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The Kentucky Derby’s Official Poster Artist: Susan Easton Burns

The thoroughbreds prance in place. Their potential energy is on the verge of explosion as their hot blood pumps its way through swollen veins. Their nostrils flare as they are led to the gates. The excitement is livid, yet—unbelievably—it is dwarfed.

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The lens pans out and they become blips on the radar. The crowd of over a hundred and fifty thousand sprawls out across the acreage of stands and infield. Zoom in. The crowd’s excitement is confused and merry. What is this celebration actually about? Horses? Oh, yeah. Ladies in sundresses sip mint juleps and men in their finest place bets.

The task of capturing the excitement of the Kentucky Derby is a formidable one, but every year one artist is depended upon to do so. He or she must put into life an expression of the derby for the official poster. This year, Susan Easton Burns was chosen for the assignment.

Grasping the intensity of the thoroughbreds was no challenge for Burns. From an early age, she understood the power—physical and emotional—of the horse. Her first memory of a horse left a strong sensory impression that she would carry into her adult life. She was only three years old. Leaning on the back of a chair, she stood gazing out the window. In an instant, an immense black horse, saddled and bridled but without a rider, appeared in the yard. It remained for a moment, looked back, and off it went. Just like that, a memory was created and a child became forever aware of the horse’s remarkable presence. Burns explains, “The horse is a huge, massive piece of flesh in an open environment, and it’s striking. I’m inspired by that.” Her paintings are an expression of her environment, and she gratefully acknowledges that the horse is a part of that which surrounds her.

To paint the derby, though, Burns had to escape from her own personal environment and paint horses into the chaotic backdrop of Churchill Downs on derby day. To do so meant knowing a lot about the culture surrounding the race. Countless hours of reading and research went in to creating the painting for the official poster. Her efforts paid off. By all accounts, she succeeded in capturing the exuberant energy of the crowd, the pounding power of the thoroughbreds, and the sense of place and time-honored tradition.

To view more of Burns’s work, visit her website or browse through Atelier Gallery, located in Charleston, SC.

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