Artist Sharon Crute’s paintings are an all-access pass to the exciting and elusive world of thoroughbred racing.
So vibrant and realistic, Ocala equine artist Sharon Crute’s thoroughbred racing oil paintings may have you taking a step back for fear of being trampled. Her steeds, wide-eyed creatures of incomparable beauty and stunning power, deliver an exhilarating rush as they appear to race off the canvas toward the finish line.
While Crute’s racing scenes are all brazen color and power in motion, her racetrack backside portraits are more intimate, with a still-life quality to them. Grooms quietly tend to their charges, brushing and saddling them in the muted light of dawn for their morning gallops. Exercise riders guide their mounts to and from the racetrack on shaded paths, almost as though on a trail ride. Once the horses are back from their exercise, the grooms again take over. They give the equine athletes warm soapy baths, hose rinses and then walks to cool them down. As a treat, the horses are grazed on the end of a lead rope, in between barns in the afternoon. Here on the backside, it’s all about a one-to-one connection between man and beast.
“There is a duality to thoroughbreds. They can calm people down by their mere presence and yet are explosive when racing,” says Crute. “They are a subject of endless fascination for me and continue to inspire my art.”
The passionate authenticity in Crute’s art is born of five decades and counting of working with thoroughbreds on racetrack backsides.
“I paint the life that I have lived and continue to live,” offers Crute, a horse-crazy kid who began working on a racetrack backside at 15 and later married a thoroughbred trainer. “My life and my art have always complemented each other. I consider myself to be very fortunate.”
Art And Racehorses
While she doesn’t remember a time she wasn’t drawing and painting, Crute does recall with clarity her early introductions to thoroughbred racing.
“I grew up in rural Rhode Island, where the biggest thing to happen every year was the state fair. And there would be horse races there in a more casual setting than a racetrack,” she shares. “I was 4 years old when my father put me up on his shoulders so I could see the races. That was the first time I saw horses racing.”
Crute’s father and older brother were avid horse racing fans, going to the races at Narragansett Park in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, almost every Saturday during the meet.
“I’d always plead with my father to take me to the races and one Saturday he actually said yes,” recalls Crute. “But the problem was that I was only 12 and you had to be 16 to get into the grandstand. My father told me to just tell the guy at the admission booth that I was 16. Don’t think that man believed me, but he let me in and that was all that mattered to me.”
In a life-changing moment that day, Crute’s father later took her down from the grandstand to stand close to the starting gates for a race.
“It was so exciting to see those racehorses so close. And when the gates opened, I was overwhelmed by the sounds and flashing colors as the horses raced past us,” she recounts. “It was in that moment that I became hooked on racehorses. And not long after that, I started painting them.”
Intent on being a racehorse trainer, Crute once again lied about her age and at 15 got a summer job at the racetrack.
“My first job was as a hot walker,” she says. “On the racetrack, hot walkers walk horses after their morning gallops or races around the barn shed-row to cool them down. I thought it was the best job in the world.”
After graduating high school, Crute attended the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She graduated in 1978 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, majoring in painting.
“In the summers, I would still work on the racetrack backside and had moved up to becoming a groom,” she notes. “Once I graduated, I continued to work on the racetrack while also pursuing my art career.”
And, as fate would have it, a racetrack connection led Crute to her future husband, Michael Bray, who was the son of a perennial leading trainer on the Northeast racing circuit.
“A longtime friend of mine had previously worked for Michael’s father. I was visiting her in Miramar, Florida, at the same time Michael and his parents were renting a house in nearby Lakeland,” she shares. “My friend invited me along to visit them and Michael was there. We hit it off immediately.”
Fittingly enough, the two were married by a racetrack chaplain in his office between races at Miramar-based Calder Race Course in 1980.
“Michael had been asking me to marry him,” offers Crute, chuckling. “When I finally said yes, we hurried to get blood tests and the marriage license. Then, on Halloween, Michael had horses running at Calder so that seemed to be the best place to get married. And, as a bonus, I became the all-around assistant of his racing stable.”
On The Move
The couple moved to California in the mid-1980s, being active on both the Northern and Southern racing circuits of that state. When not on the backside, Crute continued with her artwork and had other jobs.
“While we were in California, I was a contract mural artist for SeaWorld,” she says. “I had a stint as a racing official and was in charge of program production for the California Authority of Racing Fairs.”
In 1989, the couple relocated to Ocala, Michael’s hometown.
“I loved Ocala right away. If you’re a horse person, how can you not love Ocala?” questions Crute. “My first job in Ocala was as a production manager with The Florida Horse magazine. Of course, I continued with my artwork.”
Crute began to make a name for herself with her signature large, 48-inch by 60-inch, racing-scenes paintings. She was then selected to design the prototype life-size fiberglass horse for the initial Horse Fever Community Art Project in 2001. Crute also designed and painted Cultural Champ, a foal-sized fiberglass horse, which was the project’s ambassador to spread awareness and support. She painted Champ, which is adorned with the brightly painted silks of Ocala’s prominent thoroughbred breeders and owners. Champ still stands today at the front of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association headquarters in Ocala. Crute’s World Champ, part of the 10th anniversary Horse Fever project, stands in Ocala’s downtown square.
“It was truly an honor for me to be involved with the Horse Fever projects,” she offers. “It’s nice to see the horses still all around Ocala.”
The Summer Place To Be
After applying for and being awarded an artist vendorship at the historic Saratoga Race Course in 2010, Crute and Bray were once again on the move. The boutique Saratoga summer meet has long been known as “The Summer Place To Be” and a very good place for an artist.
“Only six artists are allowed in the vendorship program at a time. So, I was very pleased and honored to be one of them,” Crute shares. “During this time, I really built up a great client and collectors base that remains today. Commissions are the majority of my work.”
Crute and Bray, who took a break from training, even bought a giclee printer to reproduce her artwork.
“We did very well. And living in the beautiful Saratoga area was wonderful,” shares Crute. “In 2019, Michael decided to go back to training. Then COVID hit. I stayed in New York for a little longer before joining Michael in Ocala in 2020. We have a small string of racehorses and race primarily at Tampa Bay Downs.”
For the first time in decades, Crute isn’t spending as much time on the racetrack backside. Now she is devoting more time to her art, joining her husband when one of their horses is racing.
“I have a great studio in a backyard storage unit,” notes Crute, who continues to have gallery representation in Saratoga. “It has a garage door that goes up and lets in great light. I spend most days in there, painting away.”
On this particular day, Crute, who has always worked in oil and from racetrack photos she has taken over the years, is bringing to life a 16-inch by 20-inch Delaware Park saddling paddock scene.
“Oils have always been my medium because I love the richness of the colors and the long drying time. I like to work wet-to-wet and will even mix colors right on the canvas,” she explains, picking up a paintbrush to demonstrate on the color of the horse being walked around the paddock.
Then she uses a Q-tip to blur the colors of the stone grandstand building, explaining, “I like my backgrounds to have soft edges like the stone grandstand buildings at the back of the paddock. The softness of the background makes the focal point, a groom leading a horse around the paddock, pop out.”
For Crute, painting is all about energy.
“I can connect with the energy of whatever I’m painting because I’ve been there and experienced it,” expresses Crute, who always paints standing up. “Taking my own pictures also helps preserve that energy for me; some of my paintings are compilations of several pictures. By the time I finish a painting, I usually have a name for it.”
Crute has no shortage of work to keep her in the backyard studio most days, beginning in the morning until afternoon. Her portfolio also includes thoroughbred farm scenes, mares and foals under grand oaks or horses galloping on farm training tracks. She has a growing interest in plein air and would like to expand on that going forward.
“I still truly love racehorses,” assures Crute, smiling. “There is something so special, so magical about them. Their spirit continues to infuse my art and always will.” OS
To learn more, go to sharoncrute.com