Thursday, May. 23, 2024

Larissa Ann Ray’s Favorite Subject Has Always Been The Horse

PUBLISHED

ADVERTISEMENT

While North Carolina-based artist Larissa Ann Ray is becoming increasingly known for her unique and expressive equine-inspired paintings, she calls her younger self an “unlikely equestrian.”

Ray spent much of her childhood lost in a book. In elementary school, having worked her way through all the fiction on the family bookshelf, she came across a riding handbook and read it cover to cover. Her mother, Cathy Lycholaj, noticing her daughter’s interest, led Ray to the basement and unearthed an old velvet helmet and leather riding boots. As Ray ran her fingers over the worn velvet, her mother recounted the days of saving her secretary salary to ride horses on the weekends. Ray was captivated. 

She begged for riding lessons and soon found herself looking up at an enormous, kind-eyed gelding named Silver, who ignited what would become a lifelong passion. That little girl, standing in front of that big, gray horse, had no idea how equines would later shape her life. 

But while Ray stumbled into horses accidentally, art was always a more intentional pursuit. 

The first Painted Pony Larissa Ann Ray completed was Sergeant Reckless, named in honor of the famous Korean War horse.Amanda Delgado Photo

“I had access to excellent art programs beginning in primary school,” she says. “And from the time my parents recognized my interest, they have been so supportive. I didn’t appreciate it as a kid, but I always had art supplies at the ready. 

“My mom actually still has some of my first sketchbooks, where I was doing this thing with mice in tutus,” she adds with a laugh. 

But once Ray started riding, horses quickly became her main subjects. 

Seeking Space And A Place

After high school, Ray turned down several full scholarships to spend her first year of college in New York and then a second in Colorado, studying both art and environmental studies. 

“I wanted to save the world and all the rainforests,” she says. “But the whole starving artist thing terrified me.” Seeking a path out of debt, Ray enlisted in the military. 

Her top scores on the military entrance test, and especially her strengths on the language proficiency portion, resulted
in her decision to train as a cryptologic linguist. Part of that training sent Ray to an immersion program in Morocco, where she became fluent in Arabic. She was eventually assigned to Fort Liberty, North Carolina, where she’s been since 2014. 

“I can’t give a lot of details,” she says of her military service, “but I’ve been deployed to several foreign countries overseas and have spent time in both Germany and Iraq.” 

Both art and horses took a backseat during much of her time in the military. But in 2017, Ray was coming off both a challenging professional training pipeline and a difficult divorce. Despite the struggles she knew she’d face, she decided to chase her dream of buying property and building a home. 

While still in training for her new position, Ray befriended her military instructor Amber Mabus when Ray noticed her browsing horse sale ads online during a class break. Mabus’ husband, Seth Mabus, a retired command sergeant major, was starting his own construction company, and Ray signed him on as her builder. 

Ray returned from an additional months-long training with nowhere to live. She bought a 1978 Airstream Argosy trailer that needed major renovations and hooked it up on Seth and Amber’s property, giving riding lessons to their two boys in place of rent. For the first week, the trailer was without a functioning bathroom, and so she used the horse barn while repairs took place. For far longer, she took showers at work. 

“Art didn’t happen in the camper,” she says. “I was pretty much in survival mode.” 

After searching for months, Ray purchased the land for her dream home and then went on deployment. She returned to a new home—and with a budding romance taking shape. Her relationship with Griffin Ray, a Marine she met overseas, was proving serious. 

“I thought it would be a summer romance,” she says. “Back in the States, we lived several hours apart. But Griffin just kept showing up and supporting me with whatever I needed.” The two married several years later, in the fall of 2023. 

ADVERTISEMENT

When Larissa’s home was finished, and she had adequate space, she felt a pull back to both art and equines. In a modest studio in her guest room, she painted during pockets of spare time, working around a busy active-duty military schedule. At an art workshop, Larissa met another equine artist who invited her to come riding. Larissa accepted the invitation, and her feet have been planted firmly in both the art and equestrian worlds ever since. 

Painted Ponies

In 2020, Larissa happened to visit a stable belonging to Bryan Rosenberg, the president of the board of directors of the Carolina Horse Park. The two chatted about the Painted Ponies Art Walk, a fundraiser for the Carolina Horse Park Foundation where local artists, sponsored by local businesses, paint life-sized fiberglass horses. The ponies are on display
for a months-long “parade” and are then auctioned off to support the nonprofit. Larissa casually mentioned if there was ever a need for an artist for future fundraisers, to let her know. 

Organizers were interested in Larissa’s involvement in 2021, and so were Seth and Amber. To promote their new construction business, they agreed to sponsor Larissa’s Painted Pony. Inspired by their collective military service, the team wanted their horse to pay homage to both the local military community and the larger nation. 

And in the house that Seth built, Larissa brought that vision to life. 

“The horse was just inside the entryway,” Larissa recalls. “The door barely cleared her tail. She scared the heck out of me a few mornings when I went to take the dog out and forgot she was there!” 

Griffin was especially helpful during this first major project. “I recruited him for a lot,” she says, laughing. “We carried the horse inside and out a bunch of times, depending on what stage I was working on. And when I needed to see how the stripes would lay, I wrapped Griffin in an American flag, and he stood there while I sketched it out on the horse.” 

“Sergeant Reckless,” the largest art piece Larissa had ever tackled in both physical size and public exposure, was named after the fiery little mare who aided Marines during the Korean War. The mare carried ammunition, delivered supplies and transported wounded soldiers—often without a handler. She was wounded twice in combat and is the only animal in the U.S. Marine Corps to have her own military rank. When she died at Camp Pendleton (California), Sergeant Reckless was buried with full military honors. 

