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Sam Robinson: Artist wins race to capture state’s sporting art at Million, beyond

For all his years as a National Steeplechase Association starter, Clay Baldwin had never seen this: There in the broad green distance of the My Lady’s Manor course in Monkton, between fences, between races, a young couple fully clothed sank into the cool grass and earnestly started making out.

Baldwin approached the sweethearts, the guy on his back, the gal straddling, advised them of the impropriety and had them escorted away. The 2015 races proceeded absent other wanton oddities.

As a pickup truck bounded over a hilltop a year later, taking NSA officials down to the launch of the opening race of the 2016 My Lady’s Manor, Baldwin’s thoughts flashed to the amorous youths, and how long it might take to discover a race-day affair so peculiar. The answer grew before him.

“It wasn’t just me; it was everyone in the truck,” Baldwin said. “We were like, ‘Oh sh--.’ ”

Toward a hollow, near the starting area framed by woods and fence, stood a man at an easel bearing a large white canvas.

Race after captivating race, horse and rider lunge headlong toward the unknown; so too the sporting artist. Sam Robinson had prepped well for this engagement at My Lady’s Manor, consulting event organizer Turney McKnight as to proper clearance and apt positioning to paint horses in those expectant moments before they set off.

“I thought I had iced it,” Robinson said. “I had the main guy who said I was good, and I’d been on the course before.”

Then came the truck, and starter Baldwin’s determined stride. “I could tell he’s aghast,” Robinson said, working a smile.

An artist willingly invites scrutiny. Robinson discovered that steeplechase courses, and later racetracks, sometimes prompt reaction before color meets canvas.

Baldwin placidly explained that painter and easel so close to the starting point could cause a horse fright or distraction. He asked Robinson to move back a distance, saying later, “He was great about it.”

“That’s his job,” Robinson said. “I’m not gonna wrangle with him. If it doesn’t seem safe to him, then I don’t want to be there. . . He couldn’t have been nicer.”

Before displacement, Robinson had sketched in portions of a hilly Monkton landscape edged by trees that implied a bashful spring. 

Afterward, he laughed about juxtaposition: The heralded Easton, Md., competitions he’d entered for painters of plein-air pictures – landscapes and other scenes painted outdoors, on location – required an invitation and a jury review for inclusion. Race courses at times engendered other rigorous scrutiny.

With official blessings, Robinson photographed the My Lady’s Manor prerace movements and finished the oil painting, Starters Orders, in his Owings Mills studio. He often produces larger-scale works this way, completing canvases after-the-fact from photographic composites, but relishes the smaller plein-air creations briskly painted with gouache, a fast-drying opaque watercolor that mimics oil.

Cricket Goodall, Maryland Million executive director, first saw Robinson ply this brush-bustling technique at a Sagamore Farm visitors’ day a few years ago and found the impressionistic output provocative – presently and potentially.

“In the beginning, it was just, ‘Hey, I love your stuff,’ and ‘Wow, you can paint this really wonderful painting in an hour and half,’ ” Goodall said. Then came inspiration: “Maybe we can introduce him to breeders in hopes that he would find those scenic views of breeding farms and the flat-racing side of it as interesting as he was finding the steeplechase world.”

Acquaintances made, Goodall also arranged for Robinson to paint Maryland Million Day doings on location starting 2014, both to commemorate the event and to fundraise for horse-industry and land-preservation causes. His exposure thus enhanced, Robinson typically shares half of these cooperative proceeds with said interests.

“A symbiotic relationship, I guess,” Goodall said. “We were helping him broaden his potential clients, and he was helping us show a side of the industry in a very lovely way that sometimes doesn’t get shown.”

Given occurrences at My Lady’s Manor, Robinson favored anchoring an easel trackside. “It’s nice to be at a major event and have people not wondering what you’re doing,” he said. “They’re, like, happy to set up a tent for you or give you a table. It’s kind of cool to be appreciated.”

