Today, where “Made in China” is stamped on almost everything but our American foreheads, it's dishearteningly rare to find a Christmas present not just made in the U.S. but made – or at least finished – here in the commonwealth.
This year, Virginia horse country gift-givers are in luck – Boyce artist and sculptor Jean Clagett has a new line of custom-designed, locally crafted art to fit any budget.
The world-renowned sculptor said that when the business of crafting life-sized bronze statues of famous horses dried up with the economy, she began to reinvent herself.
And that's where the Holiday, 2012 consumer comes in.
New this season, Clagett is offering custom-painted ceramics – cups, bowls, plates, dog dishes, candleholders, you name it – she can paint on them. And she can sign it on the bottom (or on the back), bake it in her kiln, wrap it up and ship it off, just in time for Christmas.
Already, Clagett has stacks of orders for the holiday rush. She's hard at work in her Clarke County studio, turning photographs into hand-painted, custom-designed original, one-of-a-kind works of art that are more than just tchochkes or unusable mementos relegated to the dusty corner of a back room.
“I know how much I like to have something I can actually 'use,'” said Clagett, sipping tea from a hand-painted mug embellished with a handsome bay sporthorse. “I didn't have any big [bronze, statue] commissions, so I looked into other ways to stay involved with art.”
Clagett orders ceramics wholesale – she can get travel coffee mugs, sets of dinner or salad plates, oversized serving platters, even stacks of square (or round) trivets. They're well-made but, relatively affordable, since she orders in bulk.
Once a client decides on an item, Clagett consults with them, studying provided photos – sometimes traveling to a barn to take her own shots.
“I like being able to see a horse, study him,” Clagett said. “That's how I like to do my bronzes, and that's a good way to do paintings. Actually see the horse, their motion, their personality, their exact color and demeanor.”
Clagett hurried to stress that she can work strictly from photographs – the more provided, the better.
Once she has an idea what the client wants, she starts to work, usually on several projects at a time.
First, she sets the photos on an easel in front of her well-lighted work space. Then she sketches an outline using a special charcoal pencil. She then uses special paint to color the drawing, baking it in a special kiln to set the colors. Last, she brushes it with glaze and bakes again.
The finished product is custom art for a fraction of the cost of even the tiniest painting.
Prices range from $25 for a travel mug to $30 for a dinner plate, to $100 or so for a large serving platter.
Though Clagett said pieces are dishwasher safe, well-made and strong enough to resist cracking and chipping, looking at a finished piece, you think it nearly too precious to actually use. “That's the point, though,” Clagett said. “To use it.”
It takes her a couple of hours, total, to make a ceramic item – each spends several hours baking in the kiln.
Clagett grew up in Washington state, selling her first painting at age 11. She was bedridden from rheumatic fever, and her doctor had encouraged her to take up drawing and painting as a diversion from boredom, plus a skill she could put to use.
“He bought it. Paid me $5,” Clagett recalled. She was first published – a pencil portrait of an Arabian horse – a couple of years later, in Western Horseman magazine.
“I paid my entry fees for shows from selling pastel portraits,” Clagett said, noting that she'd always been “artistic,” and that her lifelong love of horses made them an obvious specialty.
She moved into sculpting, selling works to Olympian Bruce Davidson (she did a life-size of him jumping into the water at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, to a ¾-size modal of a horse at a French racetrack.
“My brain works three-dimensional,” Clagett said, adding that she's been frustrated over the last couple of years as shrinking pocketbooks canceled several proposed sculptures.
“The important thing to remember is that these are not devalued by going hugely commercial, or by mass production. Each item is custom made, individually painted. Even a 'set' of mugs, using the same photo of the same horse. I paint each one separately – so every one is unique.”
Clagett figures the shrinking big-scale projects, and the huge rush on small-scale, were “just a sign of the times. It's what I do best – create.”
Artist Jean Clagett. Atelier West. Boyce. http://Www.AtelierWest.com
Elsewhere in our round-up, we found a number of gifts uniquely local -- made with local ingredients, by local hands, sold in local stores.
This Christmas, give an original gift that also supports the local economy. Every tack shop in the region offers customized gifts, ranging from high-end – saddles and jewelry -- to stocking-stuffers – photo tree ornaments and leather nameplate bracelets.
Horse Country Saddlery
: Warrenton. (540) 347-3141. http://Www.HorseCountryLife.com
The store has an engraving machine for saddle-plates and hang-tags as well as a custom, signature line of home décor and clothing. Local artists and photographers' work is featured on cards sold up front.
Tri-County Feeds Etc
.: Marshall. (540) 364-1891. http://www.TriCountyFeeds.com
Tri-County sells local art as well as feed, locally grown (and outside vendor) hay, tack, home décor and more. Several special Christmas shopping events are planned through the season; check the store's web site.
The Galloping Grape
: Warrenton. (540) 428-1002. http://Www.GallopingGrape.com
The only area saddle shop with an ABC license, the Grape offers Virginia (and imported) wines, tack consignment and custom, personalized Christmas ornaments with your pet's photo and name.
Skeeter's Custom Leather and Tack Shop
: Warrenton. (540) 347-0488.
Custom options range from individually designed western stock saddles to store coupons for simple tack repair. One unique, custom item owner Skeeter Hembry crafted recently is a bamboo-handled fly whisk, using hair from a special horse provided by its owner.
Middleburg Tack Exchange
: Middleburg. (540) 687-6608. http://Www.MiddleburgTack.com
Specializing in consignment saddles, tack and apparel, the shop revels in the 21st-century notions of responsible recycling and thrift.
The Tack Box: Middleburg
. (540) 687-3231. http://Www.TheTackBoxInc.com
A unique offering, customized and local-economy-centric, is horse vacuum repair, along with a blinding array of horse and rider items.
: Middleburg. (540) 687-5888.
Custom-made chaps and a wide array of styles, saddles, bridles, specialty leather goods, harnesses, boots and more give the store a custom flavor. In addition, the store can also handle tanning and preparation of raw leather.
: Middleburg, Haymarket. (540) 687-8193. http://Www.Saddlery-Liquidators.com
Custom embroidered monograms, leather horse nameplate bracelets and jump standards and wooden poles are among on-site choices, as well as “while you wait” halter and stall plates. Liquidators also offers clipper blade sharpening and clipper repair.
Horse and Hound
: Flint Hill. (540) 675-1650. http://Www.HorseAndHound.com
A local artist makes jewelry for the store, and there is an engraving machine where customers can custom-design and engrave their own dog and tack tags.