Sam Robinson took a long, circuitous path to his life’s calling, a passion that was right there, all the time, waiting for him, virtually in his own backyard.
For Robinson, his career has been like a demanding point-to-point race, which is perhaps fitting for one of the area’s most respected equine artists. It wasn’t until one day in 2007, when George Mahoney Jr., a master of the hounds at Green Spring Valley Hounds, commissioned him to paint his portrait that enlightenment arrived.
It was then he came face-to-face with the subject that would inspire him and incapsulate everything he loves about his work.
“Not that long ago,” Robinson says, even now amazed at how long it took to find the horses, hunts and countryside that was literally all around him, “I thought, ‘I better go out and see what this business is all about if I want to do a realistic portrait.’ And I was absolutely gobsmacked. I could not believe what I was looking at. It was such an amazing pageant. And my particular subject that day was one of these guys in his red jacket sitting on a horse.
“I was really entranced. . . I realized this combines everything I want to do. It’s got landscape painting. It’s got these fascinating subjects – not just people. But the horses, the hounds. These beautiful country settings. The weather. It’s all got a tremendous amount of energy and fun to it.”
Before he could uncover Green Spring Valley’s secrets, his path wound from Green Spring to Seoul, South Korea, and another valley in the West before he finally came home to eventually find the world of equine art.
Now, 15 years later, he is again thinking about change and what may lie ahead.
Ladew and what it means
On this morning Robinson is at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Harford County, Md., inspiring a small group of artists as Ladew’s artist-in-residence. But teaching was the furthest thing from his mind earlier in his journey.
When his father offered him the opportunity to go to graduate school after earning his art degree, he declined.
“I knew that teaching wasn’t for me as a career,” Robinson, who will be 69 in September, says now. “I knew I wanted to paint, to create.”
But time passes. Things happen. Covid comes along and the world changes. To fill his time on some of the empty afternoons in the early part of the pandemic, he started to cobble together a few private outdoor painting classes at his Burnside Farm studio.
Students learned and he enjoyed it.
He’s the official artist of the National Steeplechase Association, providing the cover and chapter paintings for the NSA’s annual record book. He has access to most any track or course he wants to visit and people love to cluster around to watch him work when he’s on-site. His paintings sell. His studio is a big success.
But now, Ladew Gardens has opened another door, as Robinson wrestles with the feeling there is more for him to do.
“Should I pass along some of these skills I have?” he wonders about teaching. “I’ve yet to conclude that. But I’m starting to think about ways to expand my role in the world of racing. I’ve got something to say now about sporting art and how it ought to be painted, and I don’t think it would be a bad idea to promote these ideas to other capable artists – particularly young ones, who might like to take this subject seriously.”
With the exception of the American Academy of Equine Art, of which he is a member, Robinson says he doesn’t see anyone else really doing that. “I think it might be a worthy thing to do, so I’m giving that some consideration.”
And he also realized he wants to expand what he does within equine art. He is looking to broaden his impact.
Confident now, he is able to look at a broader spectrum.
“I’m starting to look for what I would call the more universal subjects,” he says. “I’m looking for what constitutes the scene. What the visual richness is. I know I’m not going to put a foot wrong in terms of making a visual misstatement about the sport. But now I can afford to look for what is compelling and beautiful in it.”
He has a painting in a national juried show. It’s of two women riding side-saddle, wearing top hats and beautiful riding habits.
“It’s just very elegant,” says the artist. “It has kind of a beautiful lighting effect. The brushwork is very boldly applied. Those are ideas I’m exploring more of. And they have a broader appeal beyond the inner circle of the equine community. Those folks are certainly going to find the subject interesting, but people who know nothing about horse sports would find that very appealing as well.”
Robinson pauses. He remembers thinking all those thoughts when he got the call from Ladew.
He did some research and realized he and Harvey Ladew, who built and designed the historic house on the property and personally designed and planted the original garden, are kindred spirits.
“I mean, everything that Harvey Ladew did at home is of interest to me,” Robinson says. “That’s the same kind of milieu. If you look through his house, there’s special finishes on the walls. Murals painted in other rooms. My wife is a professional garden designer, and we have extensive gardens here at Burnside that she keeps.
“The whole place just makes sense to me, and Harvey came to Maryland from New York in search of better fox hunting.”
Robinson accepted Ladew’s offer to be one of its artists-in-residence for the year. He couldn’t resist. He realized the appointment fit right into expanding his craft.
Retracing the journey
The son of missionary parents, whose heritage was in Maryland’s Green Spring Valley, Robinson’s painting life began in South Korea.
Today he can open a drawer in his studio and pull out a rolled-up piece of paper that reveals a beautiful ink drawing of chrysanthemums.
He drew it at age 8.
“Very early on I sort of formed the notion that I was an artist,” he says, a smile in his voice.
He loved to draw and his parents and grandmother encouraged him.
“My grandmother studied sculpture and she was quite good, when she was in her 20s and 30s. She encouraged me and took me to museums. There was constant reinforcement when I did things. After awhile, it just seemed natural.”
And it was natural. As a child there was a natural, innate aptitude for scale. While others looked at the landscapes before them and saw skies and trees, he was fascinated by the gaps between the leaves that let light through.
“They had shapes, negative shapes,” he recalls now. “I remember as a kid noticing my natural interest in shapes and sizes of things and how those compared. There were these, what we call, sky holes. If you’re painting a dark green tree, there are little intervals where the sky peeks through and makes little blue shapes. I remember as a very young child being fascinated with those because they look like a specific shape … Figuring out those things was intriguing to me.”