During a July exhibit of Robinson’s sporting-art works at Halcyon House Antiques in Lutherville, appreciation moved wall to wall with craning looks, approving words, extended study. The five dozen pieces on display featured the breadth of his “painterly realism,” studies of color, light, expression, brushwork and composition, and of subjects: racing action, backstretch labors, farm scenes, sales pavilions, human and equine portraits.

Captured subjects captured viewers, whose words conveyed Robinson’s artistic subtext: “My God, the definition” of American Pharoah on the path to a morning gallop, the muscle at his right flank rippling with relief-map texture in Good Morning Pimlico. “Wasn’t easy getting the tack on that one” as a steeplechase trainer tries to cinch a girth on a feisty bay in Saddling Paddock. “You can feel the warmth on his back” as a sun-splashed groom sponges the left flank of a languid blaze-faced chestnut in Wash Down.

As the reception ended, Goodall bought Bright Eyed, a gouache of a shaggy-maned, white-faced chestnut foal bending toward sunshine, its dark brown dam vague but close by, the pasture grass behind them tinted yellow and taupe from a new spring tramping.

“It does have realistic tones . . . and yet it’s a looser style,” Goodall said. “I don’t know what that’s called, but I like it.”

“There are hints of [impressionism] to his style, but it’s really fairly realistic. I don’t think I can put a label on it, per se,” said Stiles T. Colwill, the Halcyon House co-owner who’s organized several shows for Robinson. “He is capturing moments, and they’re moments, if you’re in the horse world, that you instantly recognize. Fleeting moments that he is capturing as memories.”

Colwill drew to Robinson’s work years ago as judge for The Valleys Planning Council’s biannual art show. Given to thoroughness, Colwill reviewed the entries days before and so marveled at a Robinson painting of steeplechase trainer Joe Davies bathing a Maryland Hunt Cup runner that he bought it.

“I saw a picture, and I fell in love with it,” Colwill said. “Joe Davies is throwing a bucket of water toward the horse. I kept trying to figure out how he captured that moment so well.”

The answer sketches out of South Korea, where Robinson spent most of his youth. Both grandfathers had become clergymen, and his parents served as medical missionaries through the Presbyterian Church. Robinson left Maryland for Korea in 1960 as a first-grader and soon drew insight and sustenance from the ancient art of Asian brush painting.

From a studio sideboard he pulled one of his earliest childhood works, a floral on paper of mulberry leaves showing hues of black and gray and precocity. You paint them on the floor, kneeling, he said, using long brushes and ink stones.

“It’s a very formal style: You copy again and again and again from your teacher until you get that down . . . It was an interesting way to begin.”

 His parents getting one-year furloughs, Robinson returned for sixth and 11th grades to Burnside, the Greenspring Valley resort that his mother’s family, the Shoemakers, had established in the mid-1800s. The Valley served as a shady summer retreat then, a railway outpost for the urban well-to-do like Robinson’s great-great grandfather, a shipping magnate.

Great-great grandad’s son, Sam Shoemaker, used his family fortune to convert Burnside to a year-round residence and corresponding dairy farm. After World War II, the family razed outbuildings, disbanded the dairy herd and most of the farm’s 600 acres: Robinson has a home (with wife Barbara) and studio there, and his brother a lot.

Absent direct evidence, Robinson thinks his ancestors must have ridden; foxhunters ruled the Valley then, and the Shoemakers proper raised Hackney stallions to perpetuate their carriage-driving fleet. A framed, time-bleached photo on the foyer wall of Robinson’s studio shows grandfather Shoemaker as a boy with a Hackney pony; below that, a shadowbox of horse-show ribbons, well preserved given the date stamp – 1903 – and other horse-related artifacts.

“I certainly didn’t grow up riding or anything, but there’s a piece of that in the thread of the family tradition. It goes back in the pedigree,” Robinson said. “But, curiously, I ignored that totally for years. It didn’t occur to me to paint any of that at all.”

