Vintage Customs are making a rambunctious comeback, being pulled from their dusty boxes and shelves to find new life in the growing number of Vintage Custom shows and divisions. It seems we want to remember our past as though we yearn for something too-long forgotten. Truly, Vintage Customs embody a charm, an innocence, a naive earnestness that speaks to the time when our arts were being discovered and developed. Essentially, we were learning what we're all about, and Vintage Customs show us loud and clear that we're fundamentally a creative, imaginative bunch. And even more so, that no matter our tastes or ambitions, we're united under one flag with our love of all things equine.
In this way, the Vintage Custom represents more than itself—it epitomizes our aspirations, our wide-eyed, enthusiastic celebration of the horse. It's something uniquely "us" that, like a road map, tracks our evolution as an art form and as a community. It also brings us together by reaffirming our winsome memories and enduring ties, being the nexus for so many of our friendships and aspirations. The Vintage Custom also reminds us of who we were, giving us better perspective on where we're going now. In this light, each one is a beautiful little time capsule imbued with all our hopes and dreams during that optimistic, dynamic period in our history where anyone could take up tool and brush to customize and find validation. It was the Age Of The Do-It-Yourselfer, when creativity eclipsed everything else and herds of ever-ambitious creations filled our rings. It was also when more people participated with their own creations rather than being so dependent on sought-after artists. The focus was on the fun and innovation of customizing, and everyone seemed to try their hand at customizing in some measure.
During those heady days, artistic styles, innovations, and new prerogatives arose as artists experimented and challenged themselves, forging brand new territory on the fly. Nothing was impossible given a bit of gumption and ingenuity! They were the pathfinders, the fountainhead of all our arts today. So few realize it now, but every aspect of today's creativity finds its root in the past with these pioneering artists, and we owe them a great deal for their perseverance, cleverness, and playfulness. We "stand on the shoulders of giants" as it were.
And it's hard for us to imagine nowadays with so many kinds of materials and how-to resources, but these foundation artists started out with nothing—no process or materials or guidelines! They had to develop all their techniques and discover what media worked through sheer experimentation.
Very early 70s repainted PAS by Julie Froelich.
"My first real custom horse was done when I was in high school…in the mid-seventies," reminisces D'Arry Jone Frank. "I was already quite into everything artsy, drawing and painting, so to integrate with my model horse collecting seemed like a natural progression! The Indian Pony always seemed to me to look a lot like the show hunters we had at the barn, I thought—I could modify her to be a Thoroughbred…Indeed, I thought, why had no one else thought of that? Of course, this project presented a series of problems that I had not anticipated…the biggest of which was the huge butt hole once I sawed off her tail! Remember, this was the seventies, no one was customizing so much as repainting and hairing—the most complicated we got was slightly moving a leg with hot water! (Which I did with her back leg.) I fixed the hole with paper glued down, and then covered it with Lee NailsTM, which was an acrylic fingernail lengthener that involved dipping a brush into a liquid catalyst and then into resin powder…not made for filling in a two inch-sized hole! There was a lot of sanding involved, I didn't even know what a DremelTM was back then. I carved the tail from the original, sanded off the mane, and made braids out of embroidery floss and glued them on. I did my best with acrylic paints and a brush, and shellacked the whole thing with clear nail polish! Look Me Over was a true labour of love, I even packed her and took her with me to riding school in England, just so I could look at her whenever I wanted to. And the funny thing is, I still have her. She's on a shelf in my studio, and her customizing looks exactly the same as the day I did it, no lifting, or flaking, or cracking! Go figure."
Liz Bouras shares, "I never really collected original finish plastics when I joined the model horse hobby in 1972 with my first issue of Linda Walter's The Model Horse Shower's Journal. [I] realized I could do something else with my Breyers and they all became repaint/remake fodder. I still remember the first piece I painted—it was a Proud Arabian Stallion to a dappled grey. I tried to mimic the way the dapples were painted on my Beswick chinas by painting the grey around the 'dapple' area. He was very ambitious, considering I was around eleven or twelve and he was a photo show Champion! I've always loved dappled grey, here forty-four years later I'm still trying to paint them."
