The only thing that separated Jennifer Mack from the vast and unforgiving Namib Desert were the walls of a small hut. Outside, under a blanket of darkness, a feral herd of horses investigated her lone shed. “I could hear them breathing and blowing. Some would pop their heads into the window frame. It just blew my mind,” she recalls, nine years after that trip.
The intense heat. Prowling hyenas. The white crumbling rock and blue sky. The uninhabited plains and mud-cracked dirt. And, of course, the horses. The unfenced and treeless vistas enabled her to observe the horses’ natural behaviour. “There were young stallions, mares and foals. It was incredible to watch.”
Her seven months spent in southern Africa in a region of space and shifting dunes was a life-changing experience, taking her full circle back to her passion of painting horses. “It was simple and stark, but so rich in scenery. I knew then that I wanted to do nothing else but paint horses.”
From that experience, she painted her Desert and Firelight series. The canvases are bold and as intense as the desert heat, the red paint as searing as the scorching African sun, up against blue shadows. “The effect of red and blue is that they flicker. They shimmer like a mirage. The horses move. They are tumbleweeds of emotion, their spirits integrated into the landscape.”
Mack refuses to paint anything depicting violence, believing she has a responsibility to infuse the world with positive thoughts. “My paintings are peaceful. They may evoke excitement, but I don’t do wild and crazy. I paint emotion, to involve something inside of us that is not harmful.”
Working from her at-home studio in Calgary, she shows at the annual Spruce Meadows Equi-Fair in September, and past exhibits include shows in Saskatoon, Ontario and Quebec. Many of her clients are international, with much of her business stemming from her website at jmackfineart.com.
Mack’s affinity for equines began when she was a toddler, learning how to ride before she could walk. Her family farmed near Acme, and then at Cochrane, and kept several horses, including Appaloosas and Quarter horses. “And we had a mountain horse that dad found when he was out trail riding.”
If she wasn’t sitting in a saddle or showing in gymkhanas, Mack was drawing equines, referring to anatomy books and photographs. “The school bell would ring, and my teacher would let me stay and keep working on my poster of running horses. I worked on it for four classes.” She was in Grade 4.
Her plans were to be an architect, but her math skills weren’t strong. “And I kept building models of elaborate stables, so everything was still about the horse.”
Mack enrolled at the Alberta College of Art and Design, but was told to stop drawing horses and broaden her horizons. She didn’t know it at the time, but that advice sent her in a new direction which continues to shape her art. She went into textiles and ceramics, influenced by an instructor who studied in Japan for 22 years.
“My composition, simplicity and quality of craftsmanship all come from those standards with a Japanese flair.”
Whether the heat of the desert in her Firelight series, the softer sepias of her Dusty West images, or her strong India Ink Flash of Memory series, Mack invites viewers to use their imaginations in filling in canvas space. There are backdrops that fade into dreamscapes, washes that could be water, cloud, sun-bleached grasses or barren desert.
“The viewer gets to take a ride with that horse. They become invested in the painting. They are involved,” Mack said.
There is serenity in her acrylic paintings, spun from the power of the horse and the uncluttered landscapes that sets the viewer free to wander, to think, to dream. They are meditative scenes, an extension of Mack herself who has taken five trips to India for meditative purposes. She also has visited ashrams in upper New York State, and spiritual retreats such as Findhorn in Scotland.
“It seems I always end up in Holy places.”
And it is the retreat within her paintings that attracts buyers from around the world. “People are drawn to the feelings in my paintings, to the horse as an iconic symbol of spirit and freedom.”