Their hoofbeats echo rhythmically through the centuries, age passing into age on their strong backs. Their wind-whipped manes and flared nostrils promise conquest to the strong-hearted. Born 3000 years ago in Middle Eastern deserts and inextricably bound to humankind in war and peace, the legendary Arabian horse, the "drinker of the wind," shares a spiritual bond with humans which continues to fascinate people all over the world.
Dr. Hussam A. Fadhli felt this fascination for the Arabian horse as he grew up in Baghdad, Iraq; years later it surfaced again as a desire to portray the horse in bronze.
"I'd always loved animals, especially the horse, and I loved art," he explains in his husky, distinctive accent. "In museums and galleries all over the world I'd always go straight to the equine sculpture. I'd say to myself, 'I can do that!' - but my career as a surgeon didn't leave me the chance to get involved in it."
Artistic from childhood, and one of Iraq's top students academically, Fadhli turned down an art scholarship in favor of medicine. "From seventh grade, I wanted to be a doctor and help people," he says. Later, after coming to the United States in 1957 to complete his postgraduate work, Fadhli opened a Texas practice in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery; his artistic impulse expressed itself only in occasional oil paintings.
It wasn't until 1980, when Fadhli's wife, Brigitte, began raising Arabian horses, that the surgeon's dormant talent was woken, his imagination and his eye were captured by the magnificent, affectionate animals, and the seed of his determination to commemorate them in bronze was planted.
From the outset, Fadhli approached sculpture very methodically. "I am the type of person who tries to be precise. My medical colleagues tell me I am a perfectionist. I'm not successful all the time because I am a human being, but I like to prepare things ahead of time." Accordingly, Fadhli began by learning all he could about sculpture before he started. "I thought, I have the talent - maybe, maybe! - and I have the desire, definitely, but I don't know the technical aspect of it,'" he says. After intensive reading of many books on sculpture, and particularly sculptural technique, he felt confident enough to start.
Finally, in 1986, the surgeon produced his first equine bronze sculpture of an Arabian at full gallop; its title was "Racing the Clouds." It was followed in rapid succession by several other pieces, and Fadhli had plenty more in mind. "The ideas had been bottled up and the moment I opened that cap, everything just exploded!"
The surgeon's sculptural theme, the Arabian horse and the culture and history of the Middle East, has carved him a unique niche in the art world and accounts, he feels, for his success: works sold for large sums in several galleries and displayed in the center arena at major Arabian-horse shows. "An artist has to do what he is familiar with and what he loves to do," Fadhli says. "From childhood, I was fascinated with the elegance and grace of the Arabian horse and the emotions they can create when they move, their expressive faces and their closeness with human beings. And that's what I'm after in my sculpture, the interrelationship between the man or woman and the horse, something that has existed for centuries, especially in the Arab countries."
A comfortable home on a quiet, tree-lined lane a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico is the center of Fadhli's creativity. A dining table is his working surface and shelves bulge with art books. A pot of sculptor's tools includes several retired pieces of surgical equipment - "Sometimes I just go and see what is being thrown out," he chuckles - now used for texturing, marking and scraping the Italian clay that Fadhli uses in the first stage of creating a sculpture.
Fadhli always looks forward to making time for what he calls his non-scientific side, when he can relax and refresh his mind after the tension of busy days as a surgeon. It is a time that invigorates him. Since sculpture can be taken up and put aside as his professional schedule demands, yet continually challenges his abilities, he feels it's a perfect medium.
In the evenings, often still dressed in the loose, green surgical scrubs which reveal a small replica of the Qur'an on a chain around his neck, he works while his family gathers in the living room. "I don't like to work in a separate studio," he says, "because I like to be with my family. I don't even mind their criticisms of the sculptures I'm working on. They might say there's something wrong with a piece, and I'll look at it and maybe change something."
Fadhli's creativity is all-consuming once he is working on the clay; he is able to close out everything around him. Music stimulates his thoughts and imagination. "Beethoven makes me feel I am climbing a mountain and reaching the top," he says, while famed Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoom brings his Middle Eastern heritage to the forefront of his mind. "When I'm sculpting an Arabian horse or Arabian subject, Umm Kalthoom's songs affect my mental attitude," Fadhli says. "This transfers into the piece through my hands."
