As a former professional show-jumper, Sarah Lennon was no stranger to the Dublin Horse Show.
But when she returned there in 2014 – except this time, as an artist and a mother of three children under three – she admits that she was struck with a severe dose of “imposter syndrome” that left her feeling sick to her stomach with self-doubt.
“Because I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m not an artist,’” she recalls panicking. “I was used to going to the Dublin Horse Show with horses; not with paintings.”
Yet Sarah’s decision to put her work – and herself – out there was the turning point in her new career, creating equine-inspired art, after she struggled to find her feet when life brought her on a different path than she planned.
Now living close to Banbridge, Co Down, but brought up in Foxrock, Co Dublin, Sarah’s passion for all things equine in her teens led her to study agricultural science in University College Dublin (UCD); even if she jokes that it was not the most obvious CAO choice for a Mount Anville student at the time.
“No one else in my class was doing it; I don’t think anyone else in my school had actually done it before,” she reflects. “(But it) just seemed to tick all the boxes for me.”
Sarah’s ambition was to work with horses, and during college, she and her father, Tom Rowland, started to work in partnership to establish their own stud farm in Straffan, Co Kildare; initially concentrating on show-jumping, but diversifying into breeding after her dad brought the stallion, Guidam, from Holland.
“The breeding was very much his side [...] my focus then would have been on the training of the horses and going to shows,” explains Sarah, who jumped professionally up to Mini Grand Prix level.
“I loved competing and I loved more than anything having a horse that I had for a while, bringing it on and then seeing it really start to excel or show real potential,” she says. “That was probably the biggest kick, knowing that I had helped that horse from the start.”
A change of direction came about, however, after Sarah met her future husband, Cathal Lennon from Co Down.
Cathal also comes from a farming and equine background: his late father Dermott, was a well-known cattle dealer, while his brother, also Dermott, is a world-renowned show-jumping champion, with Cathal involved in both sides of the family businesses, as well as running his own chiropody clinic.
When Sarah made the move to Banbridge in 2008, however, she decided to take a break from the horse world; even if it was a wrench.
“I hadn’t intended on no longer being a show-jumper really, but what I couldn’t see was how I could move up here, how I could leave the yard and what dad was doing down there, how I could actually step away from that and come up here and start a whole new life,” she says. “But funny enough, that’s when my painting began.”
Sarah explains that as she had just moved into a new house, she decided to use her free time to paint some pictures for the walls. With her love for horses, it seemed obvious to try to capture them on canvas, but with no grand plans beyond that.
“It was purely to decorate the house,” she says, adding that she had hardly picked up a brush since doing art for her Leaving Cert, and never had any intention of pursuing it as a career.
The more she painted, however, the more she found her feet – and herself – in her new environment.
“I just got space, my head felt so much clearer and I still had the difficult decision of what am I going to do next; but it didn’t seem to be as big or it didn’t seem to be as daunting,” she says. “I was kind of finding ‘my happy’ again.”
Sarah began to sell some of her work locally, but the arrival of her first baby, Leah, in 2010, followed soon after by Genevieve and Conn, meant that her art took a backseat until 2014, when she decided to take a stand at The Dublin Horse Show.
Looking back now, she acknowledges that this was “a big leap” in starting to take her own work more seriously.
“This was pretty much me putting myself out there saying I was an artist,” says Sarah, though recalls feeling sick to her stomach on the way to the show.
“I had to ask Cathal to pull over because I thought, ‘I am going to be ill,’” she says. “I was hanging up my paintings and I just had fear. I was looking behind me thinking, ‘What if somebody says what are you doing here?!’”
“They didn’t,” she responds. “They said, ‘Oh I see your horses.’”
And this is exactly what Sarah wanted to hear. While from a distance, her paintings are big, bright and bold, it’s only when the viewer stops to take a closer look that they see the horse within.
“You’ll see the muscle, the movement and you’ll see the expression... but only when you slow down,” she says. “It’s that kind of subtle surprise I like to call it, because you don’t expect to see it and then when you do see it you think how did I not see that before? How was I so busy that I didn’t see it? And then you also kind of wonder, ‘Well, what else am I missing?’”
Sarah explains that she works off photographs of horses for the equine element of her work, but when it comes to the rest of the painting, she never really knows how it’s going to turn out.
“I focus on every single detail of the horse and that really quietens my mind, it makes me really engaged; but what the other hand does, I don’t really pay much attention to!” she says. “I don’t know where it’s going; but I love the joy of that.”
And so do her fans. Since her first time at the Dublin Horse Show, Sarah has been a fixture with her art at events like the Punchestown Racing Festival, Bolesworth International Horse Show in the UK, and Art Source in the RDS, while also working on commissions that have found homes everywhere from the US and the UAE to Australia and New Zealand.
But as well as her bigger paintings, she is also conscious of providing affordable original artwork, with a selection of 5” × 7” pieces at every show on sale from €60.
“That means that anyone can take it home with them,” she says.
Of course, COVID-19 meant that all of these shows were cancelled this year, but Sarah has continued to take private commissions, as well as use social media like time lapse videos to give people an insight into her work.
“Then I kind of felt people were coming along with me on this journey,” she says, adding that this also helped motivate her to keep creating during lockdown.
Painting, however, is not the only passion that Sarah has discovered in recent years. After having her children so close together, she decided to try yoga to restore some balance to her life again. “Physically and mentally, I knew I needed to give myself space to recover,” she says. “‘Baby-world’ is great; but you can kind of lose yourself in it as well.”
Looking for a class close to her home, Sarah feels fortune that she found Mary Quail, who has been a trailblazer in the Irish yoga scene since the 1970s. Though when Mary suggested that Sarah consider doing a teacher training course herself, she admits that it was the idea of the “me time” that appealed rather than making a career of it.
“But as I did the class, I just became more interested and fascinated and absorbed in it,” she explains.
“I said: ‘I really want to share this with other people and other people that are like me, who are having their kids, not knowing what’s the next stage.’”
Sarah has been teaching yoga since 2016; initially in her local village, but more recently in her own studio in a converted outbuilding at the family home (though with COVID-19 restrictions, her classes went online.)
Her approach is not about getting “people to make fancy shapes or get themselves twisted in knots”.
“It’s more about them understanding their own bodies and what feels good and what feel right for them; and exploring that so that you can feel better all the time,” she says, adding that she believes that regular yoga practice can help counter the “tension and stress” that many of us accumulate in our daily lives.
Space to explore
And it seems that helping people to find their passion is where her path is leading her next.
Her long-term plan is to convert more outbuildings to create a larger yoga studio, an art gallery for exhibitions and workshops, as well as on-site accommodation for guests, and invite other teachers in to share and inspire with their skills - for instance, working with other members of the Assembly Community, a creative women’s network that she is involved with.
“I just want it to be a really good space where people can do something that they thought they couldn’t do, because that’s really what happened to me. I didn’t think that I could become an artist or a yoga teacher, but I did and in doing that, I definitely found myself and I found my happiness,” she says.
“I’d love to share that with other people and that they know that that’s possible for them. That if you do have that wish or that dream, it is OK to be brave and push through and do it. You can actually do it.”
For further information, visit Sarah’s website, sarahlennonart.com