By Laura Scaletti
Sofia Gangale’s earliest memories are lying on the floor in her home in Novi Ligure, Italy, drawing animals with markers. “I’d go through hundreds of pages every week; I’d never stop drawing,” Sofia said. “I was born with the gift of art!” Today, Sofia combines her passion for art and horses in dual careers as both a professional artist and a groom.
For Sofia, her inspiration for art has always been animals, especially horses. “Nobody in my family has any connection to horses; they’ve always wondered where I got my passion from,” Sofia said. “As a child, I would collect as many books as possible about horses and draw my own version of every photo in each book. Before I ever saw a horse in person, I already felt deeply connected to them.”
At age 5, Sofia convinced her parents to take her to a local Italian barn for riding lessons. Unfortunately, only a few months into her lessons, Sofia was given a young, “hot” horse to ride and was sent flying from the saddle. “My parents got scared and pulled me out of the riding school,” she said.
Knowing their daughter was passionate about horses, they decided to put their fears aside and let Sofia put her foot back in the stirrup when they visited her mother’s side of the family in Colombia. “Whenever we would go to Colombia, when I was younger, we’d spend a day going to visit horses and hacking in the beautiful mountain scenery,” Sofia said.
Drawing her Story
When Sofia was 14 years old, in the middle of her ninth-grade year, her parents decided to send her to the United States to live with her older sister in Florida. “She’d already lived in Wellington for a couple of years. My parents wanted me to come live with her so I could continue my education in the United States,” Sofia said.
Moving across the Atlantic solo was a huge change for Sofia; however, she’s thrived since arriving in Florida. “I learned the English language, graduated as one of the top 100 students in my class and had a lot of fun in between,” Sofia said.
It was during her school days that Sofia really began to harness her artistic talents. “My art teachers always took their time to explain concepts to me in more depth than to my classmates. They really helped me build a strong art foundation, which I continue to use today,” she said.
In addition to the guidance she received in the classroom, Sofia kept honing her skills on her own during her free time. “Many people were interested in my artwork, so as a self-taught artist, I found out through trial and error what worked to build my own style while creating portraits for them. I’m still making progress to become better each day,” she said.
While Sofia has always known she wanted to make art her career, one special experience cemented her decision. “I gave a painting to a little girl as a gift, and when she saw it her face lit up. It was at that moment I realized that with my art, I had the ability to contribute to people’s happiness. That really motivated me to keep expanding on my passion,” Sofia said.
“I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far, including a custom portrait I donated that was awarded to Ashlee Bond for being second in a jumper class sponsored by the Kevin Babington Foundation, as well as pieces commissioned by Beatrice Marienau, Claudia Neureiter, Carol Cohen and Chase Shipka,” Sofia said. “This past October, I won the Rolex Grand Slam Art contest for my interpretation of Martin Fuchs and Leone Jei’s victory at CHI de Genève, dedicated to Clooney 51.”
Sofia enjoys working in all mediums, but feels she is strongest in acrylic paint and colored pencil. “With acrylic, I get lots of freedom and flow, while on the flip side, pencil is more precise, which allows me to be firm and exact with details,” she said.
As she refines her style, Sofia is starting to create more pieces that represent animals in full detail. “I used to start from an approximate outline, but now I’m looking deeper than just what I see in the photo. I start by thinking about how the bones are placed, then the muscles, and ultimately use those guidelines to create a proportionate horse I can start to add detail and color to,” Sofia said.
Although Sofia spends most of her time referencing photos while creating her pieces, she finds it beneficial to have a “meet and greet” with her subjects. “I’m very focused on giving honor to the animals I portray. That’s why I love meeting the horses or dogs I will paint, so I can have a glimpse of their character, which I can then reflect in their portrait,” Sofia said. “My biggest priority when creating a piece of art is to give it life and make sure the viewer can feel the character of the portrayed animal just with a look. When I achieve that, I become a proud art mom!”
