the circuit and what it's like to travel."

Appropriately, resting in the driftwood chest of the "Magnificent Trail Guide," lies a red heart.

"There is an emotional connection that Rita Dee has, which I love," said Helmholz-Adams. "She's brought them alive."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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