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Jessie Pettie: A Lady Who Lives Life ‘Outside the Lines’

by Ann Bullard


A bundle of energy and drive. That’s one way to describe equine artist and exhibitor Jessie Pettie of Ethel, La. Another would be to simply say she is crazy over horses, more particularly Saddle Horses. Pettie is one person who has channeled her love for the animals into a profession. And she is more than good at what she does.


Pettie doesn’t use the word ‘talented’ when speaking of herself. “I don’t know that I’m a big believer in talent,” she explained. “If you want to do something badly enough, you keep trying – no matter how ugly it turns out.”


Those who know the artist might take issue with that statement. Certainly, they agree she is a hard worker. But whether you call it talent, an artist’s eye or inspiration, they all agree Jessie Pettie has a vast supply of it. She didn’t start her career with painting horses in mind. However, she has been passionate about them for as long as she can remember.


Pettie grew up on a farm in

Minhurn, Iowa. She is pictured with

her parents, Esther and Fred Brueck.


Growing up on a farm near Ames, Iowa, Pettie was the only one of her family interested in horses. Her parents and brother “had no interest in them whatsoever. I begged and begged for a pony. I got one the Christmas I was six-years-old. Until the day my parents died, they waited for me to outgrow my obsession.”


Pettie’s determination showed –

even as a little girl. She was six

when her parents finally gave in

and bought her a pony.


Pettie was 10 or 11 when her dad bought her an older horse. When that horse foundered, she ‘detassled’ corn (taking tassels off a variety the family didn’t wish to pollinate) for three summers to buy her next one – a black Saddlebred mare.


Why a Saddlebred? “I think all you have to do is see one,” she explained, adding she probably saw her first Saddlebred at the Iowa State Fair. “I rode that mare six miles to get her home.”


Pettie and her mare “did everything. We showed English and western pleasure at some county fairs. We barrel raced. We swam in the pond. She truly was an all-purpose horse.”


While most of her friends had Quarter Horses, Pettie stayed with Saddlebreds, eventually riding her first one to Iowa State University, where their equine program stood a stallion. “I think it cost me a whole $50 to breed this mare. Once she was bred, I rode her home.


“Somehow, I really was never without a horse. And from then on, that horse always was an American Saddlebred. I had cheap ones, not anything someone would get excited about. We trailered to lots of one-day shows with small rings, cars around them and horses tied to the trailer. Now I can’t imagine showing without a stall.”


Pettie’s early ‘paint brush days’ concentrated on walls, rather than canvas. She studied interior design at Iowa State University, where she took “one color class. I hated it.”


The warm weather and job opportunities brought her to San Diego, Calif. While working in a furniture store, she met a Naval officer who was looking for a chair. Randy Pettie found more than that.


“I had to live with that ugly chair for quite a few years,” Pettie said. “He was worth it.”


Jessie and Randy Pettie lived in San

Diego, Calif., and Milton, Fla., while he

was on active duty in the U.S. Navy.

This picture was taken in 1973.


A California friend wanting someone to take a watercolor class with her brought Pettie back to the medium in which she now excels. “I told her I really didn’t want to do this,” she recalled. “She told me if I didn’t go with her, she wouldn’t go. She quit in the second week – I’m still doing watercolors 30 years later.”


In her early pre-horse painting days, Pettie took her work to art shows in area malls. She worked on watercolor paper, one of the media she still uses. She emphasized the necessity of using quality paper and paints – even if one is a beginner. Using cheap paper and paint can doom a painter to failure, she said.


Three to four years passed before Pettie began painting horses. “Once I added them, I say ‘Hey, hey, hey. Maybe I can go to a horse show with this.’”


Pettie owned Saddlebreds throughout her time in California. She recalls seeing Michele Macfarlane and her late mother at one-day shows. Calling the Scripps-Miramar group of the time as hands-on, she describes Macfarlane and her mother as “incredibly nice.”


Pettie showed Admiral’s Shipmate in

saddle seat, western and driving on the

Southwest circuit in the late 1980s.


Although not originally a horse person, Randy Pettie moved easily into his wife’s world. “I married them [horses] and enjoy it. They’re my hobby, too,” he said. “I used to drive some, but am not able to now. When I’m home, I help her. But that still means she does all the work.”


Meanwhile, the Navy had transferred Randy Pettie to his next assignment at Whiting Field in Milton, Fla., not far from his Pensacola home. His wife and horses followed. While living in Florida, she ventured into exhibiting her work at the Tampa Charity Horse Show.


“I was petrified that no one would like anything,” she said candidly, pegging the time about 1978. “I certainly wasn’t successful by today’s standards. At the time, I thought I was pretty hot.”


If Pettie wasn’t “pretty hot” in the mid-1970s, she and her work certainly are now. Early on she didn’t exaggerate things to the extent she does today. Nor was she into using landscape backgrounds. Rather, the blends of color and brush-strokes give everything that ‘Jessie look.’ Her work has evolved from simply working with watercolors on paper to using leaves, wood, copper, stone and other natural materials.


Bob Treathaway, who served on the ASHA Pleasure Horse Committee for a number of years, knows Pettie and her work quite well. He is one who encouraged her to begin driving as well as riding.


“I’ve known Jessie for 25 or 30 years, since she first moved to Louisiana,” he said. “At first, I kind of thought her paintings were far out. I like LeRoy Neiman; her work reminds me of his stuff. Her sketches – show horses, horses in the pasture, their expressions and the different types of poses she has them in – look realistic.”


Jim LaHood, manager of Lexington Junior League, agrees. Although Pettie credits him with having a lot to do with her success, he downplays that by saying, “All I’ve done is to buy a few of her paintings.”


LaHood, who purchased some of Pettie’s paintings for resale in his Massachusetts shop, says, “She has always been easy to deal with. She has nice things and everything is priced very reasonably.”


LaHood spoke of the mystique of Pettie’s work being aimed at the Saddle Horse industry. “I think she gets it, no matter what medium she uses. The color and movement she portrays is special, unique. She is right on in most cases. My favorite is a winter scene of a Saddle Horse being led in the snow with the wind blowing. The horse’s tail is off to one side; its ears are back. It’s just a wonderful picture and says everything you’d expect a horse to say to you in a windy, snowy environment.”


Mystical is a good way to describe Pettie’s technique. Her creative eye, combined with love for and knowledge of American Saddlebreds, Hackney ponies and Morgans, has helped her work evolve.


She evaluated her progression, conceding her work was more realistic in her early days. “In the beginning, I probably couldn’t express the feeling a horse has as well as I can now,” she said, adding, “That’s probably because I love them. My work isn’t technical but comes from deep inside. I never was into landscape backgrounds and that sort of thing, but I wasn’t exaggerating things as I do. Today, my work in no way is realistic. Now I’m doing more horses and less people. That might cycle back around again, too.


“[Bob] Treathaway teases me about when I got out of the asylum. He looks around the room at Louisville and says, ‘How long were you in for this year?’ You have to put a little bit of yourself into painting too,” Pettie said with a laugh.


That ‘little bit of yourself’ has grown over the years. Initially an American Saddlebred devotee, Pettie’s equine horizons have expanded into the Hackney – and most particularly – roadster pony and Morgan fields. Her friend, Susan Whitaker, helped develop Pettie’s passion for the smaller show ring stars. A registered nurse living in Nashville, Tenn., Whitaker had horses with Leon Roberts just outside New Orleans, La.


“Jessie catch drove my harness horse for me,” Whitaker said, explaining how the best friends met. “I had driven straight through to Houston after getting off work. When I passed through New Orleans, I spoke with Chris Roberts to find out where my room was. She told me, and that she had arranged a roommate for me too. I was pretty tired and irritated about the roommate. I finally got to the room about 9 or 10 p.m.; Jessie and I began talking and have been talking ever since.”


For several years, Whitaker and Pettie developed their friendship through ‘Ma Bell,’ meeting together at shows. Eight or nine years ago, they began talking about Whitaker’s moving closer to the Petties’ farm.


“As a nurse, I can work almost anywhere,” she said. “I called Jessie and asked her to find me a place to live down here. She and Randy have a loft in the top of the house. It’s a perfect place for someone to live. We finished it out, remodeled it and I’ve been here ever since. It works pretty neat when Jessie is out of town; I can take care of her horses and mine. When we’re both gone, we hire someone to watch the whole place.”


The move has worked well for all concerned. The two help each other with their horses and ponies.


It’s been about 16 years since Pettie bought her first road pony. Baton Rouge-based trainer Tommy Benton called and told her of one that needed to be rescued.


“I called Susan. We put our money together and got the pony for $300,” Pettie said, adding they showed him as a pleasure pony. “That’s when I really, really found out I liked ponies. Susan still lived in Tennessee and had a road pony with Garland Presswood. When she didn’t want to drive it, I did and really got hooked.”


