[Mis]Understanding Art

"Filter", Sophy Browm, 36x40 inches, mixed media

I was recently asked to write a response to a person who was upset by Sophy Brown’s depiction of horses that we are showing in this year’s Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale. This was a bit of a head-scratcher for me; how were Sophy’s unique, thought provoking paintings of horses upsetting? Sure, you have to dig a little deeper for meaning, maybe ask some questions…perhaps get a little more of the backstory but what’s so troubling about that? Heck, I could give her context galore! 

So, I tackled her grievance head on and wrote: 

No horses were harmed in the creation of this work!

I went on to talk about how Sophy grew up in England, the land of great equine artists such as Munnings and Wootton and Seymore. And how she herself was a horsewoman, dedicated to the welfare of horses!

Then I hesitated. Was this person really interested in art or was she simply wanting to vent a preordained opinion? 

Alfred Munnings Horse Racing
"Lord Astor's High Stakes with Sir Gordon Richards Up at Newmarket", Sir Alfred Munnings, 20.5x27 inches

Ah, yes. Hope springs eternal.

I decided to take a chance–at this point, I was kind of on a roll–and went on to explain that, not only were Sophy’s paintings anything but an aggrandizement of the abuse of horses, they were actually not about horses at all.

Sophy Brown’s paintings were, in fact, self-portraits. 

I realized this was a lot to take in, especially for someone who most likely searches for literal meaning in art, but it is the key ingredient to accurately viewing Sophy’s work. Seeing horses in difficult predicaments is tough, I agree, but I thought if she knew these works, for the most part, are figments of the artist’s imagination and, more importantly, that they are an outward representation of her very real inward pain, grief, anger, sorrow emanating from a place of unfathomable loss, perhaps she’d register some understanding beyond her own limited vision? 

Real art conveys emotions, truth, feelings

At some point in writing this response to a person I have never met, and for all I know, has no interest in art but, as I mentioned earlier, probably just wanted to vent, I realized that this was a much larger conversation and one that probably wouldn’t be well received via email. 

And yet I went on, talking about how the manifestation of grief could be seen on the surfaces of Sophy’s work–thrown paint splatter and dripping down the canvases,  spray paint obliterating aspects of the work, and carved mark making peeling and pulling away at the layers.

"Coverage", Sophy Brown, 48 x 62.5 inches, mixed media

Indeed, some of Sophy’s paintings from two and three years ago, when she first went back into her studio after so much debilitating loss, were pure madness, pure emotion. Pure art.

As a curator, my job is to put together a collection of fine art. I’m sure there are many definitions of fine art but an important aspect, in my mind, is that it is a reflection of the artist’s soul. Patrons know it when they see it because it stirs emotion inside. This emotion has propelled viewers, at times, to try to destroy great works of art, I think, as a way to escape feeling so deeply. But for me, I know I’ve put together a truly important collection of work when patrons are moved by the feelings stirred inside them.

As I concluded my letter, I asked this woman to go back, now armed with context, and take another look at Sophy’s work. Here’s her response:

Dear Ms. Fredrick,

Thank you for getting back to me.  I can only imagine her loss.  We will have to agree to disagree on fine art vs the glorification of animal abuse.  I still feel the way I do about her pieces on the site.

Have a Merry Christmas.

"Lockdown", Sophy Brown, 20 x 18.5 inches, mixed media


Agree to disagree?

Merry Christmas?!



“You,” I wrote back, “have a cold, cold heart.”


Don’t worry, I didn’t hit send because, honestly,  would it have mattered?

She never would have understood that we all carry our own baggage into every experience. To accurately interpret art, the viewer has to be aware of this and then get out of the way and let the art speak. Sophy isn’t asking anyone to like her work; it is hers alone, her heart, her soul. She is not creating for an audience; she is creating to find meaning in this messed up world.

All we need to remember is what a privilege it is to bear witness.

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

11 thoughts on “[Mis]Understanding Art

  1. hi Rose,
    Thank you so much for the years of service you have done for so many and so thoughtful. You put a lot of joy into the world.

    Happy new year and let’s build great things from the lessons of 2020.

  2. Elwyn

    Is depicting “animal abuse”, animal abuse? Or has her “cause” hypnotized her mind into seeing and believing something she will never understand. Cold heart you say… frozen brain, I say. The purity that lies beneath the surface of Shophy’s work is profound and people like this will never see it through their bloodshot eyes.

  3. Karen Roehl

    Beautifully written, Rose, and enjoyed the little punctuations of humor : ) Who knows what someone else’s triggers are. Perhaps she disagrees now, but maybe your insight into Sophy’s heart planted a little seed that will sprout new ideas and ways to see things – one of arts greatest gifts!

    • Thanks, Karen. I think you’re so right—who does know what triggers someone? Maybe she will give it some thought. I’m not sure she was all that interested in a conversation. It is fun to talk to artists about this, though, so I guess something good came out of it.

  4. Excellent reply, Rose. All artists go through phases of interpretation & experimentation. Art should not mimic a photo, it should include something of the maker – maybe ALOT of the maker.

  5. Sean Hannigan

    I think there are people that create and live within a binary system of rules. This is right. This is wrong. These are the lines. The rules. Good. Evil.

    Your response, it seems to me, hopes to expand her understanding beyond the simple yes or no.

    Art explores yes and no, yes and but and also and however and because and I don’t know. It manifests the chaos of creation because it is creation.

    And seeing and apprehending and being moved by creation obviously adds value to our lives. But this awareness, and need and craving is wired into some of us, I think, more strongly than others.

    We probably need binary people, but as we can see from our politics, that singularity can burn red hot and overheated when it gets fed enough gas.

    Art says, but look, but hear, but think and feel, but there’s more and there’s death, the passing of time and these moments.

    I agree with your idea to try explain that there’s so much more going on in a work of art. You’re trying to expand their field of vision and articulate some of your own, and I think you’re right about it.

    But your experience made me think of how hard it is to convince someone of the value of a full, rich contradictory, multi-faced experience when they’re hard wired values are it’s either this or that.

    I don’t know how, except little by little, we bridge that gap. I know some of us just crave to swim in the expansive act of creation and catch more glimpses of revelation.

    It’s sort of circulatory, and maybe even ironic, but it seems to me the number one way we try and bridge that gap is through art, through the creative works themselves.

    You tried Rose, but as the old saying goes: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make ’em drink.

    Because that actually would be abuse.

    • Ha! So true. It does get under your skin though, when people just aren’t open to listening or even trying. It feels like such a shallow existence to live in a world without real art to help us see and feel different experiences or bridge worlds.

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