Beth Peart reveals, "I started showing, but right away I looked at my models and thought, 'Nah, I can make this better.' I started painting them, and no, at the beginning, I couldn't make them better. I remember once using a paint that totally lifted the original finish off the horse! So I switched to acrylics. That worked better, but I didn't feel satisfied because I could see all the brush strokes—it dried too quickly and didn't blend well enough…I saw in some pictures how people had tried adding hair to manes and tails using PhentexTM and fake fur, or wig hair and I thought it looked so fake, because it was the wrong scale and the shine was all wrong, but I didn't like the original plastic hair either. I liked the idea of 'real' hair, [but] didn't want that out-of-scale look, so I began to experiment with different materials. I settled on rayon butcher's cord, that could be soaked to get the starch out of it, then brushed out and fashioned any way I wanted it. Then I began to see possibilities in the repositioning the horses…My dad had a workshop with tools. I began to saw apart my models and screw them into new positions, filling the gaps and re-shaping using a custom blend of non-toxic filler I made myself. Then I painted them in oils and replaced the manes and tails with rayon fiber from butcher cord that was the perfect scale and could be dyed to any colour." Beth goes onto say, "In the end, at the top of my game, what fulfilled me was having a vision of what I could accomplish and seeing it to fruition. In some ways it was like being possessed. I'd get an idea in my head about a particular model and then just go with it."
CM PAM by John Bellucci.
"Strangely enough, it was my tragic attempts at sewing that taught me how to cut what amounted to 'darts' in the plastic to allow it to expand, or bend at different points," shares Julie Froelich. "Trying to find body fillers was a challenge, since I didn't have enough experience in auto repair. 'Weird' runs (or gallops) in my family, and my mother would have rather been doing something creative or fun any day of the month rather than housework, so she was willing to participate in letting me cook model horses on the kitchen stove, take over the picnic table for photo shoots, and hold the stick with the invisible thread holding up my jumping horse going over fences with no visible support."
Paula O'Keefe says about Judy Renee Pope, "Without a doubt, Judy's major challenge as a beginner was having no idea how people achieved the results they did, what materials were used or how to find them. Living in a smallish northeast Missouri city in the days before the Internet, with one antique hobby store and very few resources, it was a real effort to get started. We did horses with carved wooden replacement legs, remade with wood putty and pottery clay, cut plastic by heating E-xactoTM knives in the stove's gas pilot light. Mad science!"
Chris Flint relates, "Everything was a challenge back then! There were no instructions of mentors when I started out (1967). I learned everything by trial and error. As I became more experienced, I experimented with different materials to learn what made the best filler, for example. Or how to heat the plastic more efficiently. Or what worked better for shaping, etc. A lot of trail and error!"
CM Indian Pony by Bev Zimmer.
"Gosh it's been so long ago, I hardly remember," says Laura Hornick-Behning. "I'd say the main challenge was the customizing materials at that time were so limited. There really wasn't anything around to fill gaps in CM models but wood filler. It was hard to sand flush with the plastic surface. And it wasn't durable. It would lift and create lumps. In the early 80s epoxy ribbon became available. It was a blue and yellow ribbon (Part A and Part B) that you mixed together to make a green epoxy. It was a little more durable but gummy to sand and hard to get as smooth as today's epoxies. My husband, Jim (who I was dating at the time), was a big help. He started me into using BondoTM to smooth over the wood filler, and with that you could get the [customized] areas a lot more level and even."
Bev Zimmer shares, "I started reworking the models because I wanted a look that I couldn't find at the time. Through fumbling and with remaking, and corresponding with others, I ended up seeing similar work out there. It was just as well I figured it out because I couldn't afford to have someone else make my 'dream horses.' I was thirteen when I started."
