09/27/2012 1:26PM

Q&A: Zenyatta sculptress Nina Kaiser

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Gayle Van Leer

Former exercise rider has become a celebrated equine sculptress, her most notable work to date being a statue of John Henry at Santa Anita. Her bronze of Zenyatta, the wildly popular mare who was the 2010 Horse of the Year, will be unveiled at Santa Anita at noon Saturday.

Are you happy with how the bronze of Zenyatta turned out? I gave it my all, that I know I did. I know how much she means to everybody. I was very cognizant of that. This horse is so beloved. I knew that from people who bought the small sculpture I did of her. Everyone who bought it sent an e-mail, or called me, telling me how much she meant to them, how she kept them going through tough times − a death in the family, getting cancer, things like that. They are coming to see Zenyatta. This was a great honor bestowed upon me, and I want them to feel as though they are in her presence.

Did you feel a lot of pressure with this piece? I tried not to think of it that way, but every so often I’d look at it and go, “It’s Zenyatta,” and that would cause me to tinker with it more. It was an honor to have Santa Anita commission me to do this work, and I wanted to fulfill their faith in me. So many people will have high hopes for this, and I don’t want to let them down.

When did you start working on this? I started in February 2011, just working on smaller models. I went to work on the life-size model around July of 2011 and finished in June of this year, so that was 11 months. Then for the last four months, it’s been in the foundry.

What’s the process like? I start with a model that’s one-third size, trying to get the pose I wanted, and then enlarge it to life-size. Typical me, at certain points I had all four legs off, her head off, her neck off. You are always noticing things to tweak. One thing that made this more difficult than John Henry is that she’s moving. It was like doing a portrait. I saw her many times in person, and every time I’d see her, or see a video, or a photo, I was struck by how elastic she is, like a dressage horse. She’s so fluid and elastic, so sinewy. I’d see things and go, eh, and re-tweak it. Try this and see how this works, redoing and redoing.

Take me through the process. Do you work section by section? I start with a life-size horse with clay on it. Then I do work section by section, but it all has to tie together. You can’t just do one section and move on. It has to tie together. It’s like a sweater. You have one loose thread, it could all unravel. Once that’s done, the foundry makes a mold of it. The bronze is created in sections and finally welded together. There were 10 Zenyatta sections, including her head and neck, all four legs. You wonder if it’s going to end up a Humpty Dumpty horse. Will they be able to get it together? But they do. You can’t see the seam lines. I do love working with bronze, because if you get lucky, bronze takes on a life of its own. But it’s a scary process. It’s not for the faint of heart.

What, to you, is the most distinctive physical aspect of Zenyatta? Her withers and girth. She’s so extraordinarily deep through the girth. Her withers are so mountainous. And then the way her neck sits on top of that. I did that so many times. Being a student of conformation, I wanted to make sure I nailed it.

Do you have a sense of pride that you will have, at Santa Anita, bronzes of two recent legends, John Henry and Zenyatta? Maybe when this all settles down I’ll feel a sense of pride, but right now, all I feel is pressure. Is it good enough? Is it worthy? I’ve been living with that for a year. To have it at that setting, looking at the façade at Santa Anita, there’s no more beautiful setting. It’s heart-stopping. Then you think, “Oh, my God, I hope it’s good enough.”

You must have been gratified to hear the way the John Henry bronze was received, especially by people who were close to him, like his trainer, Ron McAnally, who said of you, “She nailed it.” That was very satisfying. The John Henry bronze pleased so many people. Whether it’s a small commission or a piece like this, it’s a big leap of faith by whoever hires me, so that’s one of the biggest rewards. You spend a lot of time by yourself, in the office, in the studio, so one of the great rewards is if it pleases people. It’s public art. It’s for the people.

How did you get into this line of work? I galloped horses for a long time, but I always wondered what I’d do when I grew up. I used to tell people “sculptor” so it sounded like I had a goal. I was a junior art champion, district-wide, in second grade, then I rested on those laurels for 30 years [laughs]. I grew up in Northern California, in Los Altos, and always loved horses. I would draw horses as a kid. I got a horse when I was 12, and then I took it from there. All my life has been horses.

Who was the best horse you got on as an exercise rider? Super Diamond. I’d visit him, too, after he retired, because his owners lived not far from where I live in San Diego County.

It seems unfair to ask after working on a piece like this for so long, but what’s next? I’m going to take a little breather. I thought Zenyatta was the pinnacle. Where else do you go? But then Frankel came along. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but who knows? If you’d have asked me six months ago, I’d have said retirement. I think I’m going to be happy to sort of coast for a while on this. I tell people it took five years off my life and added five years to my face. There’s so much pressure. It’s Zenyatta. Everybody who sees it is going to be judging it.