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Copious Notes: Derby's official artist connects viewers to thrill of winning

Like many Thoroughbreds that have won the Run for the Roses, this year's official Kentucky Derby painting was born in the horse country in and around Lexington.

The inspiration started early mornings on the backstretch of Keeneland when Texas artist Lesley Humphrey would sit on the back of her Chevy Avalanche with her sketch pad, listening to Bach and waiting for majestic horses to emerge from the mist. It was informed by people whom she met on many trips to the Bluegrass who shared their passion for horses and racing. And it drew on the perseverance of all those who defied the odds to earn a place in the winner's circle.

And like many Derby champions, it wasn't the one that was supposed to win. Victory was more like the stablemate that beats the favorite to the winner's circle.

After being selected as the Derby artist for 2011, Humphrey went to work with Churchill Downs leaders, vetting an image of revelry and pageantry: women in pretty hats, men in natty suits, a veritable Mardi Gras.

But on the side, she was creating another image: a gray Thoroughbred striding toward the viewer with a fist-pumping jockey aboard and flanked by admirers in a burst of color.

That was ultimately the image that Churchill wanted to use for the Derby poster.

"I wanted the viewer of that painting to feel like the winner," Humphrey says. "When you look at it, the horse is coming to you — all of the colors, all of the passion — and the horse is coming to you in the winner's circle. I tried to imagine what that would feel like, because who of us are going to experience that? Very few.

"I drew on ideas I wanted the viewer to be connected to, and that we would all be connected by this race."

The party image created for the Derby became the Kentucky Oaks poster, and then she hit an artistic trifecta when Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear selected another Derby-inspired image, The Unfinished Race, for display at the Capitol during Derby festivities.

Painting the Derby's official image, Humphrey joins a distinguished list of artists including  Leroy Neimann, Peter Max, and even singer Tony Bennett, and that's something her friend Julie Buchanan says she knew would eventually happen.

"She's had her work in the queen of England's collection for years, and the equine community took notice of her a while ago," says Buchanan, former executive director of the American Academy of Equine Art. "For the regular populace that might not be aware of her, it is a great introduction."

People who want more of an introduction to Humphrey's work can attend an event presented by Art Village, of which Buchanan is executive director. Humphrey will give viewers a glimpse into her process by viewing a scene and then explaining the choices she is making in representing it.

"She is one of those artists who is always evolving," Buchanan says. "She lets her instincts lead her along and she is able to capture the literal atmosphere of an event, whatever the event is."

For Humphrey, the process involves a little brain splitting, where she will initially try to find the intention of an image, and then switch into a very interpretive mode to find the best way to represent that intention.

"I yield to the abstraction," Humphrey says. "I yield to the idea. Even, sometimes, words come to me, and I carve them into the paint. I yield to the process of art and the abstraction, and then my job as an artist is to come back into my left brain again and organize it in a way that it will hold together.

"I know when my left brain is out, and I know when my right brain is out. My left brain I think of as like a conductor. It's black-and-white, organizes everything and keeps everything in line. And then the composer part comes out and there's that sense of play and responding to the original intention."

Horses have been a part of Humphrey's life and art since she was a little girl in Lancashire, England. Her early equine experiences were show horses and eventing. She was introduced to Thoroughbred racing when she came to the United States, married her husband, Larry Humphrey, and settled in Texas, northwest of Houston.

She got a job as an office manager at a stud farm and racing facility in Crest, Texas, and even got a chance to ride a champion Thoroughbred.

"I thought I was going to die," Humphrey says. "So I do know what it's like to go down a track at full gallop on a massive, 17-hand Thoroughbred."

That was the introduction, but Lexington was her full immersion into horse racing and culture. The Bluegrass has become a part of her life; her two daughters have attended Transylvania University. Her older, Lauren, went on from Transy to earn a master's degree in art business at Sotheby's Art Institute in London, and her younger daughter, Ashley, graduates from Transy next month.

Buchanan, who brought Humphrey in to teach at the Academy of Equine Art, recalls Humphrey was persistent about gaining access to people and farms and settings that would inform and inspire her work.

"Several of the patrons who purchased my work opened up their homes and their lives to me," Humphrey says, citing friends such as John Paul and Judy Miller and Johnny and Donna Ward, whose filly Dancing in Her Dreams is an Oaks hopeful. "They show me their lives."

And in turn, Humphrey shows us her unique view of the horse-racing world.