Saddlebred historian, the late Lynn Weatherman, and Pettie had been friends for years. Weatherman’s daughter, Wendy Weatherman Lewis, who operates Virtual Saddlebreds, reminisced about her father’s friendship with artist. When she bought a mare named Battle Of Crecy, she called Weatherman to explain the name. He was delighted – and amused.


Lewis explained, “We actually had an old stove front with a depiction of the Battle Of Crecy on the oven door. Dad explained that was the name of the Hundred Years War battle in which longbow archers triumphed over those using the crossbow, changing the face of warfare.


Pettie gaited Crecy (originally Battle Of Crecy)with

 the late Lynn Weatherman’s over-the-phone

assistance. The team showed in five-gaited show

pleasure and pleasure driving on the Southwest

circuit and earned a good ribbon in the Five-

Gaited Show Pleasure at the 1991 American Royal.


Weatherman did more than help explain the mare’s name  – he helped with her training as well. “Jessie was in Louisiana. Dad helped her gait the mare from hundreds of miles away – over the telephone,” Lewis said, smiling at the memory of her father’s friendship with Pettie.


Pettie showed the mare in five-gaited, five-gaited pleasure and show pleasure driving during the 1991 season. She also joined Weatherman on one of his spelunking (cave exploration) forays. He and Lewis encouraged her venturing into new media, collecting rocks, wood and other items, which were integrated into Pettie’s paintings.


While Pettie developed an interest in Hackneys, Weatherman was all-Saddlebred. “When I got my first pleasure pony, Lynn was horribly incensed that I had gotten something not an American Saddlebred. He told me, ‘They’re varmints – all just varmints,’” she said, laughing at her memories with Weatherman. “We called the pleasure pony Varmint; the next one’s barn name was Vermin.


“Early one summer, I told John [Shea] that I would like to get a road pony in the fall. About the time of Lexington, he called to say he had the pony. I told him I didn’t have any money, but that worked out. I showed Fiendishly Clever [Vermin] for 12 years and had a blast the whole time.”


Pettie and Fiendishly Clever,

fondly known at home as Vermin,

more than held their own in roadster

pony competition for years.


“Jessie had more experience showing road ponies than I did,” Whitaker said. “She catch drove my first pony; after that, we bought a rescue pony from New Orleans. By the time Jessie bought Fiendishly Clever, we both were glued to road ponies. We usually showed in different divisions and could help each other. Often we competed against each other and had fun doing so.


“Jessie is all about Saddle Horses – American Saddlebreds, Hackneys and Morgans. By the time I moved into road horses, Jessie had fallen in love with the ponies,” Whitaker added. “They’re easier for her to work around. She has joked, ‘When I brush a pony, I can actually reach its back. I can see what I’m grooming when I groom a pony.”


Since the late 1990s, Pettie and Whitaker, with Fiendishly Clever and Whitaker’s roadster, Road Kill, have earned top ribbons from Louisiana to Kentucky and Illinois. Pettie added the pony Bali Hai and often drove John and Lorraine Shea’s granddaughter, LaRae Wells’s, Yipes Stripes in pleasure pony classes. Early on, she set up displays at most places she showed. More recently, she has limited those exhibitions to larger events, still taking the ponies to smaller ones.


Pettie campaigned Bali Hai

at major shows across the

country under the direction

of John Shea and Abel Vega.


Randy Pettie calls the three of them and their horse operation “very-much backyarders but successful backyarders.” Actually, they are more than that, with the Petties keeping one pony with John Shea and the other at home. Abel Vega, trainer for Shea’s operation, works Surprise Me. Bambino, a relatively new acquisition, is at the Ethel, La., farm, as are Whitaker’s horses.


Pettie trains her newest road

pony, Bambino, at home.


“John has been incredibly nice. He lets me throw my home pony on with whatever else going to a show. There’s never an issue about me keeping one at home,” Pettie said, speaking of the man who has been as much her friend as her trainer.


In more recent years, Abel Vega has handled most training duties for the veteran horseman. “He and John have taught me a lot. I think the world of Abel. He’s a good friend and dedicated to his ponies. Now he’s having to take on more of the [farm] business responsibilities,” Pettie said.