There were other things, too.
“I like naturalism,” he says. “I like the way nature looks. I respond to visual appearances. That’s what my artistic process is now.”
He also embraced the brushstroke technique of South Korean artists.
“I would say the brush skills are the foundation of everything I do,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in that particular style of painting. The ink goes onto the paper in one stroke. It’s instantly on there. You can’t correct it or move it around. So you have to be super thoughtful about how you hold the brush and position it and I’m very keen to see what that brush mark will do and I want the brush mark to be very visible to the viewer. I’m not trying to hide that.”
This carries forward to his love of gouache as a medium. Gouache requires a painter to work quickly because the paint dries quickly. Gouache mimics oil painting although it is watercolor. The scenes that appear on the canvas come to life in an impressionist technique of lively brush work.
The road west and back again
When he came back to Maryland after graduating from Seoul Foreign School, he went to the Maryland Institute of Art for a semester, while keeping in touch with Barbara, the young woman he had met his senior year at SFS and who then was going to college in Ohio.
“I moved out there,” he recalls, his blue eyes and voice softening. “That’s where she was. That’s where I wanted to be. I got a job as a carpenter and did house construction for a while.
“The following summer, we had this hare-brained scheme to travel the country and go to Oregon … We met some people in Oregon and moved onto their farm, where my construction skills were very useful, and we helped them build their barns and ended up building a little cabin. We got a milk cow.
We were basically hippies,” he says with a laugh, admitting he had long hair and played guitar and Barbara had “long, beautiful blond hair” held by a headband.
“It was a cluster of hippies from here, there and everywhere who’d settled in this little valley,” Robinson says. “We were having a great time. But then I finally realized, ‘This is really not what I want to continue doing. I need to go finish art school.’ ”
They came back to Baltimore and he expected they would move into one of the cottages his grandmother was renting out at his family’s Burnside Farm.
“But my grandmother said, ‘No. You can’t cohabit here. You’ll have to get married,’” Robinson recalls. “But it wasn’t cool to get married when you were hippies, you know. You didn’t think you needed to do that.”
For about a year they rented an apartment on Park Heights Avenue, while he went to art school and she worked various jobs as he worked toward graduation.
“Then we thought, ‘This is crazy. We definitely need to live at Burnside.’ There was this charming little cottage. It was just perfect. All we had to do was get married. ‘Why not? Let’s do it!’ It was 1976 we decided getting married was probably a good idea after all.”
It was a sweet little wedding in the apple orchard near his grandmother’s beautiful old mansion, that his great-great-grandfather built in 1860.
Today, as they prepare to celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary, they still live in that charming cottage, though it is bigger now, having seen several additions. But the feelings are the same.
“When I look at the full scope of what I’ve done, I think my accomplishment in art is very high,” Robinson says. “I still feel like I have room to climb, but I think it’s much more important that I’ve had a successful marriage all these years. I’ve got two wonderful kids and they’ve turned into fine people. Those are the things that are much more important to me.”
Life went fast after he and Barbara were married. He graduated from the Maryland Institute in 1978. Barbara completed her costume design degree at Towson University and went to work at Center Stage. Robinson began figuring out how he was going to get serious and support a family.
Ten years later, their son arrived and five years after a daughter. By then he had built Valley Craftsmen, a decorative finish contracting firm, into a major success. He used his artistic talent to paint/design high-end interiors for homes and churches that included gold-leaf moldings and wall murals.
“My studio fine-art work never stopped,” he says. “But it was difficult to envision a way to have that actually make a decent living, with the way the art world was then. Everyone was interested in abstract painting and that never really interested me.”
And then Mahoney arrived and everything changed.
The Green Spring Valley effect
Robinson’s studio art work took off after he went to that first fox hunt and horses and various forms of racing came into his life.
At first he worked from photographs, then “I got my courage up and decided to go out and start painting on location.”
It’s a way of painting the scene that is unique to Robinson. If you see a painter with an easel at an equine event, it is sure to be him.
“Peter Williams, who has passed on, did this,” Robinson says of the New Zealander known throughout the Thoroughbred world for his work often painted from the race course itself. “He was the only contemporary sporting painter who worked from life on location almost entirely, and I’m sort of a hybrid. I love doing that, but to me, it supplements the rest of it.”
When on location, Robinson works on smaller scale scenes painted quickly in gouache, and most of those small sketches sell. “People love these,” he adds.
He does many paintings entirely from life and they are never touched again. But if someone wants a portrait of their winning racehorse, he will take photographs and capture the detail at a slower pace in his studio.
“But I’ve worked hard to make sure that the difference between a painting that I did from life and a painting I did from photography shows almost no difference,” he says.
But differences are coming.
Robinson points out that if you look at his website, it says, “Horses, Hounds and Country Life.”
“The horses and hounds are kind of obvious,” he says. “It’s basically a way of saying racing and fox hunting. But the country life is a broader idea that contains a lot of things, and within that … it has what inspires me.”
That would be nature, the outdoors and the diverse courses.
“They are so endlessly interesting,” he says. “I think it’s going to be more about the places, landscapes, gardens and people doing things within that, within the container of horses.”
And you can hear the excitement and enthusiasm in his voice, as if just yesterday he discovered Green Spring Valley and its secrets in his own backyard.