Olympian Kerry Millikin Trades Saddle and Bridle for Clay and Paint

To The Post. Sculpture by Kerry Millikin.

To The Post. Sculpture by Kerry Millikin.

U.S. Olympian Kerry Millikin always felt that riding and showing a horse at its best is an art form. Although she no longer competes, she still strives to portray the same beauty of movement and athleticism through art. She paints life-like landscapes, and her bronze sculptures are a showcase of the intensity and emotion of equestrian sport.

“I’m always trying to create the electric feeling of say jumping down a six foot drop into water. That sensation, that passion, the feeling, the movement. In the dressage it was the complexity and elegance of the horse and rider I am always trying to emulate,” she said.

Kerry always loved art but pursued a more conventional degree in nursing while she was competing on the international eventing stage. Among the many accomplishments for her and her off-track Thoroughbred Out and About was an individual bronze medal at the 1996 Olympic Games, team bronze at the 1998 World Equestrian Games and team gold at the 1999 Pan American Games. Kerry turned towards art once more after retiring “Outie,” using her years of experience working with animals as a creative guide.

“Riding was an art form for me. It was a performance. It’s beautiful and aesthetically pleasing to see a horse galloping and jumping correctly. It was an art form to me to show off how beautiful and athletic these athletes are. Transferring that elegance and form into art is how I can show my appreciation and love of these athletes.”

In The Air. Sculpture by Kerry Millikin.

In The Air. Sculpture by Kerry Millikin.

Kerry’s upbringing and eventing career positioned her well for her current career. Her mother was a dog breeder and trainer, and she and her sister Liz spent time on the racetrack with their mother from an early age. She describes it as a “lifelong study of the form and function of animals and athletes.”

“I always took care of my own horses. I put my hands down their legs every day and knew their anatomy and conformation. I knew how things were supposed to be put together and move. It’s not that that’s easy to transfer to sculpting. Every time they move different muscles contract and it’s challenging to put that into a 3D piece and get all the angles correct.”

The Lost Wax Process

Kerry uses the lost wax process to create her sculptures. Using an oil based clay that doesn’t dry out, she molds the clay to look like a leaping horse, a playful pup, a balanced dancer. She then transports the clay from her home in Massachusetts to New Art Foundry in Baltimore. Several layers of a rubber composite and then a plastic is painted over the clay until it is several times larger than the original piece.

Heated wax is then poured into the mold and separated when cool. A lot of detail can be lost during this process so the artist will work the wax until they are satisfied. “You make the clay as perfect as you can get it, but there is always something lost along the way,” Kerry lamented. “People don’t notice it, but the artist always does.”

When the artist is finished with the wax, it is outfitted with gates, or vents, dipped in a liquid as a protective shell and the wax is then melted out, or “lost.” The final step is pouring molten bronze into the casing. The foundry and artist work together at various stages after the pour to cover up evidence of the gates or imperfections and make final touch ups.

Kerry said she didn’t realize early on how much labor went into making bronzes, but like most riders, she is “used to hard work.”

Play Ball. Sculpture by Kerry Millikin.

Play Ball. Sculpture by Kerry Millikin.

Making a Sculpture ‘Move’

Before Kerry even begins a new piece she takes many photographs of a subject, capturing them from every angle so she can be sure to get the details just right. Then she will spend up to 40 hours or more on the clay, attempting to animate the object and bring it to life.

One of her favorite bronzes is Play Ball, an ode to her lab, Stogie, whom she lost last year. Another is To The Post, portraying a racehorse and jockey galloping to the start of a race. The forward movement of the horse makes it look like it will gallop off the table at any moment, and you can just imagine picking up the ball to toss for the patiently waiting Stogie.

Kerry says she “branching out” and sculpting human figures, seeking the same illusion of movement like what emerges in the grace and flexibility of Half Moon Dancer. The same amount of attention to detail and realism is evident in Kerry’s paintings, which often depict a beautiful landscape you can practically step into.

Kerry accepts commissions for clients; she made the USEA Hall of Fame trophies for the induction ceremonies last year. One piece she described with an obvious smile over the phone is All Ears, a trophy featuring Mike Huber with his dog and a young rider on a horse, going over the upcoming course.

Kerry is enjoying time at home working on her art but she is still active in the eventing community as a USEF Eventing Team selector and a current member of the USEF Eventing Committee and USEA Competitions Calendar and Rules Committee.

Many thanks to Kerry for allowing us to share some of her favorite bronzes here on EN. To see more of her work or to contact her for commissions, visit her website.