Three Names, One Artist, and Serious Equine Starpower

by | 06.29.2013 | 3:44pm
Thomas Allen Pauly's portrait of Secretariat

Thomas Allen Pauly was applying the finishing touches to his oil portrait of Orb in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle when he paused to consider how much mud he should paint on the horse's flanks. It was at this point in the artistic process that the artist lapsed back into being Tom Pauly, who ironically was the person he was at the outset.

Don't be fooled by the slightly affected use of three names at the bottom of each Thomas Allen Pauly painting. Using three names when two would do was a lesson in branding that Tom Pauly learned from his hero, the renowned equine artist Richard Stone Reeves, aka Dick Reeves. Thomas Allen Pauly is Tom Pauly to those who know him. There's no mistake about that.

In a formless gray hoodie that sports an unpronounceable, quadrisyllabic name on his chest and a ball cap with an Iroquois Steeplechase insignia on his noggin, the 53-year-old “kid” stands before a canvas and easel in the walkout basement of his lakefront cabin in Trego, Wisconsin, pop. 885. He appears ready for walking his dog, Lincoln or installing a phone line, which, coincidentally, was the closeted job that Pauly relied on for 30 years before devoting his life completely to art.

Pauly is a tad taller than a grave is deep, with a neatly-bearded face and a warm, puckish grin.Yet, his blue-green eyes meet yours face to face when he talks and he speaks with the sweep of a jazz player's brush on a snare drum and a moxie that's born of the streets.

The Northwoods setting is simpler than Pauly's sophisticated Chicago studio—his main space for working, hanging out, hosting buyers and gathering friends. The high-ceilinged loft in Chicago, jam-packed with horse racing tchotchkes, is a Ralph Lauren-styled Shangri-la tucked into an upper corner of an old manufacturing site that's been converted to office space. At one time, the building was used to produce skeletons—plastic bones that were used to help students learn about bodies. But now it's a thriving laboratory for Pauly's creative DNA.

The studio is ten city blocks from his primary home, which is located next door to the Mayor's—a property that came under scrutiny when then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel needed to establish his residency to solidify his candidacy. Pauly occasionally sees Emanuel driven away in a black Chevy Tahoe in the morning and says hello to him over the fence. But, employing trademark Pauly discretion, the artist has stopped short of leveraging their neighborly acquaintance into anything manipulative.

En route to history, Orb had raced in the back of the pack for most of the Derby before sweeping wide on the final turn and heading to the wire in the rain on a sloppy track. Despite winning convincingly, the colt put a distance less measurable between it and the second place finisher than Pauly would eventually put between his image of Orb and a few real-time photos he took to serve as his guideline. Pauly knows from nearly 35 years of turning blank canvasses into masterpieces that horse owners—the most likely buyers—respond with their wallets to ethereal images. This one is earmarked for Stuart S.

Janney III, a man whose equine possessions suit portraits like Joel Rosario suits a saddle. The prolific Pauly estimates he has produced a couple hundred paintings of horses, and there are few paintings that remain in his studio. He paints to sell, although selling fine art is as risky as buying a racehorse. The field is littered with wannabe Paulys. There are times when an artist works on spec and hopes for the best. There are other times, he hopes that a painting is seen by a friend of a person who owns one and it leads to the next. Pauly looks for referrals but knows there's no substitute for salesmanship. Pauly's pitch will be pitch-perfect.

The late Hollywood game show producer Merv Griffin owned a Thomas Allen Pauly painting. So, too, did Willie Shoemaker and George Steinbrenner. So, too, do Ogden “Dinny” Phipps and WinStar Farms. Pauly has painted Secretariat seven times. His first portrait of a Derby winner was Charismatic in 1999 and it's still his favorite.

Churchill Downs re-produced Pauly's Barbaro portrait for Gretchen and Roy Jackson as a poster and distributed 10,000 posters to fans. Alas, mud was a factor in this May's Derby. But Pauly is too smart to create a 30” x 40” impression of Orb caked from head to toe that the Derby winner's co-owner would want to be left with each time he gazed at his purchase.

The way we remember things is usually self-edited. When it comes to art, a fine line exists between an image with precise detail and an image that reflects reality emotionally. Pauly's paintings are precious in more ways than the actual moments they capture. A Pauly painting reveals the human touch—the same over-riding ingredient that breeding, training and managing a champion horse does.

“My youngest son, Bruce, a longtime equestrian rider, commissioned Tom Pauly to paint some of his horses. My wife liked his work and also commissioned him to do some paintings. He ranks very high among any equine artists who have done work for us. We have pieces of his art in our home, as well as, here at the track,” said Richard L. Duchossois, the largest shareholder in Churchill Downs Incorporated and the operational and well as inspirational leader of Arlington Park.

