Laurel Schwulst

In this essay, I share my formative moments on the internet as a young person, which all started with my love of horses. This is a mirror of a piece ↗ I created in 2013 for the project "When all my friends are on at once" organized by curator Gene McHugh, collecting and organizing early internet memories from 48 artists. I also designed and have been hosting its website.

Pastel Club

In this essay, I share my formative moments on the internet as a young person, which all started with my love of horses. This is a mirror of a piece ↗ I created in 2013 for the project "When all my friends are on at once" organized by curator Gene McHugh, collecting and organizing early internet memories from 48 artists. I also designed and have been hosting its website.

I don’t remember choosing horses over any other animal, just like I don’t remember teaching myself to neigh.

The first step into becoming a real horse girl was my collection of model horses that were made by the Breyer brand. By the year 2000, I had about one hundred plastic horses that were each around 8 x 11 inches. They lived on shelves hovering on my bedroom wall. Sometimes they migrated to the basement floor that I painted green. Later on we lived on a farm turned suburban neighborhood, so each horse was posed in front of a backdrop of what remained of the original farm’s silos and barns. These shots made it into the first official catalog of my collection, along with each horse’s common name, show name, breed, gender, birthday, pedigree, and any possible progeny.

By subscribing to Breyer’s magazine “Just About Horses” (JAH), I learned that there was a whole hobby that went beyond simply collecting the “Original Finish” (OF) models that the Breyer company puts out. After reading some articles, I knew that the real excitement in the hobby comes from seeking out or creating “Customs” (CM). Custom model horses have been altered in some way. Most people start off with acrylic paints for their omnipresence but realize results often look amateur without master control. Some then move to airbrush for a streamlined look or oil paints for a warm glow, but both involve more startup and maintenance cost. After school every day I would surf the internet to explore my new hobby, so it wasn’t long until I happened upon a tutorial to customize horses using a new technique: chalk pastels. I admired the soft, rich, dreamlike quality of the customs created using this pastel technique, and by reading the website further, I learned that these “pastelled” horses were the side project of a professional illustrator. I followed the tutorial and sent an email to the illustrator with an attachment of my result. She enthusiastically replied the next day and invited me to the Pastel Club, private a Yahoo! Group with ten other people learning to customize model horses using her special pastel technique.

I clicked the link to accept the invitation. I soon learned that the ten other members were all middle aged women, mostly living in rural areas. Some even had real horses, which was somehow intimidating. I didn’t have regular access to real horses and was only 12. To not make things more awkward than they already were, I introduced myself through a message post. I lied by saying I was a high schooler even though I was still in seventh grade, as I didn’t want these real horse women talking down to me in any way. I also presented my first horse done using the pastel technique, a dappled palomino Standardbred, “Dusty.” I soon poured through the group’s massive archives, even though it was only a couple months old, including the right way to begin any customization mission:

Model horse customization begins with a release ceremony. The Breyer logo should be sanded off first. This embossed logo is often found on the inner thigh of any model, usually hidden from view by the horse’s opposing leg. Then the seams should be sanded smooth, so that there is no trace that two hollow plastic halves were once melded together by a higher being. This frees the horse from its past and breaks any possible tie with the Breyer brand, priming the horse, a wild and free creature in its own right, for its new author.

This sort of “clean slate” was also prized in the sim horse game I played. Surprisingly, this game called “Horseland” didn’t supply any images of horses: they were all created or collaged by users. I remember being driven by my mom to Best Buy to purchase Jasc Paint Shop Pro, the graphics program that would let me create beveled edges and seamlessly fade images into each other, for this purpose. I felt closer to my sim horses by giving them these custom, “pro” collages made possible by my new software.

