If you’re from out of town, one of the first things you’ll probably notice about Shawnee driving around are the large, painted horse sculptures: Scattered throughout town on street corners overlooking sidewalks, either standing strong or bucking wildly, all with bold and unique designs. Maybe you’ve seen similar public art initiatives elsewhere, like the painted bison in Oklahoma City or the penguins in Tulsa. Regardless, Shawnee’s painted horses have a story behind them, and their legacy has become the talk of visitors and residents alike, with businesses asking to sponsor new horses every year.
So, how did the painted horses get their start? Back in 2007, Shawnee mayor Chuck Mills saw an opportunity for a great public art project to coincide with the State of Oklahoma’ Centennial Celebration. The original project was a public art and civic pride partnership, designed to range from September 2007 through February 2008. Initially titled “Horse in the City”, the spirit of the project hoped to celebrate the civic pride and artistic creativity of Oklahomans in a way that all Oklahomans can enjoy.
As it is originally described in its formative documents, “Horse in the City is a citywide public art presentation designed to enliven cultural activity and increase tourism to Shawnee. The horses are to be sponsored by companies, organizations, and individuals, and be transformed into multimedia works of art by local artists and craftspeople.” The original framework made it an officially recognized partner with the State Centennial and allowed room for up to 100 painted horses. While the project landed a little short of that milestone, horses continued to be sponsored far beyond its original timeframe.
The project was meant to simultaneously accomplish three things: Introduce art to the public, express Shawnee’s heritage via an emblematic animal symbol, and to bring artists and sponsors together to collaborate in order to enrich the community around them.
The documents continue to explain the motivations behind the project: “Horse in the City is an exciting way to introduce art to the general public. Life-size fiberglass horses will make an impression hard to miss around Shawnee as some of the region’s most talented artists ‘bring to life’ these magnificent ambassadors and icons of times past and present.”
“The horse is the perfect icon for this project,” the documents elaborate. “They are easily recognizable symbols of our state. Big and powerful, yet peaceful and quiet.” Horses are also a significant part of local culture, such as the International Finals Youth Rodeo and other Western-style events Shawnee hosts annually.
Not meant to be advertisements, but an initiative for public beauty, the original vision for the painted horses was to allow sponsors to have their identity worked into the artist’s design. “It is extremely important for both the artist and the sponsor to understand that we are promoting public art as our number one goal.”
The popularity of the horses is enduring, and while one is occasionally damaged or defaced, there are around thirty horses on display in the city of Shawnee as of 2019, and new horses are planned to appear very soon. While you’re visiting, keep your eyes peeled for these recent additions:
Sponsored by Pioneer Library System of Shawnee, Story Dancer (pictured above) is rendered in bright Easter pastels and features characters from favorite children’s stories like Curious George and “Where the Wild Things Are”. You can find Story Dancer at 101 N. Philadelphia Ave.
Old Ironside, sponsored by Sky Ortho at 4392 N. Union Ave., features a bolt silver paint job and details that make it look like a clockwork machine. Both horses were painted under the supervision of Julie Marks Blackstone.