By Shya Beth
It was less than five years ago when Cara Van Leuven made the decision to leave the corporate world to pursue art full time. Merging her long-held passions for both horses and art, utilizing bold lines and unique use of color as a storyteller, Cara has transformed her world into horsewoman and artist—but it wasn’t always that way.
After leaving a full-time marketing job and transitioning to part-time contract work, Cara’s side gig of painting horses started to take off, and it was time to take the plunge into being a full-time artist. “The first year was brutal,” Cara said. “I made so little money, but I believed in myself. The last marketing gig I did gave me an amazing offer to stay on; most people would have thought I was a fool to turn it down.”
In her heart, Cara knew that art was her calling, and she believes people need art on their walls and in their homes—whether it’s hers or another artist’s. Art serves as food for the soul, and inspiration for the mind. Cara’s journey, like most artists’, is constantly evolving and transforming not only her life, but the lives of others who are touched by her work.
Coming Full Circle
From a young age, Cara’s favorite animal was the horse, and she began taking riding lessons at 9 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Most of her free time was spent at the barn, watching and observing horses for hours, learning everything she could about horses and horsemanship. Much of her teenage years was spent at horse shows throughout the Midwest, but when it came time for college, she made the heartbreaking decision to sell her horse in order to attend Western Kentucky University. Cara earned her bachelor’s degree in photojournalism, and it took over a decade before horses once again became a part of her life.
The 2008 recession impacted many people—Cara included. Laid off from her marketing job and with the short sale of her home, several doors closed, while others opened. “I moved into a raw loft in downtown St. Louis,” Cara said. “The loft didn’t have many residents, but the ones who were there were artists who encouraged me to try painting.”
Cara completed her first equine painting in her iconic style in 2011, titled “Embrace” and featured two horses “hugging” one another.
During this time, Cara didn’t just reconnect with art, but with horses as well by working as a carriage driver. “I was reminded of the bond that horses provide—those heavy horses gave me their all and were such wonderful partners. I cherished that job and those summer days and nights,” she reminisced.
Cara’s art continues to evolve and is heavily influenced by her own experiences with horses. Training her own Westphalian mare was one of the most important times in Cara’s life. She worked with that mare every day for months, to the point where their first ride together was a peaceful and soulful connection. While their bond was strong, Cara could feel something was wrong. After a year of trying to uncover the problem, the final diagnosis uncovered EPM, acute navicular changes and a bone deformity in the mare’s front left leg.
The fragility of life became ever so clear to Cara when she made the difficult decision to have her equine partner euthanized at the age of 5. With vet bills mounting and still aching from the grief, the legs on the horses of her paintings got longer and longer.
“My work is incredibly autobiographical, and I was inadvertently telling the story of me losing touch helping this mare. Today I tell the joke that the longer the legs, the bigger the vet bills. One of my favorite comments came from a woman who said, ‘If that’s the case, those legs aren’t nearly long enough.’”
Cara’s work still embodies the emotions she feels at the time of their creation. From those difficult moments of her horse’s death and relying on feelings to create something powerful and unique to her, her paintings are a testament to her deep love of horses and the enormous impact they leave on their people. The horses inspire her, and that inspiration has led Cara to one of her biggest achievements to date: being the feature poster artist for the 2022 Hampton Classic.
“My booth was along Stable Row at the Hampton Classic last year, and there’s no location I would rather be. My husband and dogs joined me, and I had so much eye candy paraded in front of me last year that there was no way I couldn’t paint those horses,” she said. “They were groomed, trained and bred to the hilt. Many of those horses knew it, too, and would showcase their good fortune while walking by.”
Those horses inspired the painting for the poster, with their bold moments that translated well into Cara’s bold style. She couldn’t help but feel compelled to capture that essence in a painting, which ended up being chosen as the coveted poster for this year’s show.
Splitting her year in Illinois in the summer and about 20 minutes from Ocala at their ranch in the winter, Cara’s life is teeming with new adventures—personal, artistic and equine. Both she and her husband are working on renovating their ranch; she’s teaching her spotted mini gelding to drive; and her art has taken her on a recent journey in the form of an artist residency program in Mexico City.
Besides creating paintings in different sizes, Cara is branching out to grow her merchandise line that allows art to be more accessible to people, adding a touch of equestrian style and personality to a room. From pillows, tea towels and other home goods to panties, there are no limits on the possibilities. As Cara says, she’s got big dreams.
For more information, visit caravl.com