To wit, Pauly can't imagine the owner of a famous, accomplished horse not wanting to own a painting of his horse. He finds it slightly preposterous when someone says no to him. He rightfully points out that equine art has been en vogue since horse racing began. Yet, he also admits that it may not be obvious to all.

“I don't know if younger people getting involved in the sport see the portraiture of their horse as the logical next step (to winning),” Pauly says. “The minute I put my last brush stroke on a painting, I send it to the client. I don't get attached to my paintings. They have to go where they belong,” he adds, concluding that an owner, by virtue of his immersion in the sport, should want a keepsake that requires an effort commensurate with his—that is, if the owner sees himself as a factor in a horse's success.

Which owner doesn't?

The life story of a horse owner, or an artist, is a story about hope and perseverance. Pauly's story has been written about before, but never from the viewpoint of how various chapters in his life influenced his personality and never with a clear understanding of how he came to be as he is. In a lot of ways, Pauly is overly careful and naïve, reluctant on hiring an agent, for example, in fear that the arrangement wouldn't end up in a satisfactory end. But in terms of his art, he's an assertive promoter with bulldog determination in finding customers.

The son of working class Chicagoans—a waitress and her parttime bookie bartender husband, to be specific— the artist purports to have been a normal baseball-playing, bike-riding boy with a desire to be a cop when growing up on the Northwest side of Chicago, the oldest in a family with three girls. Yet, there's little normal in the self-confidence

Pauly seems to have exhibited from the very day he took pencil to paper, and even less normal in the determination he exhibits when presenting himself and his artwork commercially.

“You could be the world's greatest artist but if all your paintings are in the basement nobody would ever know that,” Pauly said, about his aggressive promotional behavior. “I am always conscious of the possibility of selling whatever painting I do,” the artist said, referring also to those he makes as an exercise or while trying out a new technique.

Signs of Pauly's talent and his enterprising nature were evident early on. A reproduction of a Mad Magazine cartoon of President Richard M. Nixon was the first sketch that Pauly made at age 9. He was certain he could draw Nixon's likeness accurately before starting, and he did. To this day, he adds a cloud of freckles—three tiny dots— after his name at the bottom of his work as tribute to the Mad Magazine cartoonist Mort Drucker, who inspired him to draw.

He attended the same school that Walt Disney did and spent years drawing characters such as Mickey Mouse and comic book caricatures for fun. His conversion from hobbyist to working artist came on June 17, 1978, when, as fate would have it, he visited Sportsman's Park—a harness track similar to Maywood Park, which his pool-playing dad once advised him was “where only bad people go.” A few days after breaking his maiden in the sport, he created a portrait of the Standardbred Rusty Win and presented it to the owner, the father of a friend, who bought it. After that, he decided that all the other horses he would paint would meet a similar fate.

“I always wondered how my work would look had I gone to the Art Institute,” Pauly admits. But his self-taught technique seems sufficiently professional to command prices at the top of the market. “I'm very strong on my compositions,” Pauly answers when asked why a buyer might select him instead of another artist, crediting the French master

Edgar Degas for inspiring him to introduce cropping where it's least expected to bring the viewer closer into his subject.

The Orb painting he intends to sell Janney, for example, combines a pose the horse struck in front of the grandstand before wearing the garland of roses and standing in front of the tote board. Once finished, it will evoke a captivating perspective the owners remember but failed to ever experience, an embarrassment of riches in contrast to the stark efficiency of digital technology.

Where Pauly's art will take him from here depends in large part to how the sport develops. The repertoire he's chosen seems limiting—in most cases, a portrait of a specific horse has only one prospective buyer. Exploring subject matter that is broader in appeal than a great horse or jockey—say the images of barns and fields and dogs, in other words, the rural life—paintings that have appeal only to owners and insiders associated with it—is an option. Pauly admits, incidentally, that he'd like to improve his landscape painting skills. Regardless, he seems to have struck on a formula for painting and selling his work as it is.

“If there's one word to describe Tom Pauly, I'd say he's a 'kind' person,” said Nancy LaSala, president of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, an organization to which Pauly contributes actively. The artist helps the PDJF maintain a Facebook page and has contributed finished pieces of his artwork to serve in fund-raising. “He's one of those souls that you meet who enjoys every day in life. I admire that because I run in the rat race,” LaSala said. “As I travel the country on behalf of PDJF, people praise Tom's work and are impressed that he is working for us,” she said.

“When he does a painting his subject is always at ease. Even the horses seem to like him,” said Duchossois, three names or not.

Victor Edward Zast, aka Vic Zast in his byline and on Facebook and Twitter, is the author of The History and Art of 25 Travers. Beginning July 19, read his Saratoga Diary on story originally appeared in the Illinois Racing News.

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