"When I discovered the model horse community in 1985," Maria Hjerppe reveals, "Sweden was pretty much a desolate wasteland from an equine miniature point of view. There was a handful of Swedish hobbyists—maybe five or six—and it was almost impossible to find OF models of any kind…and let's not even talk about customs!…As a result, if you wanted a custom, you more or less had to create them yourself. I remember attending my first live show in 1986 and being absolutely blown away from the works of UK artists Keren Woods (now Gilfoyle-McGroarty) and Tamara Driver. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be able to create such magnificent, magical creatures. Needless to say my first creations were neither magnificent nor magical, but I cheerfully kept at it with all of the enthusiasm of youth."
CM PAS/5-Gaiter Head by Mary Sue Humphries.
"I spent two years saving up $300 in a film canister to afford sharing a ride down to Chicago with Judy Claspill to [the] Model Horse Congress," says Julie Froelich of the biggest show at the time, hosted by Marney Walerius. "I'd found out about model horse showing via the Breyer Club—if I recall correctly—and had started showing with photos taken on my dad's 35mm camera, but live showing was new. That had to have been some time in the late 70s? Anyway, I did pretty well for someone who was totally clueless, and attempting to invent the wheel of model horsedom on my own in furthest northern Wisconsin on my own. So when I got to Congress and saw the customized models that Kathy Maestas was selling, it was kind of mind-blowing to me. I'd painted stock Breyers and even haired them (most notably one with a hank of my sister's hair stuck into a hole in its butt), but this was a whole new thing to me. No way could I afford the Maestas horses. I spent quite a lot of time wandering back to the Maestas booth and staring at the objects of my desire, fruitlessly. Eventually, Marney Walerius and I were discussing the remakes and she gave me some vital clues that the plastic they were made out of could be softened with heat and bent…So off to a sales table where I purchased for $3 each, a Proud Arabian Mare and a Proud Arabian Stallion, who I took home, brain afire, to construct my version of Frankenstein's Laboratory. I was soon to learn about 'spaghetti'ed' legs, toxic burning plastic, deformed heads, and other joys of how to reshape plastic."
Julie goes onto say, "Maybe it was a good thing that I couldn't afford the Maestas horses because it forced me to figure out how to on my own. Otherwise, I probably would have spent the next years of my life trying to scrape up money to buy other people's horses instead of making my own. Probably the closest thing I could get to one of my youthful dreams of being a horse breeder. And, yep, it got me pretty pumped up when I'd come up with some new idea or method to add to my work—things like veining, carving in frogs, and making shoes on a little mini-anvil I had from my days in Art Metal in college, etc." She goes onto reveal, "My sister is the one who turned me on to Museum Wax, that I used to affix bits to model's mouths without damage, or drilling a hole in the horse, etc. To my knowledge, I was the first person to use that for my show horses and it blew people's minds when I showed my models that way at the next Congress. By the next year, it was the standard method of holding bits in place. Not to aggrandize because it was Joy's idea and not mine."
Julie further shares, "Between wishing for Arabian horses I couldn't afford, and models I couldn't afford, I guess that was the real root of my model madness. I will also have to give a real lot of credit to the wonderfully supportive model showers of the time. Sometimes your friends would tease you with a picture of something they'd just created, and you'd tear your hair out trying to figure out how in seven hells they did that! Off to the workbench!"
CM Terrang by Chris Cook (now Flint).
Michelle Grant says, "I would go to horse shows and be inspired by what I saw. Very much like I do now with my paintings. Cruising through the books or magazines, I'd see a lovely photo of a horse and a certain pose that I liked and thought why not recreate a model out of that pose! I was always thinking outside the box, thinking of new and different ways of doing things. Swapping body parts was the next step up from melting and bending a neck to merely change a head position. Why not go totally Frankenstein, and start switching body parts for better ones? For instance, Chinook's H Colleen has an Adios head which is little more refined than the coarsely sculpted Clydesdale Mare head."
Our early artists were the vanguard, the innovators who broke new ground both with methods and materials, but also when it came to our expectations. Indeed, as their talents grew, so did our intentions. That is to say as they refined their abilities, our goals shifted with them in kind, becoming progressively focused on technical realism and quality workmanship. It was a lively time for our arts as they laid down then promptly reinvented the baselines with each new piece, causing the evolution of our arts to gallop forwards at a dizzying speed. They set the pace, and just like that, we can thank them for our almost-mad fixation on excellence and accuracy which has defined our arts today.
