Mystique and legend surrounding Chincoteague ponies originated long before Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague” series, written in 1947, captivated children of all ages. Did these stocky horses arrive at Assateague Island after surviving wrecked Spanish vessels in the 16th century? Or were they released on the island by colonists to avoid livestock laws and taxes in Virginia in the 17th century?
Regardless of the horses’ origin, more than 2.5 million people visit Assateague Island each year to enjoy the beach, campgrounds and, of course, the magical and majestic Chincoteague ponies.
As a child, Severna Park native Joan Herder collected miniature horse figurines and played with them for hours on end. Recalling a family trip to Assateague in the 1940s, Herder was certain she would get her own pony.
“There is a photograph of me sitting on a pony, but instead of smiling, I have just a horrible scowl on my face,” said Herder with a chuckle. “My dad had just told me that I couldn’t get a pony because horses were not allowed in Round Bay!”
She remembers drawing her first horse around the age of 5. After graduating from Severna Park High School in the 1960s, Herder headed to college and majored in painting. Though she considered herself an outdoorsy person, her career took her to New York City, where she had a career in film, working with a major cable network.
By the early 2000s, Herder grew restless in the concrete jungle and felt herself being pulled back to nature and back to the ponies. Her parents were living on the Eastern Shore at this time.
Returning to Maryland, “I drew a lot, and I wrote a lot of poetry, but I didn’t paint. I also dedicated myself to studying equine anatomy, which included many years of horse sculpting classes at the American Academy of Equine Art in Lexington, Kentucky,” said Herder.
When creating her art, Herder works from photographs, to sketches, to painting. Herder said she took a drive to Assateague to photograph the ponies and fell in love with them all over again.
“There is just something mesmerizing about the rich colors and textures of the sleeping ponies juxtaposed against the striking, bright blue and white of the crashing waves,” said Herder. “I love trying to capture the spirit of the ponies, as well as the wind and the waves. The beautiful Chesapeake Bay area is always an endless source of wonder.”
Her home is filled with photographs, numerous sketches in different stages of completion, finished canvases and framed artwork. Herder said she paints the occasional moose, heron, bison or crane in different environments, such as her photos from Yellowstone National Park, but she’s always drawn back to the ponies.
“When I look at my photos, I enjoy remembering when I took them,” she said, “and, when I start to sketch my next painting, I smile thinking about the photo of me on my Chincoteague pony.”
Herder’s art can be found at the new Gallery 564 in Severna Park. For more information on viewing or purchasing her work, visit the gallery at 564 Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard.