Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

Deanna Vonada Preserves Memories With Artistic Vision



Born and raised in State College, Pa., home of Pennsylvania State University, with both parents working at the school and surrounded by the Nittany Lion frenzy that is “Happy Valley,” Deanna Vonada’s decision to attend PSU was no surprise.
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Born and raised in State College, Pa., home of Pennsylvania State University, with both parents working at the school and surrounded by the Nittany Lion frenzy that is “Happy Valley,” Deanna Vonada’s decision to attend PSU was no surprise.

Having majored in art and advertising—not necessarily two of central Pennsylvania’s hot-button career opportunities—she followed a more unexpected path in her choice to return to Penn State to be one of the
coaches of their Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team, while combining her two great passions in life, horses and art, as an animal portrait artist.

“I don’t think there was ever really an option!” said Vonada, 39, of her college choice. She was just as sure of her course of study, sans any outside influence, having already produced her first commercial portrait in 1982 in her early teens.

“Portraits, I think, provide a sense of longevity to the owner. A photo can be just a moment in time that is lost, but a portrait goes beyond that,” she explained.

A lifelong animal lover, Vonada began riding at age 8, and after her parents bought her a horse, the bond only grew. When she was in the seventh grade, someone set fire to their barn where her horse and a number of boarders were kept, and all of them were lost to the blaze.

“I’ve never really thought about it before, but I guess I’ve always wanted to preserve them—my horses, my dogs—somehow,” she said.

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Vonada, who donates one of her custom pieces to the IHSA Cacchione Cup winner every year at nationals, works to capture the essence of an animal in each portrait, whether an equine subject or house pet.

“Ideally, I get to see the animal in person, but I’ll at least ask the client to write something about them for me so I can get an idea of what they’re really like,” she explained. “I try to put their personality into it, so it’s not just a physical likeness.”

When she’s not crafting memories for animal owners, she’s helping to foster them for members of the Penn State Equestrian Team, the club-level IHSA team she helped lead to a second-placed national ranking
last year.

“We led all weekend, and it came down to the very end. We lost by 1 point in the last class,” she said. “It was great. We felt no pressure; it was really a no-lose situation for us.”

The PSET’s club status means that most of the members’ endeavors are funded personally or via team fund-raising efforts, and instead of being based at the school, the team rides out of nearby Eastwood Farms, Bellefonte, Pa.

“I have really appreciated the amount of time Dee dedicates to the team, especially considering because of our club status, she isn’t being paid for it,” said Lauren Dowler, currently a senior, graduating this year with a degree in animal science and minor in equine science. “She’s very generous with her time, knowledge and skills. She’s the type of person if you ask her for a favor, there’s never even a question of whether she’ll help you.”

Vonada was no stranger to Eastwood when she joined the coaching staff, having ridden with farm owners/trainers David and Jane Flynn while she was in high school and later for four years with the team.
Penn State earned the national co-championship in 1989, the year Vonada graduated, although she wasn’t on that nationals squad despite consistent top performances, having typically only ridden during the regular show season due to study abroad and internship commitments.

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“I was exposed to the team all throughout high school because I rode with [Eastwood],” she said. “Because I worked with David, I also think that it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I’d ride for them when I was in college!”

Having graduated, Vonada intended to pursue a more citified lifestyle in Philadelphia, but she soon found herself missing riding too much. An opportunity to become assistant coach for Penn State presented itself, and she took it.

“In coaching, the biggest thing I try to instill in them is that the time they have here counts, and it’s up to them what they do with it,” she explained. “The IHSA provides a foundation for whatever they pursue after college.”

Dowler, the PSET captain the past two years, agreed. “She not only provides support in terms of coaching but also on a personal level. I’m very thankful to her for helping me develop as a leader. She can see things in people even before they can see it for themselves. When I was a sophomore, they spoke to me about possible leadership roles within the team, and Dee especially really showed me that I had the potential to do it.

“You always know you have Dee’s support,” she added. “I definitely made some bobbles along the way, but she never wavered in her support. She trusted in my abilities even more than I did.”

David and Vonada now coach the team together with assistant Melinda Grice, following the Flynns’ divorce. A long-running personal and equine partnership has since flourished for the two, and four years ago they purchased a barn in Ocala, Fla., a location that has served as their winter base of operations for the past eight years.

“Central Pennsylvania is not necessarily the heartbeat of the horse industry, so we typically go to Vermont in the summer and [Florida] in the winter,” said Vonada, who credited Grice with keeping their Pennsylvania farm running smoothly in their absence in addition to handling team-coaching duties. “Everything we learn and acquire while we’re away eventually gets filtered back to the team.

“I’m really fortunate that I can make two of my passions my life,” she said. “Art and horses, they really suit each other.”

Stacey Reap

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