Horses are an obsession,” admits artist Rita Dee, who has been smitten since she first clapped eyes on one at the age of four. Growing up in Dutchess County, she had a horse of her own, and an equally horse-crazy friend who showed her how to make wire model horses that they kept in shoeboxes. It would be interesting to compare one of those little wire models to the magnificent life-size sculptures that Dee creates today using Hudson River driftwood.
Dee made her first life-size horse sculpture when she was studying studio art at Bard College. “I was mostly doing paintings of horses,” she says with a laugh, but decided to try wood sculpture after she found the paint materials were making her ill. “Driftwood along the Hudson was plentiful, and I began figuring out how to join it together with dowels,” says Dee. After a period of trial and error, she installed a life-sized driftwood horse outside a cafe in Red Hook. It quickly sold, and led to more commissions.
Dee soaks the driftwood in a pigmented penetrating oil to preserve it, then cuts the pieces and joins them with coated decking screws. Working from life or memory, she lets the shapes suggest where each piece belongs. “I rely on nature to help me,” she says. The results are powerful, majestic representations of horses, with the driftwood suggesting sinew and muscle. Jumping and rearing horses are built on a steel frame; they all have steel dowels that anchor them to the ground.
Since Dee and her family (and nine horses) moved to Bennington, Vermont, she has to make pilgrimages to the banks of the Hudson to gather materials. “That’s the hardest part,” she says. “When I lived in the Hudson Valley, if I didn’t have a certain shape, I’d just go to the river and find it.” The artist completes only one or two sculptures a year. “It takes so much out of me; I can’t just crank them out,” she says. “And I want it to be joyful work.”
Dee accepts commissions for smaller horse sculptures. Prices range from $1,200 for a tabletop model to about $18,000 for a full-size one. Her painted driftwood sculptures are intended for indoor display, but the others can withstand the elements if they’re sprayed with preservative in spring and fall.