By June Naylor
Photos by Mark Graham
For the painters at Horseshoe Trail Studio, the journey is as important as the destination.
Though an established art expert, Stephanie Burk had no intention of becoming an artist. Yet the Fort Worth native finds herself among the most prolific painters at Horseshoe Trail Studio, which is located next door to her Aledo home. She also has experienced commercial success — her work hangs in the Cleveland Clinic — but her joy comes in fostering this creative community she created.
Susie Gregg, who says she’d never even painted a wall before, picked up a paintbrush for the first time after retiring from a career as a pathologist in Fort Worth. Having spent her life in detail-oriented medical work, she fancied finding more freedom for herself in painting.
“I thought it would be fun to be free and slap paint on a canvas. And then I found myself doing a lot of small detail work with a little brush,” Gregg says with a laugh. “That’s been a hard habit to break.”
Susan Disney came to the group with nearly a decade of art experience she gained after her four kids grew up and moved away. Since joining the Horseshoe Trail Studio, she has transitioned from oils to acrylics and come to rely on this network of fellow artists and friends for therapy.
While making art is the main reason for the studio’s existence, there’s so much more to Horseshoe Trail, including the camaraderie and the empowerment. For Burk, it’s another facet of her longtime passion for art.
A lifetime before the studio came into being, she took an art history class that sparked a desire to learn more. “I have always loved classic paintings. I wanted to learn about the history, economics, math and politics that go into art. The works tell stories, and that always meant so much to me.”
Working summers during college at a Dallas art gallery, Burk earned an art history degree from Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and moved to New York to work at Sotheby’s. Returning to Texas, she worked at Evelyn Siegel Gallery in Fort Worth for several years before starting her family.
Money never mattered to her the way art did. During college, she traded her Volkswagen for a painting by the Cuban artist Julio Larraz. “And I never took home a paycheck from Evelyn; I wanted to be paid in artwork instead.”
After spending 20-plus years as a full-time mom to her three boys, she finally gave in to a persistent friend wanting Burk to join her in taking private art lessons. Burk agreed and was surprised at how much she enjoyed herself, painting her first work in 2011 from a photograph of her son fly-fishing. “I really couldn’t believe when I saw a painting taking shape.”
Suddenly, Burk was cranking out works in pastels and oil at a furious rate. When the teacher retired and moved out of state, she told Burk she should begin teaching others — but Burk only wanted to keep learning. While she didn’t know where or with whom, her husband, a longtime pulmonologist in Fort Worth, had an idea. “John came up with the perfect solution. He said, ‘Let’s turn the rental house into a studio.’“
The Burks live just west of Fort Worth in an unincorporated area with an Aledo address, where they keep horses and a trio of dogs. Their family home sits less than 100 yards away from a ranch-style house they’d long used as a rental property. When it became vacant five years ago, they painted the interior white and added some light fixtures; the home’s large picture windows already allowed natural light to flood the rooms. Easels are set up in close proximity to each other in the former living and dining rooms, allowing as many as 14 artists to work — albeit in close quarters — at once.
Soon after, Burk persuaded accomplished Granbury-based artist James Spurlock to spend one day each week working with the group, many of whom Burk had met in her previous art lessons and some of whom came in as friends of friends. Every Wednesday, he spends the day moving from artist to artist, each of whom is in a different point in a different painting. At present, all the artists are women, but men have been in the group. Some have been painting for years, while others are new to the discipline.
Spurlock, whom Burk calls “nurturing and funny and perfect for us,” easily tailors his approach to each artist. Calling himself more of a facilitator than a teacher, he heaps equal amounts of praise on their talents and their spirit.
“I just try to show basic fundamental techniques and where they can use them,” Spurlock says, noting that with coaching, he helps those who are harboring doubts move forward. “I get them out of thinking, ‘I can’t paint eyes’ and to look at the work as a design with color and light and shapes and volumes and textures. Many of them are doing things they’ve never done before. And I’m very impressed with how they’re challenging themselves.”
Calling herself the newbie in the group after four years, Gregg says getting started was surprisingly easy. The supportive, encouraging nature of her fellow artists — whom she considers highly skilled — made the transition into the unknown comfortable. Today she paints mostly abstracts, full of color. She gives her work away to family and friends, with no thought of trying to sell them. “I’m just there for the process.”
“When we’re there, the world goes away. You don’t think about problems, or anything,” says Disney, who goes once or twice a week to the studio. “We paint, we talk, we have fun. Mostly we get inspiration from each other. I always come home refreshed. And then I’m ready to do it again.”
The artists were thrilled to mount a recent show at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, and Burk —who paints almost every afternoon — dreams of expanding the studio to include an exhibit space. As it is, her work covers the studio walls, each painting finished in beautiful wood frames crafted by her husband. Her paintings include West Texas and Colorado landscapes, a rocky Maine coastline and cowboys working a roundup at the famous Lambshead Ranch. But they’re not hanging there for long; she sells much of her work.
“It’s a great, talented group,” Spurlock says. “I’ve watched most of the eaglets get out of the nest and just soar. One day they won’t need me.”