WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: Award-winning Artist Captures Essence of Animals on Canvas

September Vhay shares her love of wildlife through her oil and watercolor paintings

By Amber Gibson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

In many ways, September Vhay was destined to be an artist. Her great-grandfather Guzton Borglum sculpted Mount Rushmore, and she grew up surrounded by his paintings and small-scale sculptures in her family’s Reno, Nevada, home. Her mother was a painter; her father is an architect and painter.

Award-winning artist September Vhay relaxes with her mini dachshund beneath one of her watercolor horse paintings in her Lander home. (Courtesy image from September Vhay)

“I drew a lot as a child, and I loved drawing horses,” said Vhay, 55, who was inspired by Wesley Dennis’s illustrations in “The Album of Horses” and “Misty of Chincoteague.” 

“I’ve always had an affinity for animals, so it was a natural segue that they became the subject matter I do most.”

Throughout her 23-year career, Vhay has received countless awards and accolades, and she now exhibits her work at Altamira Fine Art galleries in Jackson Hole and Scottsdale, Arizona, and Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.   

“There’s a way of seeing that you think everybody else has, until you realize that not everybody sees the way you do,” Vhay said. “I’m seeing composition all the time. It’s a way that I think inherently.”

This eye for composition first served her well as an architect. Vhay graduated from the University of Oregon in 1991 with a degree in architecture, moved to Jackson Hole to ski for a season and hasn’t left Wyoming since. At the time, residential work was plentiful, and she often did watercolor presentation drawings for her architectural firm. 

For many years, Vhay painted as a hobby and sold her work in a local gallery. By 2000, she felt like she had two full-time jobs, as she logged  40 hours a week at Tobler Dunker Architects and spent another 20 hours a week painting in her studio. Vhay saved a year’s worth of living expenses as a safety net, switched to being a full-time artist and hasn’t looked back. 

“I was reluctant to give up my architecture job, because I loved it,” Vhay recalled. “But I couldn’t do both, and I felt like I had more to say as a painter.”  

Art is everywhere’

Growing up in a family of artists, daily life for Vhay was imbued with an eye for beauty. Her family’s dinner conversation often leaned towards the arts. “We learned that art is everywhere – it’s how you lay out a garden to how you set a table,” she said. “We grew up with the notion that aesthetics matter.”

Vhay also grew up riding horses in the backcountry, which enabled her to “develop a feel for what gestures capture their essence.”   

September Vhay’s “Ivory Thunder Oil on Linen” was inspired by Gutzon Borglum’s “Mares of Diomedes.” (Courtesy image from September Vhay)

In 1997, Vhay took a watercolor class in Jackson with artist Fred Kingwell, who jokingly told her that she should be teaching. From there, she held a small exhibit, and when all of her paintings sold at the opening, Vhay realized she had “a gift to share.” In 2004, Vhay founded Trio Fine Art gallery with Molly Martin and Kathryn Mapes Turner; Lee Riddell joined two years later.  

At Tobler Dunker, Vhay learned to be organized, meet deadlines and structure her time. But at Trio, she learned all aspects of art gallery management—from advertising and organizing shows to handling paperwork and connecting with clients. After seven years, Vhay stepped away from Trio to focus on painting and joined Altamira Fine Art. 

“September is a very disciplined artist in love with animals, especially horses, bears, birds and dogs,” Riddell said. “She takes great care with [their] eyes, making sure they have highlights so you can feel the animal’s personality.”

Vhay’s architectural training and eye for composition, form and light help make her paintings appear three-dimensional. Her own artistic style has been inspired by classic painters (John Singer Sargent and Rosa Bonheur) and contemporary painters (Wolf Kahn, Deborah Butterfield and Cy Twambly). 

“Starting in watercolor gives my oils a freshness,” Vhay said. “Alterations are challenging if not impossible to make, so you have to be thoughtful about where you’re going with it. I use the canvas in a similar way that you use watercolor paper. I keep my canvas very fresh and light and paint thinly, so light can go through the paint and bounce back. That freshness is my signature.”

September Vhay’s “Deer Run Siena Oil on Linen” is part of the Booth Museum’s permanent collection. (Courtesy image from September Vhay)

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has diverse wildlife, so Vhay carries her camera and sketchbook everywhere she goes to capture images and jot down ideas for future inspiration. It was not unusual to have moose, fox or coyotes show up in her front yard in Jackson, and while horseback riding in the Grand Teton National Park, Vhay would be surrounded by herds of elk.

Much of Vhay’s imagery is her own, but she also draws inspiration from wildlife photographers. Her work seems to express the very soul and spirit of each animal; her paintings and charcoal drawings feature negative space. 

“What makes September a great artist is [her] simplicity and scale, and simplicity at scale,” said Chad Repinski, creative director of Atalmira Fine Art in Jackson Hole. “Subtle differences in meaning became subtle mastery of composition in her charcoals. In her ‘Red Horse’ series, as well as oils, color reigns, but never as the main act. Both highlight [Vhay’s] absolute mastery of animal form, pose and personality.” 

Over the years, Vhay has won numerous awards, including several in the Ex Arte Equinus International Competition. But the most meaningful one? The “Purchase Award” at the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s Western Visions Exhibit in 2010.

“They buy one painting from every show, and the painting they bought from me was two chickadees titled ‘Two is a Pair,’” she said. “I felt like I had arrived in a way as an artist, because my great grandfather has a sculpture in the museum called the Mares of Diomedes.”  

Today, Vhay lives in Lander with her husband, Wyoming Rep. Robert Nicholas (R-Laramie County), two horses and mini dachshund. In her free time, she participates in the equestrian sport of endurance riding, where rides range from 25 to 100 miles.

At this stage in her career, Vhay has the luxury of pacing herself and not taking on more than she can manage. Sometimes less is more, and that philosophy has served her well in life and art.

“Art that has an essence is important,” she said. “I think all artists need to first figure out what you want to say. The more you paint, the better you get and the easier it gets.”

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