More than 25 years ago, Southern California artist Ashley Collins embarked upon a difficult and demanding journey. In pursuit of her art and a workable career, she placed herself in wickedly challenging circumstances. Misunderstood and rejected by her family throughout her youth, Collins moved to Los Angeles at 17 to paint, but the early struggles of her career offered little solace from the pain and loneliness of that separation. In California, she lived in dangerous places, barely had enough to survive and was often in harm’s way while eking out her humble painter’s existence. Looking back on it, the arduous journey was classic Collins—a difficult creative process that manifested as a remarkable gift. From that early matrix of rejection, doubt and pain came paintings of radiance, calm and inner strength. Collins’ paintings also serve a philanthropic function–they create literal opportunity and hope for people around the world who may have believed they had none.
Artists work for a living. But for Collins, sales of her work benefit more than the artist alone.
“I changed the way I operate exhibitions so that now almost all of my shows benefit the needs of others in some way,” Collins said. From starving artist to a leading female painter, she finds herself in a remarkable position. For the last several years, a portion of her sales is donated to a host of beneficiaries around the globe, including school children in Mozambique and children with cancer in Idaho. The graciousness of her actions mirror the artist’s soul—she has, along her journey, found a purpose and a means to affect change for others who are less fortunate. While Collins may not have personally experienced such generosity in her early years, she has embraced her own innate ability to give.
In 2008, Collins and Ketchum gallery owner L’Anne Gilman conceived an art exhibition called “Moments and Bliss” that would raise money for the children attending Camp Rainbow Gold. The camp, held annually at Cathedral Pines campground north of Ketchum, offers children diagnosed with cancer the opportunity to live for a week far removed from the hospitals and treatment centers that occupy so much of their young lives. The anxious hum of medical devices is replaced by the serene calm of the wilderness.
From swimming and fishing, biking and storytelling, arts and crafts or simple family time (campers are invited with their families), Camp Rainbow Gold provides a memorable and deserved gift. Given the chance to exchange the trials of cancer with a brief window onto a healthy youth, many campers find strength and feel a momentary wellness. >>>
Inspired by the generous love and hope on display each summer at Cathedral Pines, Collins created a work of art specifically for Gilman’s “Moments and Bliss” benefit show. The multimedia painting, entitled “Courage,” incorporates personal belongings, pictures and newspaper clips sent to the artist by the campers. Some became a literal part of the finished work while others were expressed metaphorically. To Collins, the idea was to integrate “the hearts and spirits of the kids into the material.”
In Collins’ work, as in her own experience, the horse is a symbol of love and honesty. It was a horse named Chief who, in her teen years, offered the only sense of comfort she knew. The animal accepted Collins at a time in her life when her family would not. They shunned her desire to paint, treating it as a disturbing abnormality to be kept hidden rather than a talent and passion to be encouraged. Through his acceptance and love, Chief taught her an understanding of grace and courage that would last as a driving, symbolic force in her career. She spent every free moment of her time with the gentle Appaloosa; in his presence she felt safe and loved. “He was,” she said, “my greatest teacher in both life and art.”
She incorporated the lessons of this initiation directly into her work. She began to paint horses with bold but elegant black brush strokes that depicted the beasts as sensitive, strong, wise and cautious. An intimate understanding informs these works, and the relationship with Chief is enshrined. His tenderness is felt, his patience is understood and the love that Collins remembers radiates forth.
Gilman finds the paintings inspiring. “The way [Collins] captures the spirit of the horse in these figurative works is powerful. I am overwhelmed with the sense of hope and faith. They are uplifting.” Such appreciation from a gallery owner is significant in light of Collins’ early career struggles.
In the 1980s, several galleries rebuffed Collins’ attempts to enter the Los Angeles art scene. Many said that horse imagery was inappropriate material for fine art. This narrow vision prolonged Collins’ career journey, but did little to deter or dissuade her.
She developed a friendship with the famed modern artist Robert Rauschenberg, who filled a mentor role for the young artist. On the subject of all artists’ inevitable struggle with acceptance, Rauschenberg told her to believe in her own vision, the critics be damned.
“He told me that all of those voices that said a horse painting cannot be contemporary art will be silenced if you are strong enough and fierce enough to fight for the work,” she recalled. Collins’ heeded Rauschenberg’s advice. Her quest was successful and those who know her or collect her work now have the good fortune of witnessing and sharing the lessons Collins picked up along the way. >>>
TOP Breathe, mixed media triptych; BOTTOM May 12, mixed media diptych on panel.
Collins’ large-format, multimedia wood panels combine diverse elements to achieve a holistic harmony. Layer upon layer of pages—yellowing, aged paper from dictionaries, books and other mysterious texts—are hidden beneath painted words and washes of color. Iron- and copper-based paints are left in and allowed to rust and bleed. The organic result gives the pieces a feeling of age, of time passing.
“The first step,” Collins said, “is covering the panel with pages of books. This first layer is about the information we are bombarded with every day. Over these come layer upon layer of images, which are about love and kindness.” The total effect is one of balance. These juxtapositions—of chaos with calm, of power with mindfulness—rest within the work’s literal and metaphorical layers.
Some paintings are joined by a poem written by the artist on the reverse side. “The wonderful thing about the poems is that they are truly intended for, and speak to, the ultimate owner of the work. They are from my hand and my heart,” Collins said.
In “January 20,” a painting dedicated to the inauguration of President Barack Obama, an iconic horse head prominently encompasses most of the panel. In its poem, Collins wrote, “On this day a new hope, a new change for this country, for this world, if we choose.”
Gilman recalls the morning she first saw the work. “The President had been recently sworn in, so the title, which is written within the work, has a powerful message. The horse’s head in the forefront is so commanding, the scale of the work itself evokes a sense of pride.”
Collins’ paintings have been acquired by global business tycoons, Hollywood celebrities and serious international collectors, and the success has afforded her once unthinkable opportunities. She travels extensively and has taken up residence for weeks and even months at a time in places like Cambodia, Laos and Israel. And since balance is a key component not only to her paintings, but also to her actions, Collins has pursued ever-greater, and farther-flung, philanthropic goals. She has helped fund a girls’ school in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco and sponsored an orphanage in Cambodia.
“This is truly a case of using the celebrity of the work to give back and help others,” she said. From Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains to the unknown, impoverished villages she has touched in far corners of the globe, Collins is working hard to leave a world better than the one she found.