Cleveland woman gains renown as horse portraitist

Cleveland woman gains renown as horse portraitist

September 1st, 2012 by Pam Sohn in Local Regional News

Billie Nipper, a self-taught artist, discusses some of her work in her studio at The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., on Thursday evening. Nipper paints a wide range of themes-- from commissioned horse portraits to world grand champion themes to rural landscapes--and is well-known in the walking horse community.

Photo by Alyson Wright/Times Free Press.

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. - At the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, Billie Nipper's horse paintings stole the show.

Nipper has been in town for the past two weeks, and the door of her temporary office/booth on the grounds of the Calsonic Arena, where the Celebration is held, constantly opened and closed as she showed her prints.

Ben Brogdon, a horse owner from Tallahassee, Fla., was one of many owners and trainers stopping in to browse for new prints.

"She's a great lady, and she can paint pretty good, too," said Brogdon, who already has "a house full" of Nipper's originals.

Nipper, of Cleveland, Tenn., married into a horse trainer family and raised another trainer. Over the years of her early marriage and motherhood, she took up painting the horses her husband, father-in-law and son rode as a pastime. It was a way to soothe her nerves from life's everyday hassles.

"It's kind of my therapy," Nipper, 82, said.

Her intricate portraits and historical horse montages hang in museums and horse industry offices throughout Middle Tennessee. They also grace the walls and mantels of homes all over the world.

Nipper said she never dreamed that what she considered a hobby would make her the now-renowned portrait artist of more than 30 world grand champion horses.

Her hobby-turned-passion started when she was a young bride and her husband took a job in Ohio.

"I've always liked to draw a little, and while we were up there I had nothing to do. There was a little art shop close to me, so I bought my beginner's supplies and started then," she said.

Nipper said her first works were "really primitive" and she would hide them. But her husband recognized her talent and showed her work to everyone.

She began to study horses and watched their movements. After she painted her father-in-law's horse, other horse owners came forward, wanting her to paint their animals.

In 1976, she began painting each year's world grand champion for the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association.

In Cleveland, Tenn., where she was born, Nipper is active in promoting art. Under her leadership as the arts chairwoman of the Cleveland Creative Guild, the city began to host two major art shows annually in the spring and fall.

In tribute to her, the fall show is called the Nillie Bipper Art Festival. The name is an affectionate, intentional reversal of the first letters of her name.