At home, Pettie pretty much is the lady you meet at shows. She is very disciplined about her work, painting every day. “If it gets to the point one needs to dry or I’m tired of it, I go work a pony, work in the yard, do housework or whatever,” Pettie said. “I average about four to six hours a day during the year. When it gets close to Lexington, Louisville and the Morgan Grand Nationals, I may work 12 to 14 hours a day.


“Being there for the horse show is part of the appeal of the whole thing,” she added. “I started going to more shows pretty quickly. It took lot of years for me to realize I was better off staying home and painting a lot for big shows rather than setting up at as many small ones. Now when I go to the smaller shows, I just take the ponies.”


Pettie gave a watercolor demonstration

during the 1987 Ky. State Fair Horse Show.


Mark Swayze, who operates Equine Gallery in Lexington, Ky., and Pettie have been friends since they met at Junior League 20 years ago. “She was sharing a booth with Diane Maroscia, who does bronze sculpture, and Lady Agnes [Agnes Koepfgen,] who works with stained and beveled glass,” Swayze recalled. “They had two or three booth spaces and mixed their work to look more like a gallery.”


Swayze, who began in the horse world with Shetland ponies at age five and showed Saddlebreds until he was in his early 20s, concedes his horses “have gone from the stall to the walls.” Today, he sells art and does framing. When Pettie comes to town, they look at the more than 4,000 frame samples on his walls.


“We play and pick things out so she can take them back with her,” he said, emphasizing they have a lot of fun together. “I don’t get to see her often enough.”


Swayze has given his friend many tips over the years. She has adopted some and gone her own way where others are concerned.


“I told her years ago to do prints, that she would run out of ideas. Obviously, I was wrong,” Swayze said, emphasizing that everything Pettie sells is an original. “I keep thinking there are only so many ways you can do a horse. She has made me rethink that. Jessie always is looking for something new. She thinks on copper, pottery, glass and has things that are etched. I’ve carried her work off and on, but there rarely is anything left for me to bring back here. Something might not sell at the first show; it usually does at the second.”


He spoke of Pettie’s mind-set. “She is perfectly content and never at a loss for new ideas. I’m envious of that. She will look at what she has – a frame, backboard – and say ‘I’m going to paint something with that combination.’ She will spot something and you can see the wheels turning. She’ll find an old door, take old window panes and put art behind them. Her mind never stops; she’s always looking for something new for her business and to keep it interesting for herself.”


Pettie works in many media. Some of the more

impressive of her ‘specials’ are tiles like this

painting commissioned by Hope Walker that

decorate one wall in her home.


As much time as Pettie spends with and involved in horses, she never tires of them. She revels in going to shows, setting up her booth and talking with clients. Where many artists set up a booth to sell their work, when they close their booths they head to their rooms or out to dinner. Swayze says Pettie is right there with her eyes focused on the ring.


“She absolutely loves it,” he said. “Here I am in the horse capital of the world, but if I want to know what’s happening in the show horse industry, I call her. Everyone tells her things – and she spends a lot of time on the Internet.”


Bill Crawford of Boston Morgan Farm and Merriehill’s Paulette Bodner are two leaders of the Morgan community who have ‘adopted’ Pettie’s work. Although she rarely does commissions, the Crawfords enticed her to do two paintings of their world champions, Tug Hill Whamunition, HVK Ancient Cry and Smith & Wesson.


“All three horses are featured in each picture. They make quite a dramatic wall in our sunken family room. My wife said we had to have something that when people come in the room they say ‘Wow.’ They do,” Crawford said.


Helen Crawford wanted paintings that would

elicit a “wow” from visitors.Tug Hill Whamunition

is flanked by HVK Ancient Cry (left and above)

 and Smith & Wesson (right and below.)


Crawford and Pettie became acquainted in 1990. Four years later, he chaired the Morgan Grand National and World Championship Horse Show. He recruited Pettie to do the cover for the show program.


“It was a big departure from the past and got a very favorable comment. Part of the deal was that she would let us have the original artwork to auction off after the show,” he said, conceding he was the one who paid “a good deal of money” to have it hang in his home.


Bob Crawford enlisted Pettie to paint
her first Morgan
Grand National program
cover in 1994 (left). She
the artwork again in 2002 and 2007 (right).


“We’ve become friends over the years,” Crawford said. “The year I chaired the Grand Nationals for the third time, I again asked her to do the show cover. Richard Hawkins, president of the American Morgan Horse Institute, and his wife, Linda, have that artwork displayed at their home.”


Paulette and Stan Bodner of Merriehill Farm are two other huge Jessie Pettie supporters. Unlike some horse owners, Paulette Bodner steers away from commissioning paintings of their horses.


