When she was 9, Teri Zucksworth entered a papier mché horse in an art competition at the Illinois State Fair. She still has the gold ribbon she won.
That recognition fueled a lifelong passion for art, especially the depiction of animals. At age 16, she produced her first commissioned piece: a colored-pencil drawing of a calico cat for a friend. Today Zucksworth, now 46, works full-time at an insurance-claims office, but she continues to pursue her artistic calling after hours.
"I'd bring in my colored-pencil drawing of horses, dogs and cats to show the people I worked with, and word got around," Zucksworth says. Co-workers and others began asking her to draw their pets, and so far she's produced about 50 such commissioned pet portraits.
But Zucksworth always wanted to do more original work. To that end, she's devoted more studio time and produced large lithographs of wild animals. Prints and notecard renditions of those works met with success, but Zucksworth was tugged in a different direction.
Three years ago, Zucksworth decided that she would attempt to sculpt a horse's head. "A feeling just came to me that I should do this," she says.
Completing her first example took most of the spring and summer of 2001.
The process is labor-intensive. First Zucksworth sculpts a head -- minus its ears -- using a chicken-wire base topped with papier mché and drywall and spackling compounds. Then she creates a mold by applying several layers of latex, which can take several months. Separate molds are prepared for the ears. Plaster is poured into the molds, and that's where her fiancé, Brent Brockman, comes into the picture. The complete assemblage of plaster, base and mold weighs about 70 pounds.
"If it weren't for Brent, I would not be sculpting horse heads, because I could never move them at that stage in the process," she says.
After it hardens, the outer mold is gently separated from the base, and the plaster is allowed to cure. During this two-week period, the sculpture loses about 10 pounds of water. Zucksworth adds the ears and then finishes the cast with acrylic paints and synthetic hair. Instead of artificial horse eyeballs, Zucksworth uses replicas of deer eyes, purchased from a taxidermy supplier. The molds can be used for multiple casts.
Although her typical sculpture is best displayed from a horizontal surface such as a mantel or shelf, Zucksworth also produces three-dimensional profile sculptures that can be mounted on a wall.
Most of the heads she's produced will be used as display pieces in galleries and gift shops. "That does not mean they're not for sale," Zucksworth says. "I anticipate that most of my sculptures will be custom-finished to resemble a horse owner's or enthusiast's favorite steed."
Her work has rewarded Zucksworth with a small legion of appreciative friends, but the rise to national notoriety, the target she has set for her sculptures, has been "less than meteoric."
In fact, she only scored her first sale in recent weeks.
"When I was accepted to sell my prints and jewelry at a booth at the Illinois Artisans Village in August of 2002, I took along my first horse head, almost as an afterthought. But it drew a lot of attention. A woman from the Arlington Parkracetrack talked to me for half an hour. She said that it would be a hit among horse breeders."
At that point, Zucksworth recalls, her sculpture became more than a calling -- it became a commitment. "The lady from Arlington gave me some ideas about what would appeal to horse people, and I made my next sculpture more anatomically correct than the first. Then it was a matter of building up inventory so I could sell a few and still have some to show. Then I put a brochure together that describes the horse heads. To do this as I expect I will have to do it, I hope to pour at least three heads a week. I want to have 10 available. If I can tap into the [equestrian] market, I know I can sell them."
Her commitment involves working in her studio for as long as three hours most evenings. Fiancé Brockman, a talented guitarist and watercolorist, often works at his easel in a separate studio but within eye contact. "Having common interests allows us to feed off each other's energy and inspire each other," Zucksworth says.
Zucksworth has experimented with different marketing tacks: "I put one up for sale on eBay, but the reserve price was not met, so I decided that's not the way to go with these. A gift shop is probably a better way to go."
In Springfield, Zucksworth's lithographs and a horse-head sculpture may be viewed and purchased at Prairie House, 3013 Lindbergh Blvd. Gallery associate David McCrackenis impressed with her art: "She has a nice talent for the realistic side."
During the Illinois Horse Fair, in early March, Zucksworth sold her first horse-head sculptures. "They were bought by a vendor who's going to be taking the three he purchased to horse shows all over the country," she says. At this early stage in her career as a sculptor, she has reconsidered her decision to offer horse heads for $300 and half-heads for $150. "There has to be some flexibility when you're starting out, and it's important to get examples into businesses and homes. In the long run, I believe it will pay off."
Now that she has produced several examples of her work, Zucksworth is planning trips to galleries in Chicago and is looking for an agent. She's already committed to an art show at Lincoln Land Community College in July and a juried exhibition in Lexington, Ky.
"I want to get to where the horse people are," she says.
During his life, Vincent van Gogh sold just two of his paintings -- both to his brother, an art dealer. Just on the basis of her record so far, Teri Zucksworth has surpassed at least one world-class artist. This congenial number-cruncher appears to have found her niche as an artist.
"I hope Springfieldians will take advantage of an upstart artist's career while it's in the upstart mode. In a few years, a lot of my friends won't be able to afford me," she says with a smile.
For information on Zucksworth's sculptures, see www.aeroknow.com/artisteri.htm