Yet they created their beautiful pieces in a vacuum of their own abilities, imaginations, and technologies unlike today when we're all so connected and informed. Everything they created was a product of their own resourcefulness and willingness to stretch their own boundaries as they sought to capture evermore ambitious embodiments of their fantastical visions. And with their innocence and exuberance, they inspired anyone to believe they could do it, too—that anyone could take up the reins and create their own dream horse. It was truly a time of possibility and opportunity, something that's been compromised in recent years perhaps.
Elizabeth LaRose insightfully says, "I like the exuberance you see in them—the wild imaginative thoughts people had and the way these were worked out in the conversion of an existing factory-made sculpt into something completely different and totally outside that particular box. Sometimes that vision came at the expense of anatomical accuracy, because the materials or means were not available to pull that off, and yet people went there anyway, mitigating that problem with dramatic paint work, dazzling conformational attributes like an exquisitely re-carved head, expressively-haired manes and tails, a photograph with the model wistfully examining a distant, almost magical horizon. I get the same tingly feeling from seeing photos of the older horses now that I did when I was a little girl."
"Early vintage customs shed light on what could be achieved by artists who had never seen anything of that level of realism, yet the artists pressed on, developing their styles and raising the bar for themselves and all other artists of the time with each new piece," shares Karen Beeson. "I'm especially intrigued by the early work of Julie Froelich and Nancy Strowger. I love to study the evolution of an artist's work. Which techniques and styles does an artist keep, and what does an artist further develop or discard over their artistic career? It seems that Julie Froelich adopted both ear carving and her 'scrubby brush' painting style very early on, during the 1970s. She appears to have used those early skills as a launching point to similar, but improved techniques as the years went on. It seems that she also developed her impeccable hairing techniques around that same early date. The technique was lovely and realistic, and remained much the same in her 1990s works. These artists have been inspiring and instructing me since I was a pre-teen. Thirty years later, my continued study of their work brings me new insights leading to improvement of my own art."
CM Lady Phase by Julie Froelich.
Isn't it interesting to "track" an artist's development over the years by studying their Vintage Customs? We can literally see each 'lightbulb moment" in their body of work. This makes Vintage Customs especially important since they contain within them these progressive steps that speak to the development of our arts. They're objects of living history. Today there seems to be a kind of communal amnesia about our colorful past, especially since the motivation often is to obtain the latest and greatest Artist Resin. Yet it's the Vintage Custom that reminds us of our roots, and in the truest sense, the Vintage Custom is the direct precursor to the Artist Resin. By coming to appreciate the Vintage Custom then, we come to fully embrace our community, in all the diversity and ingenuity it continues to have. Each piece has its own story to tell from the moment of its creation to its show ring past to how it now gives a voice to a time when our arts were in full bloom. Anyone could customize and was encouraged to do so, and still have a place in the show ring with their special creations. The Vintage Custom harkens back to when we created our own works simply for the pleasure of it, and for the privilege of sharing our creations with others.
"My past work reflects the time in which it was created," says Sue Rowe. "The 1970s horses with their fake fur manes and tails were cutting edge—ha ha and true. At first we didn't even remove a model's original plastic mane and tail. We simply glued fake fur over the painted plastic. Oh, the glorious puffball tails of the day!" She adds, "As artists we shared experiments and knowledge with each other—we were free to plunge ahead. Mohair? Woo hoo! Bondo? Thank you very much! Soldering irons as 'welding" tools? Awesome!…Carbone's Epoxie Putty was also a game changer."
