The Kentucky Derby, which bills itself as “the greatest two minutes in sports,” is viewed by millions of people on TV and a midsize city’s worth of fans packed into Churchill Downs on race day.
To convey the drama of horse racing, a sport she grew up loving, Kimberly Kelly Santini—the track’s official artist for the May 2015 event—tapped into her own passion.
It started in Santini’s “horse-starved” childhood in Grand Blanc, when watching the races meant scrutinizing newspaper stats and tuning into ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It continues in adulthood—she gets herself to the tracks when and where she can.
“I really wanted to convey the pageantry, the beauty,” said Santini, a painter now living in Lake Orion. “Until you have stood at the rail of a horse track and not just seen the horses go by but felt them—when their feet hit the ground, it travels up your legs, and you feel them breathing and see them straining and giving their all ... when you see that firsthand, it stays with you.”
Her commissioned work for Churchill Downs portrays two groups of Thoroughbreds hurtling down the backstretch. The Louisville racetrack’s twin spires rise in the background.
The work conveys energy and color and movement—qualities admired by Clare Jett, who runs the company that produces the “Art of the Kentucky Derby” posters, prints and other memorabilia. Jett scours the art world every year for someone who can paint horses convincingly, but whose work also stands out as “edgy or unique.”
Santini “brings equine expertise to the drawing board,” Jett said, “but with an artistic twist of nearly neon vibrance.”
A hallmark of Santini’s work: vivid color—pure pigment, straight from the tube—first applied to the canvas as underpaint (that first layer that gets mostly covered with blended colors), and then again as final, bold accents.
Santini said she’d been drawn to color and art as a child. She learned at MSU that she could major in art history—and ultimately convinced her parents that earning a fine arts degree, too, would be a good idea. In the studio, she recalled, students received open-ended assignments requiring experimentation.
“I don’t think that the work I did in studio time was as important as the conversations that happened,” Santini said, “and the fact that I learned how to talk through problems and listen and watch other people solve them.”
Now Santini paints on commission in her home studio, building a career around animal portraits and still lifes.
When Jett called to offer her the Kentucky Derby job, Santini suspected some friend was playing a practical joke. An air of unreality suits the subject for Santini. After all these years of watching horses run from afar and up close, she said, it still feels like “something magical.”