words: Marla Cantrell
Images: courtesy Dell Eddins
The directions Dell Eddins sends are written as precisely as anything you’d find on MapQuest. Cut through Fayetteville, Arkansas, wind your way to the land of Goshen (population 1,071), find a rocky road that appears to be a driveway but is not, snake up the half-mile one-lane path. Along the way there are subdivisions filled with the kind of extravagant houses that often made my mama shake her head and say, “I couldn’t even pay the light bill if I lived there.”
But those showplaces are just landmarks on the way to Dell’s. She lives in an even better place, in a cottage so picture perfect it could be an illustration in a storybook. It feels like a secret, high atop the mountain, surrounded by 112 unfettered acres that are loud with songbirds on this bright morning. Her place is the kind of beautiful artists live for. And it just so happens that Dell is one of those artists, a woman who paints magnificently, capturing the glory of horses, the impish delight of goats, the majesty of housecats, the sweet spirit of happy dogs.
Dell’s love of animals started early. In kindergarten she remembers her tiny hand holding a chubby pencil. When she drew, it was almost always horses. It wasn’t so very long before her teachers in Pine Bluff began commenting on how real those horses looked. But she wanted more than an image of a horse, and she thought that drawing them was a way of making an actual horse show up. Her dad, an insurance man, wasn’t as sold on the idea as she was, but he finally gave in, when she was eleven, buying a horse named Dusty.
Dell laughs when she tells the story. “I was just horse crazy and Dusty was the love of my life. Some girls grow out of that phase, move onto boys. But my life was all about horses. Even as a teenager I spent my time riding with my girlfriends who also loved horses. If I wasn’t riding, I was reading or drawing. I stayed pretty naive through those years, which is not a bad thing.”
After high school, she headed to William Woods University in Missouri to major in equestrian studies and minor in art. But she left after her freshman year to attend Hendrix, where she planned to focus solely on art. That is until she learned she’d have to have a senior show. What she lacked then was self-confidence, and the thought of that public display stopped her. She switched her major to psychology, earned her degree and ended up moving to Memphis where she did everything from cleaning houses to working in a French bakery.
Eventually, she ended up in grad school, getting her master’s in counseling. She worked in the field but knew it wasn’t her life’s calling. At the same time, she’d taken a side job managing a Welsh pony farm while the owner traveled to Wales. “That temporary job ended up lasting three years, and I just loved being with the ponies.”
This is the point in Dell’s story where romance comes in. She fell in love, got married, moved to a little town halfway between Jonesboro and Memphis, in the land of cotton. She lived in the country, raised colored Angora goats, sheared them, spun the yarn, and wove rugs, many of them flat-weave tapestries with Navajo designs.
In 1998, when Dell was in her mid-forties, everything changed. She and her husband, a man she still speaks kindly of, divorced, and Dell was looking for a place to stay. A place where she could take her trove of animals, including her horse.
It was as if all her stars aligned. She had friends in Fayetteville. She had another friend who owned the place where she lives now, and it was empty at the time. Dell remembers pulling up the road, her goats in a trailer behind her, two Great Pyrenees dogs, a couple of rabbits, and thinking, this is it. This is home.
Today, the house is alive with art. In her studio, three paintings are in various stages of completion. Outside, Dell’s goat, Orphan Annie, lazes in the sun. She is not one of the original goats; this little lady showed up on her own when she was only a few months old, pushed her way through the fence and declared Dell’s place her home. Beside Orphan Annie are eight ponies that Dell keeps for Personal Ponies, a charity that teams ponies with special needs kids and adults. She’s been a volunteer for years now, and served for a time as the state president. Farther away are ten horses, some Dell’s, some that she boards.
It is an idyllic life, but not always an easy one. She works hard. For ten years she’s been doing barefoot trimming, which is sculpting horses’ hooves in a way that allows them to forego horseshoes. By the fall of 2011, the hard labor was catching up with her, and then Dell got sick. Really, really sick, and her condition flummoxed her doctors. Whatever was wrong, it had exhausted her. As she slowly recovered she took inventory of her life and decided she had to pull back, and so she whittled down her trimming business significantly.
At the same time, she was itching to get back to painting. For three months she was too sick to do much of anything, but she remembers thinking that she was strong enough to hold a paintbrush. She signed up for a class at The Art Location in Fayetteville, something she says saved her life. “It was a Monday night class, and I’d be so sick, but something happened there in the acrylics class. It was like the floodgates opened and I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. A friend came in and saw my first painting, still on the easel, and asked if it was for sale.”
In the spring, Dell was confident enough to sign up for a figure painting class, working with models, at the University of Arkansas. “It was the most challenging semester of my life,” Dell says. “Stephanie Pierce is an incredible instructor, a demanding teacher, and so intuitive. She opened my eyes in more ways than I can tell you.”
During this time, Stephanie encouraged her students to go to UA-Fort Smith for a session with a visiting artist, Catherine Kehoe, who teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. And it was in this workshop that everything became crystal clear to Dell. “She said, ‘When you start painting horses, when you start painting what you love, it’s going to be different. You’re going to get it.’”
Before that session, Dell thinks she was pulling a D in Stephanie’s class. After, her work skyrocketed. “I think the change in me had been building during that whole semester. Suddenly, it was like I had new eyes. The nude I was working on changed. My paint handling, my understanding of form and structure, it all came together. I sometimes wonder if I learned to see differently then. It was a life changing class for me, thanks to Stephanie.”
Since that class, Dell’s life has gotten better and better. Her art, mostly of animals, has been selling well. She loves doing commissions, and she’s working part-time at Painting With a Twist in Fayetteville, where she helps set up art classes. “It’s such a happy place, such a great experience. The instructor stands on stage and walks the class through a project. They have beer and wine and soft drinks, so it’s like a great party filled with art.
“When I got sick I was so afraid. I didn’t know what was next. I knew I didn’t want to return to counseling even though I could have gone back and gotten my license. I loved horses and trimming hooves, but I couldn’t continue to do that because my body was just wearing down. When I went to college I remember some wise adult saying, ‘Oh well, do your art but know that you’re never going to make a living at it.’ It was disheartening and I believed it for a long time.”
It took years to get past that comment. And it took a crisis that caused Dell to reevaluate what she truly wanted. She went back to the beginning where her purest intentions were: she loved horses, she loved art.
Dell is telling this part of her story near one of her outbuildings that was once used to house canned goods years and years ago. Whoever built this had an artist’s heart. There are two angels in the design, with two perfectly round stones for heads; long, triangular rocks for bodies; chiseled stones for wings.
As Dell talks, her pony Robin ambles up, and she reaches down to pet his sweet head. Inside, three unfinished paintings sit on easels. Each is extraordinary, but Dell is suspicious of the one with three kids on horseback. Something is off, she says, though it looks perfect to the untrained eye. There is talk of starting over, scrapping the whole thing, but in a few days Dell will decide it’s worth saving.
Her whole life has been like that, finding what’s not working and changing it into something that does, and then making what’s working into something incredibly beautiful. She’ll tell you it’s not her. She’ll tell you her life works because so many friends and family have helped her along the way, and that may be true. But there is also something in Dell, a way of living that sees nature as the greatest thing, and animals as subjects for incredible paintings, and living as a wonderful experiment, where you get to learn anything you want, as long as you’re willing to try.
To see Dell’s work, visit her Facebook page or her website, delleddins.com.