“I wanted Reckless not only to be beautiful symbolically,” Larissa says, “but I also wanted to create a beautiful piece of art. Horses and military service are intrinsic to my life’s story. This project was intensely personal.” 

“I wanted Reckless not only to be beautiful symbolically, but I also wanted to create a beautiful piece of art. Horses and military service are intrinsic to my life’s story. This project was intensely personal.” 

Larissa’s “Sergeant Reckless” is cloaked in stripes of white and red; her proud navy head is speckled with white stars. Crimson poppies, international emblems of support and remembrance for military communities, blanket her hindquarters. The number of poppies on “Reckless,” 22, is the number of veterans per day who lose their battle with post- traumatic stress disorder on U.S. soil. 

But perhaps the most powerful symbol is the gold star on her forehead. Gold stars represent service members that lost their lives during times of conflict, and “Reckless” bears this marking as a tribute to families who have carried the weight of that ultimate sacrifice. 

It’s fitting then that this horse was won at auction by a friend—bidding from a deployment in Iraq—whose husband had been killed in Afghanistan. 

“I was humbled and honored,” Larissa says. “With her being a gold-star spouse, I can’t imagine ‘Reckless’ being anywhere else.” 

Larissa went on to paint two more Painted Ponies, a foal in 2022 and a second full-sized figure in 2023 that she called “Where Liberty Dwells.” “Liberty’s” sponsors wanted Larissa to represent the area but entrusted her with the creative freedom to do so. Inspired by a local nature preserve, Larissa’s third Painted Pony features foxhunting images amid the flora and fauna of the region. Several cardinals, North Carolina’s state bird and symbols of hope and remembrance, grace her neck.

And like “Reckless,” “Liberty” advocates for military and veteran mental health and suicide prevention with the gold star on her own forehead. 

North Carolina horse trainer Amanda Delgado is Larissa’s next-door neighbor and close friend, and she credits “Reckless” for Larissa’s transcendence from an artist who “painted pretty horses” to something far greater. 

“Being in Southern Pines,” Delgado says, “everyone knows a veteran who died by suicide or in combat, but people struggle to talk about it. Larissa brought the subject to light in such a beautiful way. A lot of people finally felt seen. When a person is grieving such an enormous loss, someone who says, ‘I acknowledge you’ can be the greatest source of comfort. Larissa pours her soul into her work; she wants her art to say something, and to mean something.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

While “Liberty” stood on parade, Larissa was invited to be artist-in-residence at the 2023 Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International CCI & Horse Trial (North Carolina). She would be painting live, a new adventure that she called both exciting and terrifying. 

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to paint,” she says. “On the table at the welcome dinner were trading cards of many of that year’s competitors. The show organizers picked one at random—Will Coleman—and I went home and sketched a photo of him on his horse.” 

The first day of the event, Larissa forgot her palette and had to use a clipboard for her paints. However, she quickly found her flow, inspired by the horses and riders around her and the spectators that were excited about her artwork. 

After the dressage phase of the event, Coleman himself stopped by the VIP area, passing Larissa’s easel. Recognizing himself and his horse, he asked if he could take a photo to send to his wife. Larissa felt starstruck. 

Shortly after the Carolina International, Larissa was asked to participate in a charity fundraiser at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Several saddles would be painted by artists, signed by top riders, and auctioned off at the event’s conclusion. Larissa was serendipitously assigned to paint Coleman’s saddle—the same rider she painted live just months earlier. 

Larissa Ann Ray poses with the two saddles she painted at the 2023 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Kristin Richards Photo

Coleman’s saddle was shipped to her home, and she spent weeks laying out and painting the design: Coleman and his horse jumping down one flap, hunting images on the other, and two cardinals, symbols of both Kentucky and North Carolina, on the seat for luck. 

But as luck wouldn’t have it, the finished saddle was lost in the mail on its way to Kentucky. Organizers were devastated and apologetic and invited Larissa to attend the event and paint a second saddle there. 

Coleman’s saddle ended up arriving back on Larissa’s doorstep just days before she was set to leave for Kentucky, and she joked that she was hesitant to tell organizers that it had been found, afraid she would no longer be needed in person. But her fears were for naught; they told her to pack it in the car and start driving. 

So she arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park, Coleman’s finished saddle in hand, and was then delivered another gem: Boyd Martin’s Stübben that he had used for numerous top events, including an Olympic Games. 

“It all just came full circle,” she says. “My first live painting was a canvas of Will Coleman, and I got to experience the challenge of painting live. Then I painted Coleman’s saddle at home, where I was able to take my time and play around with the challenges of painting on leather in the privacy of my own studio. I was so ready, then, to paint Boyd Martin’s saddle at the event. 

“It’s so much fun to paint live,” she continues. “Little kids stop and stare, open-mouthed, as I work. It’s an honor to be an ambassador for art and to inspire people to get creative on their own projects too.” 

Larissa’s journey takes another turn this spring when, after 12 years of active-duty military service, she will retire and transition to civilian life. She’s excited to have more time to devote to painting and about what will come next. 

“I’m grateful for my art,” she says. “It’s been a constant for me throughout my life, and it will be there for me as I transition from military life. But my artistic journey has been shaped by my experiences, including my service, which deepened my appreciation for the landscapes, cultures and profound beauty that surround us. 

“My life’s path has been so winding, but I needed the military and my experiences in service to gain the courage to make the art I’m making today,” she continues. “I’ve been lucky to have so many amazing people, whether military leaders, friends or neighbors, come into my life at just the right time. I have a lot to be grateful for.” 

And so does the community she serves: In just three years, Larissa’s artwork has raised over $30,000 for various charities. 

“One of the things I’m most proud of,” she says, “is the good I’ve been able to do with my art.” 


A this article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Untacked. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse