Reardon to bring legend of Native Dancer to life

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To help celebrate next year’s 100-year anniversary of the incorporation of Saratoga Springs, Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson will donate Centennial Park and a statue of the legendary Native Dancer to the city. The park will be located where Union Avenue meets Circular Street at the edge of Congress Park. The site will feature a life-size statue of Native Dancer, and the artist selected is just as fascinating and impressive as the Thoroughbred she’ll recreate.

A world-renowned sculptor, Gwen Reardon has immersed herself in the equestrian culture throughout most of her life. Her father was a trainer and allowed her to both assist him and begin showing at just 4 years of age. She had a passion for horses from the beginning, but that passion transcended riding and entered the realm of artistry at a young age.  

“From a little-bitty child, I’d be waiting for the opportunity to not only ride, but to also make drawings in the dirt of the horses,” Reardon said earlier this summer.

She was surrounded by impressive subjects at various events and they inspired her to use any and all free time to draw. That turned out to be quite the lucrative hobby and Reardon’s work quickly became sought after. Eventually she tried her hand at painting and was a natural. Always curious and eager to learn new skills, Reardon took up wax sculpting by reading about artist Charles Russell’s technique. The sculptures initially aided in the composition of her paintings, but they were so remarkable that patrons began requesting them, too.

She preferred this alternative form of artistry, saying, “How they behaved, looked, felt were all part of the thing that I wanted to capture myself. I always knew from being a rider, but the thing that I really wanted to know was how to create art of prominence.”

Reardon soon began using clay, and clients lined up to get their hands on one of her equine creations. 

She has since then taken her keen ability as an artist and unrelenting ambition to create bronze sculptures. Reardon’s life-size horses can be found all over the world, but her most notable works are in her hometown of Lexington, Ky., at Thoroughbred Park downtown and at Bluegrass Airport near Keeneland Race Course. All it took for Whitney to select Reardon as Native Dancer’s sculptor was to see one of these masterpieces, for the two have yet to meet face to face.

Given that Native Dancer died in 1967, Reardon faces an even greater difficulty as she forms the bodice and captures the personality of the horse nicknamed the Grey Ghost who won 21 of 22 career starts.

So how does she plan to overcome those obstacles? Research, and lots of it.

“I was very much aware of that horse, but first I had to get acquainted with him, so that I know a lot about him and can begin to make him come alive for me,” she said. “I’ve studied millions of pictures, got every book that I could get my hands on.”

Each horse has personality traits unique to them: some are bold, some are timid, some lead and others follow. These human-like characteristics are what fascinates people and has remained one of Reardon’s greatest inspirations.

The challenge of depicting the unique intangibles of Native Dancer is thrilling for her.

“I don’t know many people around that could express to me all about the horse, but if you study those who were there at that time, you pick up a lot of information,” she said. “He had a lot of run in him, and in a lot of the pictures, I found he was a very straight-forward kind of a horse. Not fussy.”

Centennial Park’s designer, Michael Ingersoll of the Saratoga Springs-based landscape architecture and engineering firm The LA Group, said last month that plans for the park’s landscape were being finalized.

Construction of the pocket park is set to start this fall and Whitney and Hendrickson hope to unveil it to the public next spring. It will no doubt be a momentous celebration of Saratoga Springs’s 100-year anniversary, and one can bet that Reardon will be in attendance.

An iconic Thoroughbred recreated by a truly iconic artist and donated by Saratoga’s most iconic philanthropist. A winning trifecta.