Life in Korea likely aided that suppression. Robinson’s father, an obstetrician/gynecologist, taught and practiced medicine in Seoul, and the family shared a compound with other Presbyterian missionaries enjoying an American lifestyle in a foreign land. “We got to know the [Korean] culture,” Robinson said, “but we didn’t live it.”

The Korean style of painting was another matter. “Definitely informed my artistic interests,” he said. 

Robinson graduated from high school in Seoul, returned to the states and eventually co-founded Valley Craftsmen doing larger-scale painted interiors – or, as he put it, “the architectural interior application of special painted effects.” Wooden columns made to look like marble, oversize murals that tell a story or evoke a mood, a windowless space painted as a room with a view.

As Valley Craftsmen grew to gross a million dollars yearly, Robinson sought enrichment elsewhere – from the Asian technique that influenced and still compelled him. He cast this romance as “a deep, consistent interest in the brush mark.”

His family, in a sense, led Robinson back to this organic style. Around 2000, at wife Barbara’s asking, he did portraits of son Lehm and daughter Sallie. Word suffused the Valley. George Mahoney Jr., a joint master at Green Spring Hounds, commissioned a portrait of his foxhunting son. 

“So I went out one morning early to one of the hunt meets up in the Valley there, and that was incredible,” Robinson said. “I was like, ‘I cannot believe I have not been following this.’ An awakening. I mean, I was just dazzled by this thing.”

Horses maneuvering across splendid rural landscapes moved him closer to the works he aimed to do, the smaller, free-wheeling, plein-air pieces that rely on brushstrokes to imply subjects. This new essay, he discovered, required a delicate sense of equipoise.

“A subject like sporting art has a certain balance between the expressive qualities, the purely artistic concerns that I might have and that relationship with the audience,” Robinson said. “If you can barely tell it’s a horse, why would they want that? I really do want to have a strong sense of the anatomy and things like that, and yet I value that brushy suggestion of things.”

He acknowledged the challenge of learning to paint horses in all manner of movement; that is, to faithfully represent them to horse people keen on conformation, proportion and context. 

“You’re tackling a new subject about which you know nothing,” he said. “So I’d see something I’d think was really cool, and I would find out later that that was, like, wrong. Nobody wants a horse that’s got his ears laid back. . . So it took me a while to understand this sport, what’s interesting, what’s going on beyond the fact that it’s visually exciting.”

The Halcyon House show reflected Robinson’s vast and varied palette. Merryland, Shamrock and Summer Wind affirm the pastoral beauty of Maryland’s Thoroughbred farms. Spring Skies aligns eight galloping horses dwarfed amid sprawling tree-topped hills and a tumbling sky. Fording Western Run depicts the lead of three foxhunters navigating his mount through a knee-deep stream, the water cast in green-violet-teal essence and framed by craggy, leafless trees. Study for King offers an impressionistic yet unmistakable profile of Hall of Fame trainer Leatherbury. Handle With Care shows a farmhand supporting a brown, haltered, blaze-faced foal somewhat astonished by the world. Fire In Motion features poses of stallion Friesan Fire, presented as three horses, being led past the white-and-red stables of Country Life Farm. 

 “The work has matured for me,” Robinson said. “It’s not about selling as many as I can. It’s about telling the story.”

The Halcyon show thus included the paintings Five Gallon Pails, in which an everyday stablehand lugs two water buckets, his forearms taut and tense at the weight, and Blacksmith, whose working toil manifests through bent-waist contortion. And, yes, a gouache of a burly, red-necked, brown-gray-black-white turkey titled Mascot.

“You know, they’re grazing expensive Thoroughbreds right next to the turkey,” Robinson said. “And he acts like he’s the most important thing out there.”

Less likely to sell for their subjects’ relative anonymity, these paintings mark the ways Robinson now stretches the canvas. “For reasons that aren’t especially rational, the subject has really grabbed me,” he said, meaning the ever-sprawling horse-related spectacle. “There’s something deeply intriguing about this, and I’m still trying to get at it.”