“At every Grand National, Stan and our sons usually pick out something of Jessie’s,” Paulette Bodner said. “Her artwork is beautiful. She catches the spirit – not just of one particular horse but of our type of horse in general. Her colors, her technique are just beautiful. She finds our horses exciting, beautiful, interesting, with just a bit of fantasy… just a hair… something in your dreams but not your wildest dreams. She captures a look you’d love to have.”


That look comes through in all of Pettie’s work. Clients love it.


“A lot of people don’t realize she doesn’t do prints. What a person gets is a one and only,” Whitaker said. “She purposely paints to make her work accessible to all horse lovers. She might have a painting for less than $100 as well as one that is much more involved. She considers size and tries to be conscientious about making her work available to one horse as well as big farm owners. She’s never forgotten that she needs to create things for all of us.”


Trying to get past what a person does or who he or she is can be challenging for a writer. Where Pettie is concerned, her friend Susan Whitaker says, “you can’t separate who and what.


“If you want to know who she is, look at her art. Jessie is one of those people who is what she does: eclectic, colorful, pretty light-hearted and spontaneous. She lives life the way she paints. She doesn’t have to color inside the lines or, as she might say, she doesn’t paint by the numbers. She doesn’t mind interrupting convention to get her point across,” Whitaker said.


“Figuratively speaking, if Jessie is driving down the road and wants to drive on the other side, she would say, ‘well, I’m an artist. I don’t go where the lines are.’ Jessie doesn’t necessarily conform to what the rest of anyone is doing. She has created her own style and that style has changed,” she continued.


Pettie decorated a horse statue with

Saddlebreds at the 2002 Oklahoma Centennial.

(Photo by Howie Schatzberg)


Whitaker expanded on the idea. “Jessie likes to be involved, to be hands-on with animals. You can tell by the way one is posed or positioned, by what people are doing in the painting that she has innate knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes. Look at the physiology of the horses. Look at a show ring scene; you can tell she understands what happens. Her animals are not one-dimensional. If they’re coming at you, they’re pretty correct for what they’re doing – and neat, too, I think.”


Everyone knows Pettie as a horse/pony person. Her passion for cats is less public knowledge. Rarely does she have less than 10 felines, all of them rescues. Bringing home some of those has been an adventure.


“Very early in our friendship, Jessie and I were at Lexington,” Whitaker recalled with a laugh. “We heard a kitten mewing in a dumpster behind Shoney’s. Jessie was too short to climb in and coaxed me into doing it. That cat almost killed me scratching and clawing on the way out. I was afraid someone would see us climbing in – and often wondered who might have. That was one of our better moments together.”


And yes, that kitten went back to the feline sanctuary in Ethel, La. As Whitaker described Pettie’s determination, “If an animal is in need her role involves doing whatever it takes to get it rescued. There never is a lack of room, particularly for a cat in despair.”


One of Pettie’s more recent passions – and causes – is Saddlebred Rescue. She has donated more than a few paintings to auctions that benefit the program Nealia McCracken, Pat Johnson and Christy Parker have brought into the limelight.


Away from the limelight, Pettie is still ‘Jessie.’ She says her “next to favorite thing is to read, primarily any type of fiction except science fiction. I have to have a book I have not read yet. If nothing is around here, I get pretty nervous.”


She loves to cook and is creative with spices. Whitaker calls her ‘an Iron Chef Junkie.’ At home she enjoys being in her yard and, her favorite place, the fish pond. Raising Koi is one of the few things with which she has been unsuccessful


“I was total failure at Koi. I don’t know what I did wrong. I read all the books, looked it up on Internet – and they just kept dying. Now I have goldfish,” she said.


People in the horse business give back in different ways. Pettie donates dozens of her paintings and other artwork to horse shows, conventions and other types of live and silent auctions.


Tommy Benton describes Pettie as “one of the hardest-working women in the horse show business, one of those hands-on kinds of people. She has a great attitude and always has a great smile. Jessie just gets in her car and drives, popping up all over the country.”


Like her artwork, she is something of a free spirit. She relishes her work, her horses and her friends.


“I took my horse passion and turned it into a profession, not intentionally. It’s been a wonderful thing for me, too,” Pettie said. “Why do this and go to all the shows? Susan put it well one time when she was trying to explain it to someone who didn’t do horses. ‘You get to go for a week and see 10,000 of your best friends.’”


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