On Horseland, I learned a lot in a short amount of time; it was sort of a growing-up-online boot camp that I joined around 1996. I first learned HTML because of Horseland; HTML let you add text, links, and images to your stable’s homepage. To differentiate myself, I decided to specialize in the Arabian horse breed, so it wasn’t long until my stable’s background was a sandy dessert and all links were jewel tones. Eventually I was voted Arabian Club president, which meant I designed the Arabian Club homepage that educated visitors about the Arabian breed itself, showcased noteworthy Arabians on Horseland, and ran Arabian-specific contests for a whole month. Near the end of my term, my account got hacked and some of my horses were sold mysteriously, but I regained my account through the help of a Horseland friend who knew some code and set up a password reset site on Geocities. Eventually I had many friends through Horseland, and among them was a girl who also happened to collect model horses. Through AIM chat, this friend initiated a trade where she sent me a very rare model horse only available at Breyerfest, the annual Breyer festival, in exchange for my entire Pokémon card collection. I sent her 500 cards, including my rare holographic Charizard, in a shoebox. Weeks passed and I never received the model. My parents got involved and called her parents who said their daughter lied about owning the rare horse in the first place. I remember sending her ultimatums via snail mail and, out of suspicion that she knew more about me than I did, making sure not to leave any of my fingerprints on the letter or envelope.

My participation in Horseland faded after being scammed. In a sense, Horseland prepared me for the safe, supportive community that the Pastel Club offered. In fact, many members of the Pastel Club were actually mothers, so that positive, encouraging vibe permeated the whole group. The leader would often prompt challenges for us to complete. Our responses to these assignments (such as “paint a chestnut horse”) would never be forced since all members had outside obligations like full-time jobs or, in my case, full-time middle school. Every day after school, I spent thirty minutes online checking updates to the Pastel Club before I started in on my homework. I tried to finish quickly so I could rejoin the model world, which meant responding to others’ updates, posting my own update, and then going upstairs to my room to pastel one of my models so I could post progress the next day.

Using the HTML I learned within Horseland, I made “Sweetbriar Equestrian”, a Geocities website to showcase my custom model horses. Through the site I started to take custom orders, meaning I would receive a specific model in the mail, paint it a desired color, and send it back in exchange for money. I also decided to post my own tutorial on how to pastel a model horse, based on things I wish I had known that weren’t in the tutorial I originally followed by the Pastel Club leader. I felt this generosity was important in giving back to the hobby while also connecting me to excited beginners.

Although much of the hobby existed online, there were regular gatherings. These were 3D models after all, so seeing the horses in person after viewing flat .jpg representations was always thrilling. I began participating in model horse shows that I learned about online. This usually meant my mom driving me to a city a couple hours away with my entire “showstring” and setting up in a school’s gym or church’s atrium, for instance. When a particular class for a breed was announced, I placed my models of that breed on the appropriate table. When the class was called, a judge walked around the table and placed ribbons near the models best representing their breed according to conformation and color accuracy, just like real horse shows. After winning any ribbon, I carefully recorded it and later updated the horse’s page on Sweetbriar Equestrian.

Every summer in middle school my mom and I made the pilgrimage to Lexington, Kentucky, for Breyerfest, the annual gathering of model horse lovers. Held in the Kentucky Horse Park, you could visit real horses and also pay homage to famous horses’ graves, but there were also workshops on customization techniques, including etching hair patterns, airbrushing, and painting with oils. (Since “pastelling” was a new technique, it didn’t have an official workshop yet.) But my favorite part of Breyerfest wasn’t even a ticketed aspect; it was when the Holiday Inn North in Lexington opened its doors during the evenings. My mom followed me through labyrinth-like corridors to find room upon room filled with models for sale or display. The entire hotel was plastered with flyers and leaflets telling you to go to room 502 or 205 for this and that horse or stable. During my first Breyerfest, I collected business cards and visited their corresponding websites when I returned home, making mental notes between my memory of the hotel room and the homepage that represented it.

Since most of the Pastel Club was located on the east coast, there was a gathering at some point in Virginia. I asked my mom to go, but she thought it was too weird a reason to go so far away. One summer when I was in high school, I received emails from a fan of my customs who actually happened to live in the next town over, which kind of blew my mind. The next week I listed some of my pastelled horses on eBay, as I wanted them to see the world since I was going away to college soon, and she won all of them. I delivered them to her via bicycle, and soon after we formed a friendship where we would paint together a couple times a week during the day that summer since she was a stay-at-home mom and I was a high school student without a job.

During the height of the Pastel Club, I remember spending a lot of time standing in my room, gazing upon my collection of horses hovering on my bedroom wall. At one point, I remember realizing that I had performed some action involving or thought about model horses at least once every day for the past month, and that I simply wanted to carry this on for as long as I possibly could.

Fall 2013
Special thanks to Gene McHugh for inviting me to write, and for being open to collaborating on the whole project together.