A horse is a horse
Art created by animals is a relatively new concept to human culture. Only within the past few decades have scientists observed what appears to be artistic expression in primates. Most of us have seen or heard of unique animals creating art: chimpanzees painting, elephants doodling and paint trails made by a turtle’s dragging body. Locally, we have the delicate watercolor paintings of Cholla the horse.
Part Mustang and part quarter horse, Cholla has been heeding the teachings of his owner, Renee Wise of Reno. She bought him at age 5 and knew then that Cholla was extremely intelligent. Only a few months ago, Wise and her husband saw an elephant painting on TV; they were confident that Cholla was capable of creating his own art. At age 18 and 1,200 pounds, Cholla has been painting since May.
Four of Cholla’s abstract expressionist pieces are on display at Alexandratos Gallery as part of an “Animal Mammal Show,” as well as a video that shows the artistic exchange between Cholla and Wise.
When he sees Wise bring the easel out, Cholla runs toward it and nods when Wise asks him if he wants to paint. Wise motions him where to stand, dips a brush in watercolor, and then gives it to her horse. He takes the brush delicately in his mouth, trying to get a good grip with his teeth, and then runs it over the paper in gentle strokes. Wise croons, “Gentle … gentle … beautiful!”
When he’s satisfied with one color, Cholla gives the brush back to Wise, who then rewards him with a cookie and another paint-soaked brush. Wise moves her hands like a symphony director, reaffirming the horse’s movements with “ooohs” and “ahhs.” She has found that Cholla prefers watercolors—he doesn’t like the smell of oils or acrylics.
Cholla’s pieces in the gallery are priced between $900 and $1,500, which makes for a pretty successful artist. His recent efforts are much more mature than his earlier work, as he’s now gained enough control to stay on the easel. One work, titled “Swamp Dragons,” looks like a field of wispy plants. The lavender and light green strokes are placed in a graceful and precise manner, resulting in a structured scene of lines and shapes. In “Bull Fish,” Alexandratos Gallery owner, Stephanie Tsanas, claims to see a dolphin-like shape in the dark greens and blues. Tsanas immediately was intrigued with the horse’s work and says, “I’ve seen a lot of abstract art, and this is better than a lot that I’ve come across.”
The simple aesthetic of Cholla’s work is captivating, but it’s even more fascinating watching how he creates it. Although he goes through the motions of Wise’s training, Cholla reveals his personality while he paints, showing his gigantic teeth when he is praised for his work. When he’s done with a painting, he mimics his teacher and lifts his leg as she does.
But, is it art? Many critics claim that art is strictly a human experience—that emotion, intelligence and self-awareness are necessary to legitimately express oneself artistically.
After watching Cholla and Wise work, it’s obvious that the horse displays his intelligence and training to create beautiful pieces of art. Every human artist learns technique from some sort of teaching, and his or her environment stimulates the creative process, not unlike Cholla’s experience. Maybe humans have put up a barrier as far as what other species are capable of expressing. Maybe Cholla is a real artist.