Across the ages, brush-wielding eccentrics have brought color and texture to the painting world beyond their masterpieces. 

In the 1600s, Caravaggio allegedly toasted a finished work with drunken swordfights. In the 1800s, Richard Dadd took a razor and fatally slashed his father, whom he thought the devil. In the 1900s, Salvador Dali reportedly underwent an exorcism, and Van Gogh somehow lost an ear.

Interviews at his studio and art show rendered Robinson grounded, steady and rational, patient and affable, a practicing realist who’s emerged as one of the region’s few accomplished and respected sporting artists. His manner, like his work, lacks affectation: He carries his painting gear in a black and red backpack and implies that this burgeoning affair with sporting art has evoked a mutual embrace.

 Of the majesty of the horse: “If you’re outdoors and a really fit Thoroughbred walks by, that’s a moment worth capturing.”

Of his de facto status as exclusive painter of the Maryland horse industry: “I’m kind of like a weird version of the press.”

Of the pulse-raising spectacle of the race: “I can completely see why people are, like, stoned on it.”

At the 2015 Maryland Million, Robinson positioned his easel on Laurel Park’s grandstand apron to paint a plein-air race scene. An obvious question: Even in a 90-minute work, how can you capture horses moving so quickly? As Robinson set about the task, racing fans gathered for the answer.

First he addressed stationary objects: tan-colored barns beyond the far turn, distant green-leaf trees far beyond and a conspicuous white water tower in between; the brown-dirt racetrack, white and shadowed rails, a glimpse of the turf course and of gray-white canopied tents. Then a once-blue sky overtaken by brooding clouds, and a sketchy-colored mass of onlookers beyond the outside rail.

“That was kinda fun,” he said. “I had it all blocked in; it was lookin’ pretty good, and I put my brush down. People were watchin’ me paint. One of them said, ‘What are you looking for?’ I said, ‘I’m looking for the horses to come around.’

“So they come around again – I’m basically talking about horses that are a quarter of an inch tall. So I’m just trying to gauge their scale and get a sense of what was going on – somebody leading by a lot of lengths, or a nice little group. So they come by, and I just watch carefully and try to judge things. And when they’re gone, I got out my brush and knocked in a little group of horses and jockeys.”

The corresponding work, Final Turn MD Million, spanned a compact 8-by-10-inch canvas for reasons advantageous to the undertaking. 

“For one thing, when things are small, a brush mark counts for more – you know, a dot can be a person in the distance,” Robinson said. “Secondly, you’re trying to coordinate so much information, that’s just gonna go a lot better if you narrow your scale.”

At this year’s Million, he plans to set up near the paddock – maybe overlooking it, maybe along the wooden risers on the clubhouse side. That would afford a look out through white wooden porticoes into the soft autumn light.

In this and other ways, Robinson continues to study his subject in different profiles. Which explains why, on a race-less day last fall without horse or human evident, he ventured far beyond the finish line to paint a side of Pimlico rarely seen. The Baltimore track gets blanket coverage Preakness Day, he said, when stands and infield teem; now it would be shown in the nude.

Better yet, the scene would evoke the epitome of plein-air painting: everything static but the sun and certain pillowy clouds. Robinson had a credential granting him access. He set up his easel and readied his tools.

Off Season Pimlico peers down the vacant, yawning, harrowed dirt homestretch from the cusp of the clubhouse turn, tiny leafy green trees straightaway in the distance, shadowy-white outdoor stands close to the left, the red-edged, glass-faced clubhouse farther down.

Robinson might have finished the painting on-site, as planned. But a Pimlico security guard happened out toward the clubhouse turn, spotted a man with an easel bearing a small white canvas, approached him with determined strides and told him to leave.

Click here to view the 2016 Maryland Million Souvenir Guide