Artist Cherryl Pape finds pastels perfect for depicting the open landscapes and billowing clouds of the American West. All that dust.
In her practiced hand, pastels also have precision. The wild mustangs in her current exhibition at Palo Alto's Hotel California are meticulously detailed, from their flaring nostrils and wide eyes to torsos and legs with finely defined ribs and joints.
The Palo Alto artist's passion over the treatment of America's wild horses is evident in every pastel painting. So is her background as a scientific illustrator. She's been drawing wild things for decades.
After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute with a degree in painting, Pape worked at the California Academy of Sciences, zeroing in on fins and scales to draw fish for scientific publications. She also illustrated 1970s children's books in the Harper Collins "Science I Can Read" series. Barn owls, all wide dark eyes, peer from the pages, and elephant seals lounge mightily.
When a friend's husband commissioned her to paint two of his thoroughbred horses a few years ago, Pape wasn't fazed. "I thought if you could do fish, you could do anything," she said.
Horses proved trickier. Special training from the Redwood City horse and portrait painter Elizabeth Mihalyi helped, and Pape also lived in New Zealand for a time painting the horses there.
"I went to the races, and I sketched and drew them in their paddocks," she said. "It's just a fantastic beauty."
But Pape didn't realize there could also be a poignancy to horses' beauty until recently, when a friend sent her a photo of trail horses in Bodie, Calif. She began to learn about and support the work being done by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a North Carolina nonprofit that seeks to call attention to the shrinking population of wild horses and burros.
Over the centuries, the animals have been used as war horses and in farming, or simply allowed to run free. Today they often have to make room for more domesticated animals to graze. A campaign brochure states there were once millions of wild horses in the West, while today the number is less than 33,000.
The nonprofit opposes many of the ways the federal government manages the herd numbers. Pape is particularly vocal in her criticism of helicopters to round up wild horses. In one of her paintings, a helicopter looms overhead as a frightened herd stampedes.
In another, a wild-eyed stallion throws himself at a fence in a holding corral in Wyoming. The horse later escaped, Pape said.
Pape wasn't there to witness these scenes; she paints from photographs of wild horses, with permission from the photographers. Most of the photos she used in the current show are from the 2009 Dayton O. Hyde book "All The Wild Horses: Preserving the Spirit and Beauty of the World's Wild Horses," with photography by Rita and Charles G. Summers. Some paintings are also based on photos by Mark Terrell.
The pastel paintings themselves are vivid and energetic, often featuring bold touches of color. Even in the peaceful 2013 painting "Wild Foal Dreaming," the pale young horse is silhouetted against a lush green field.
Other works are drawn on the colorful backgrounds of green or blue pastel paper. Clouds grow in bright shapes, and a sky sometimes has a red line running through it. "I call that my angst about what's happening to them," Pape said of the horses.
The exhibition is part of the community-sites program of the Pacific Art League, where Pape has been active for years. On another floor of the Hotel California is a different art-league show: Amy Rattner's animal-themed watercolors that feature cheerful dogs, elephants and other creatures.
This show is Pape's first solo exhibit of her wild-horse paintings, and she's hoping the show will travel after it closes at the hotel on Jan. 15. She's looking at college and office locations, seeking to spread the word about her cause.
"I wanted to portray the beauty and the stamina and the musculature of these beautiful creatures," she said. "They're wild and they're free and they belong to the land. They belong in America."
Info: Cherryl Pape's "Wild Mustangs" show is up through Jan. 15 at the Hotel California, 2431 Ash St., Palo Alto. Visitors can take the steps upstairs past the hotel office to see the art on the walls. For more about Pape's work, go to cherrylpapeart.com.