Back in the Saddle
After living in Wellington for two years, Sofia stumbled upon something that caught her eye on the way home from school during her junior year of high school. “For the first time, I noticed a sign that said ‘equestrian,’ so of course I followed it. I ended up at Wellington International, the first horse show I had ever been to,” Sofia said.
Since that fateful day, Sofia has made the trek back to the show grounds at least twice a week. During early trips, she’d wander the grounds, watch the competitions and head to the barns to see how the grooms were taking care of the equine athletes.
“In March 2017, during one of my days exploring, I met John Gobin and his daughter Schuyler. We became friends, and thanks to them I started learning more about horses and how to take care of them. Eventually, I had the privilege of working for John during his polo games,” Sofia said. “That’s what started my career as a groom.”
While working for FEI dressage rider Tuny Page at Stillpoint Farm, Sofia learned what it took to be a professional groom at the international level thanks to Tuny and her grooms.
While at Stillpoint, Sofia confided to Tuny that her dream was to learn how to ride. “Tuny got me in touch with Ali Wagstaff at her Mill Pond Farm in Wellington. Once I started taking lessons, Tuny generously sponsored them, as I was unable to afford them myself,” Sofia said. “Ali made me ‘jump’ a pole on the ground and that was all I needed to know that I wanted to keep on jumping. Since then, I’ve been training with and working for Ali.”
After an 11-year hiatus, Sofia was back in the saddle. A year later, Sofia made her show-ring debut at WEF. “Ali not only taught me how to ride, but also how to be competitive and confident. I owe so much to her,” Sofia said.
Without a horse of her own, Sofia’s been grateful to have the opportunity to show three of Ali’s horses, Burlesque, Kobay and Nanou. “I love showing in a variety of classes with different horses because it’s made me quite versatile. I’ve had the chance to show in both the lower hunter and jumper divisions,” Sofia said. “I plan on showing again this winter at WEF.”
Sofia spends six months of her year focusing full time on grooming during the WEF season and the other six months working on her own riding, art and grooming. During WEF, Sofia typically works for others, such as Paris Sellon, Karen Polle and Chloe Field, who come down to show for the circuit.
“During WEF I work either six or seven days a week and the tasks vary depending on who I’m working for. In a typical day, I do the morning routine—feed, turnout, clean stalls—then help get horses ready to be ridden. Once I throw lunch to the horses, I use my lunch break to work on my drawings, then in the evening I take the horses out for a graze, groom or whatever they need before I tuck them away for the night,” Sofia explained.
It’s the lifelong connection she’s felt with horses that really comes out as Sofia works as a groom. “It’s very important for me to spend extra time with the horses in my care. It helps horses a lot when they know the person who takes care of them truly cares about them and loves them,” Sofia said.
Sofia believes the most challenging part of being a groom is having to be “on call” 24/7 and always on the go. “I’m the first one to get to the barn and the last one to leave,” she said. “With that said, it’s incredibly rewarding to see your horses performing well at the show. The most rewarding aspect about grooming is creating friendships and connections with horses and seeing them open up with you. That’s why I’m a groom to begin with.”
Having two related but separate careers has been a balancing act for Sofia, focusing six months mostly on art and six months mostly on grooming. “For me, it’s all about making time for my art, not finding it,” Sofia said. “I take my artwork with me everywhere. I go to the show grounds and draw there or paint while watching classes. It’s very inspiring to have horses in the background while I work.”
Sofia truly believes she wouldn’t be able to do one job without the other. “I get a lot of my inspiration from my daily interactions with horses and then reflect that in my artwork, giving it more life. On the other hand, my art makes me more observant, so when I’m working as a groom, my observational skills are even more accentuated, and I see the horses’ bodies with a more technical eye.”
Sofia envisions a future full of horses and art. “I’d love to be able to go to the Olympics and Spruce Meadows as a groom; jump higher and get more competitive in my classes; and most importantly, I want to keep on reaching more and more people with my art,” Sofia said. “A dream of mine is to one day be featured as the cover artist for WEF. After all, these show grounds started my career and it would be amazing to represent it one day.”
Follow Sofia @sofia_gangale_art
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com