Sue also observes, "As one of the former 'movers and shakers,' I tried my best to learn from the best and also share what I discovered on my own. We had no social media. We saw each others' actual models only occasionally. And if we were busy showing or judging there was little time to discuss customizing techniques. Perhaps that's why we see so many distinct styles in the early customs. Julie Froelich's horses looked different than Sue Rowe's. Sue's look different than D'Arry's. D'Arry's look different than Chris' or Carol's or Lee's. Collectors could choose from a wide variety of work." This pronounced distinctiveness of style and vision is characteristic of the Vintage Custom because the expectations at the time were much broader and non-specific. Indeed, collecting different Vintages isn't just amassing different models, but assembling markedly different artistic perspectives. In a very real sense, each artist represented their own idiosyncratic "school of thought" when it came to aesthetics and, as such, to behold a Vintage Custom is to discover a specific artistic outlook wholly unique to that artist. This makes preservation even more important since each Voice was totally novel and which helped to lay down the chords by which we sing today.
In response, a growing number of collectors recognize the inherent value of these almost-forgotten treasures and seek to preserve what little is left of our history. In a way, collecting Vintage Customs isn't just a memorialization of our past, but something rather rebellious in the current environment that seems to exclusively favor the new. Being so, the Vintage Custom community is growing and gladly welcomes anyone interested in the appreciation and preservation of the Vintage Custom. We scour sales and share with each other our finds, relishing the stories and remembrances they inspire.
Laurie Jensen shares, "What do I think of the Vintage Community? I love them! I love Vintage Customs (many of them are still big time winners today)…and these old horses hold their own quite nicely in the present day show ring. It is so nice to see my old work being cared for and loved. This is the thing…when one of my horses is cherished…I feel cherished. Maybe that's weird but that's how I feel. I feel truly blessed to have someone value my work and care for it so it does not end up in a dumpster. That horse is a piece of my life…my time, that I can never get back. When someone enjoy's my work it makes me feel very special."
CM Justin Morgan by Laura Hornick-Behning.
Maria Hjerppe adds, "Many of the oldies are important pieces and integral parts of our rich community history. It is fabulous when they find their ways to loving, caring homes and are preserved for the future. In cases where the artists have passed on, the horses are beautiful, permanent reminders of the talent that once was. I am happy and grateful that a number of collectors have made it their mission to collect, love, and preserve these golden oldies."
Nostalgia for the past is starting to burble up, wafting through the community, urging us to stop a moment and remember. And—heck—while the 80s were three decades ago, they still feel like yesterday to many of us! But our memories matter, our bonds are longstanding, and our shared history is even more relevant today. The delightful days of our past beckon us back to a time when things were more relaxed, friendly, and inclusive, when fun, creativity, and camaraderie were more important than winning. When innovation was renewed and creative novelty rejuvenated not just with each new piece, but with each new artist who tried their hand with clay or pigment. We've allowed ourselves to forget far too much, and our community has suffered for it.
Being so, Vintage Customs remind us of this timely lesson: Our community thrives best when inclusion is the motivator for our activity, not exclusion. As such, the Vintage Custom suggests that our arts community should embrace and support rather than discourage and disenfranchise. Folks should be excited to dive into our arts, and be confident in the belief that their efforts will find a place in our show rings. When we look back on our past, as Vintage Customs ask of us, we find that our arts best bloom when they're unburdened by having to be "the best" and are allowed to simply exist on its own terms. As we move forward through our growing pains then, the Vintage Custom encourages us to reconsider our priorities, even re-envision our motivations and goals to renew that energy from the past that compelled our participation in the first place. The Vintage Custom continues to uphold that unifying flag, reaffirming our community and advocating for our arts.
So join the unfolding story! Add a Vintage Custom to your collection and come along with those of us who love these historical creations for all that they mean to us—past, present, and future. They've brought us so much welcome enjoyment and cherished memories back in the day, and continue to do so even now with their significance, quirkiness, flair, and singular appeal. They're the very basis of our artistic dialogue, the very words of the proverbial artistic language we speak today. Even now, they still speak to us with the same intensity and moxie they once inspired as embodiments of all our everlasting dreams. All that's old is new again, and all that's new is really quite old. Vintage Customs—they continue to capture our hearts and stir our imaginations as timeless testaments to our vibrant creativity and our shared love of the equine!