A Conversation with Kelly Wilkinson Coffin

Kelly Wilkinson Coffin

Kelly Wilkinson Coffin, the 2019 poster artist for the 44thannual Hampton Classic Horse Show, is a Virginia native who served as a Naval Aviator for 10 years and later flew for US Airways. After the terror attacks of 9/11, she left commercial aviation to pursue painting full time while continuing to serve in the Naval Reserve for another decade.

As a rider, Ms. Coffin is an avid fox hunter. Her husband is equestrian Tad Coffin, a Long Island native who won double gold medals in Eventing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She lives and paints on their farm in Ruckersville, Virginia and recently, talked about her art and her love of horses.

“Passing Traditions Along” by Kelly Wilkinson Coffin.

Q: I think it’s fascinating that you were a Navy and commercial pilot before dedicating yourself full time to painting. Did you initially use art as a way to escape the stress of flying?

I always did both at the same time. I never thought of painting as a vocation. My parents said I could paint as long as I could support myself. My dad was a Naval officer and when I found out women could fly, that was it. I’m one of five kids and four of us were in the military.

Q: Do you ride horses competitively?

No, I don’t, but I ride every day. I started riding at nine years old. We lived in Arlington, Virginia and I’m grateful for those who helped a city girl who fell in love with horses as a kid to ride. I took lessons on Quantico Marine Base. A retired Marine taught me to ride, so I was used to being yelled at when I joined the military.

Q: Would you say that flying and riding horses are related?

You can’t learn to ride, fly or paint without being taught. It’s a bad idea. You need to be taught by someone who is an expert or passionate. When that horse runs away with you, you have to know what to do. In both flying and riding, you’ve got to be in the moment. A lot of sports are like that. In riding you have a partnership with a creature and you don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. Riding prepared me for a great role in flight school. When things come unraveled on a horse, keeping a cool head is a good skill set to have. With military flying, as a student I was grateful for the experience on a horse.

Q: In the Hampton Classic poster image “Passing Traditions Along,” and much of your other paintings, you seem to prefer capturing scenes of horses in quieter moments, away from the ring and the crowds, rather than in mid-jump. Is that the case?

I wanted to speak to that — these quiet moments. Ninety percent of riding is that time on the ground with your horse, or in a stall, or doing night checks. You’re working with him quietly all those hours before you ever go near a show ring or a fox hunt or cross-country event.

We have my studio here in the house and I paint a lot on the farm and often I paint horses that are quiet. My tradition is painting from life, so I’ll paint someone holding a horse for me.

For me, riding is about partnership and relationship. What is at the center of this painting is the relationship and partnership between rider and horse. There’s no greater secret than between a man and his horse. 

Q: The painting for the poster features a man and his grandson entering the show ring together on horseback. Can you tell me a little more about the image and the importance of tradition in equestrian sports?

For Tad, his grandfather was the master of the hunt of Meadowbrook on Long Island. His mother rode and got things started. He has an incredible legacy of riding with Raoul de Leon, who was Cuban trained, and Jack Le Goff, Tad’s Olympic coach, was a military rider in France. Myself being trained by a Marine to ride, these were the traditions. When I talk about adults handing this down, that’s the inspiration for the painting. Tad, my husband, is my inspiration every day and the model. He’s the ultimate in terms of his own grandfather and mother teaching him and then taking him to Raoul.

The horse is a teacher and role model as well. That real partnership is what I hope my paintings speak to. While Tad will say it’s incredible to win two gold medals, any horseman worth his salt is treasuring those quiet moments with the horse. Joy is in the total relationship, not that one moment. I think there’s no one at the Classic who won’t get that.

Q: Both you and Tad grew up reading C.W. Anderson’s children’s book “Billy & Blaze” which is all about kids riding horses. You were recently involved in the production of a film based on the book with Tad playing Billy’s grandfather and mentor. How did that happen?

A woman came to us and said she needed kid saddles because she had written a screenplay of “Billy and Blaze.” Tad wanted to play the dad and when she said nothing, I said, “Oh, wait you’ll be the granddad.” She had written this whole part and Tad stepped right into it. I told him this is meant to be. He had a ball. The kids are all riders, this boy, Henry Lesko, plays Billy, and they had a whole lot of fun playing on their horses. Waiting for the next scene, everyone is just having a blast together on their ponies … and teaching each other. You really see the grandfather teaching the grandson

The 44th annual Hampton Classic Horse Show runs August 25 to September 1, in Bridgehampton. The poster is available for pre-sale on the Hampton Classic website (hamptonclassic.com). Posters will be shipped after the show. Orders will be available onsite during the event in the Hampton Classic shop. To view more of Coffin’s artwork, visit kellywilkinsoncoffin.com.