Painter Shirley Dickerson immortalizes horses

The local artist was a highlight at this weekend's Pink Ribbon Classic horse show

Ida Lee Hutson-Fish of Walla Walla shares a laugh with a competitor while awaiting the judges' decision on Class 25, Western Pleasure Horse, Walk/Job, during the weekend's Pink Ribbon Classic Horse Show.

Ida Lee Hutson-Fish of Walla Walla shares a laugh with a competitor while awaiting the judges' decision on Class 25, Western Pleasure Horse, Walk/Job, during the weekend's Pink Ribbon Classic Horse Show. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — They come to ride and raise funds, and when the equestrian show is over they hope to go home with a portrait of their winning horse.

“They are amazing. They are something you keep forever after the horse has died,” Pink Ribbon Classic show organizer Erica Lackey said. “Oh, you are going to make me cry.”

And she almost did as she talked about the paintings she has of her departed horses.

In the short history of the show, top prize has traditionally been a 12-by-6-inch portrait done by an artist with a very long history of painting equines in the Valley.

On Saturday morning, artist Shirley Dickerson cheerfully arrived carrying two samples of her work. Then she carefully set them beside other prizes, which were horse tack and a second-place prize that was a set of pink zebra-striped luggage.

“We do travel a lot,” Lackey said, adding that the vast majority of contestants are women.

The third annual Pink Ribbon Classic, which took place at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds this weekend, raises money for the Providence St. Mary Cancer Center Special Needs Fund. Last year it included 65 horses and riders and raised $9,000.

On Saturday by noon, the number of horses entered had already reached last year’s total. By the end of the weekend, 85 horses and riders would compete in a variety of English and Western riding and showing competitions, all of them vying for top horse, top rider and top prize.

But the prize they were after was not a lump of cash, colorful ribbon or flashy saddle. What the top junior and adult riders did win were items that they will most likely treasure long after their winning horses have gone out to celestial pastures.

Horse owners often have a strong bond to their horses. And for the past 60 years, Dickerson has made a small business of that bond, though she actually started with photography.

Back in the 1950s, she was in her early 20s and worked at a Milton-Freewater newspaper. On the side, she would photograph horse shows and competitions. She did it the old fashion way with film. She even had her own darkroom. And she relied on a primitive form of correspondence.

“I would send them a post card and told them I had a picture and to send me two dollars,” Dickerson said.

Then, when at a show, a horseman saw her sketching some horses and asked her to do a painting of his.

As word go out, she began getting more requests for oil paintings, though she still photographed shows for a number of years.

“And I don’t have a digital (camera) yet,” she said. She has her eye on one; it’s just to pricey.

As for her paintings, over the years Dickerson switched from oils to pastels. The finished product takes her up to 30 hours to complete. Cost is around $150, not including the frame. She also paints dogs and is known for her paintings of local police dogs.

Besides her painting career and the 10-year stint with the newspaper, Dickerson said most of her life has been spent as a farmer’s wife.

She and her husband used to grow beets and other crops. They also raised cattle. And she was pretty handy on a horse and used to enter barrel races.

But now she prefers to paint the winners.

“It’s been a fun life,” she said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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