Arts·The World Of

This artist is transforming ordinary toy ponies into a statement on the human condition

They started as ordinary toy ponies, but under Diana Thorneycroft's hand these sculptures of "grotesque, wondrous mutants" raise questions about the human condition and disability. Get a look at Herd, the Winnipeg artist's latest project.

When Diana Thorneycroft threw a toy pony in the oven, she didn't expect to open a discussion about disability

Diana Thorneycroft. Installation view of Herd at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, 2016. (Diana Thorneycroft; Photo: Willy Waterton)

It's a stampede in miniature. More than 150 tiny plastic horses appear frozen, mid-gallop, charging up a 40-foot ramp in the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ont., and in with the glossy toy thoroughbreds are 77 animals you'd never find grazing in Barbie's backyard.

Diana Thorneycroft. Installation view of Herd at Tom Thomson Art Gallery, 2016. (Diana Thorneycroft; Photo: Willy Waterton)

There are horses with tongues as long and winding as their manes, horses that have been moulded and maimed — and repaired and decorated — beyond recognition.

They're all part of the same beautiful group, though, and they're the focal point of Herd, the latest exhibition from Diana Thorneycroft.

The Winnipeg artist won the Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction last month, and while her current obsession is horses, for the past 10 years it's been sacred cows. In popular, darkly comic photo series such as Group of Seven Awkward Moments and Canadiana Martyrdomshe's questioned Canadian identity and killed our CanCon idols. Those projects are on hold as the Herd continues to grow, and Thorneycroft continues to create more of what she describes as "grotesque, wondrous mutants." An accompanying photo project, a series featuring the "The Herdsmen" — humanoid caretakers with unsettling and ambiguous motives — is expanding along with the stable thanks to a 2016 Major Arts Grant from the Manitoba Arts Council.

Diana Thorneycroft. Woodsman (wood gatherer and amputator), 2015. (Diana Thorneycroft; Photo: Willy Waterton)

But why the sudden Herd mentality?

Thorneycroft shares the story with CBC Arts as she prepares to move (migrate?) the installation to more Canadian galleries this fall. (Exhibitions in Ottawa and Burlington, Ont. are already confirmed.) Turns out Thorneycroft's first horse sculpture was a bit of a fluke, or maybe that's the wrong way to put it. As the saying goes, nature doesn't make mistakes.

Diana Thorneycroft. Installation view of Herd, Tom Thomson Art Gallery, 2016. (Diana Thorneycroft; Photo: Willy Waterton)

Horse? Of course!

As a subject, horses are a classic choice. "Art historically, it's an amazing animal," Thorneycroft explains. "It's seen from antiquity to contemporary art," and as a stand-in for the human condition, it's a rich symbol. They're powerful animals, but break a leg and it's curtains — and their fragile nature is especially profound in a collection like Herd, where these seemingly pained sculptures persevere with the rest of the pack despite, say, a rump full of nails. 

Diana Thorneycroft. Let the Sorrow Set In, 2015. (Diana Thorneycroft)

Horses are also just a practical choice, at least for Thorneycroft. She's an artist whose toolbox could also double as a toybox, so she naturally had a few little ponies around the studio.

Origins of an obsession

"I had started collecting these horses not knowing really what I was going to do," says Thorneycroft, thinking back to the beginnings of the project in 2012. Doll parts have appeared in her work for decades, through the four Canadiana series, right back to her black-and-white self-portraits of the '90s.

"I can get them everywhere, especially on eBay," she laughs, talking about her made-by-Mattel horses, a collection that didn't go unnoticed by her studio-mates, Governor General's Award-winning artists Aganetha Dyck and Reva Stone. When Dyck suggested the three of them collaborate on a new project, they chose the toys as a starting point.

Diana Thorneycroft. Installation view of Herd, Tom Thomson Art Gallery, 2016. (Diana Thorneycroft; Photo: Willy Waterton)

"Aganetha stopped and I just continued and continued and continued and I just became obsessed. Really, within that time I've done close to 100 altered horses."

Easy-bake art

It all started when she decided to throw one in the oven. Yes, the oven — and no, don't try it at home.

"I had covered this horse with Sculpey," Thorneycroft says of her earliest experiment, and as regular Michaels shoppers know, Sculpey clay needs to be baked. Plastic horses, however, don't thrive at 275 degrees, so when she pulled out her work, the Sculpey was cracked and its horsey innards were molten.

Diana Thorneycroft. Tripod, 2013. (Diana Thorneycroft)

"But the melted horse was exquisite, it got even more weird!" Thorneycroft recalls, and despite the fumes and the high threat of scalding, she was inspired.

"There was so much I could do with each one," she says, and the project's potential opened up to her. She says she began exploring questions about disability, "though people are reluctant to use the word," researching topics as diverse as turn-of-the-century sideshows and the maiming of child beggars.  

Diana Thorneycroft. Horse with Bridle, 2015. (Diana Thorneycroft)

"There's a lot of discourse about disability theory and the politics of staring and it's just really opened up a new world… learning about the spectacle of difference," she says. "And my horses embody that. Each horse is a spectacle."

Unusually beautiful

"I cover them with fabric or I cut their limbs off, I add prosthetics," says Thorneycroft, who also spends hours drawing meticulous designs on their plastic hides and adorning them with clay and even animal hair and dried insects. Each horse is unique, but they're all similarly defiant. Nearly every animal sticks out its tongue — whether it protrudes just a little, or as an extended 10-inch curlicue.

Diana Thorneycroft. Horse with Blind Eye, 2014. (Diana Thorneycroft)

"They sort of appear as weapons in a way," Thorneycroft explains, "as a means to protect the horse."

When you mix her creations with the plain old toys, "You can see the beauty of the alterations, the majesty of the alterations, how profound they are." Says Thorneycroft: "Horses are exquisite, but these altered horses are equally exquisite."

Diana Thorneycroft. Installation view of Herd, Tom Thomson Art Gallery, 2016. (Diana Thorneycroft; Photo: Willy Waterton)

Diana Thorneycroft, Herd. To June 19 at the Tom Thomson Gallery Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ont. www.tomthomson.org

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