His Arab heritage, never far from his consciousness, is an integral part of his attitude toward his art. Sitting at a delicate, handmade Syrian table in the "Middle East corner" of his living room, Fadhli points to an elegantly written verse from the Qur'an. It is from the sura, or chapter, called al-'Adiyat, "Those that Run," and it confirms Fadhli's belief that even the Creator found the Arabian horse admirable. "By the war-horses that run swiftly, panting, to the battle," Fadhli interprets, "and by those whose hooves strike fire from the stones, and by those which press home the charge upon the enemy early in the morning, raise clouds of dust, and penetrate into the midst of the foe...."
"The horse is an important part of Arab culture and history," the surgeon explains. "It gave man a chance to broaden his scope of life, and to travel. It has made it easy for the human and that's why I think humans owe the horse a lot. The Bedouins, for example, value their horses so much that they bring them inside the tents when the weather is bad.
"What I try to show in my sculptures is the culture of the Middle East," he says. "People are afraid of, or not interested in, things they don't know about. Hollywood projects such a bad image of the Middle East, so with my art, I will show the real heritage and culture."
A prime example of this effort is Fadhli's sculpture "Guarding the Master," which depicts a mare standing quietly on a small hill next to her master, who is at prayer. In consideration of his horse, the rider has removed the tack and placed it on the ground. Kneeling in prayer, he bows his head, while the horse watches the surrounding area, ready to alert him to any danger. "This happens," says Fadhli, "since Muslims are required to pray five times a day." The sculptor points out the details which complete the story: the raised index finger of the man's right hand as he prays to God, the sandals neatly placed by his side. "He is saying the creed, 'There is no God but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God."' And the depiction of a female horse is deliberate, Fadhli adds. "The female is preferred for traveling since she won't whinny and make a lot of noise when she hears another horse, like the male will," Fadhli explains.
Such concern with authenticity extends to using actual Iraqi saddles and bridles as models for his sculptures. The bridle displays the crescent and star of Islam, he notes, and is set with a "seven-eyed" turquoise jewel. "The saddle and bridle were used by us to show our national champion native horse, Eclipse," he says.
One of Fadhli's bronzes, "The Bonding," is the result of what he saw and felt as one of his wife's mares foaled, and emphasizes the close and complementary partnership between the Fadhlis where their horses are concerned. When it became apparent that the mare was in trouble giving birth to her first foal, Fadhli checked with his wife, then stepped in to help the horse.
"I tell you, when I saw that - the birth - and, after that, the care and the attempts of the mother to clean the baby and to make it get up and suck, all this process of caring really affected me," he says. "I thought about my mother and, although I loved her very much, I realized I never had given her enough in return for what she did. When I saw this, and how the mare just has her God-given instinct to try to help her baby, it was such a dramatic experience for me. I already respected life, but this affected me very deeply, and I really knew I wanted to show it in a sculpture."
Visibly touched by the memory of the event, Fadhli steps back from "The Bonding," a piece that subsequently took shape very fast and spontaneously, because his soul was in it. "You can quote me now," he says fervently. "Every child, boy or girl, must show more affection to their mother, because we don't realize what they did to bring us to this world."
The sculptor recalls that a life-sized edition of this piece, entitled "Timeless," stirred the emotions of many at an outdoor art show in Loveland, Colorado. "People liked it and came and looked at it quietly," he recalls. "Some thought it was real, and touched it!"
Part of Fadhli's skill in evocatively depicting horses and humans is a result of his doctor's expertise in anatomy, he feels. But much of the accuracy of his equine portraits comes from his practice of sketching his Arabians in the pasture, where he can touch them, combined with his strict adherence to what he terms "the basics" in art. Fadhli believes that the tendency to produce something that looks pretty and esthetically pleasing cannot be carried to extremes. He is wary of over-stylization in his work. "It must not look like a Disney cartoon," he says. "Art must reflect an idea and what the artist wants to say. I want my work to reflect reality, with a little of my feelings."
Thus, if Fadhli chooses to represent a male horse, it is first of all because it is appropriate to the sculpture he has in mind. The stallion's larger head, more abundant mane and tail, flaring nostrils and muscular neck set the mood of the piece. "It will present a more macho image, kind of, 'Here I am.' You know, like men," says Fadhli, comparing the stallion in "Racing The Clouds" with the gentle refinement of the mare in "The Gift." "She will have a smaller head and muzzle, less protruding ears and her neck and head will be in a more relaxed position," he says. "Actually, I do more females, horse and human, I think, because of my deep appreciation of them," he muses, somewhat surprised by his own conclusion.
The tender reality of his wife's love for her horses inspired a Fadhli bronze which he feels symbolizes all he's trying to say about the special relationship between the Arabian and the human. In "Magic Moment," a near life-size work, a woman gently winds her fingers through her horse's mane as the horse nuzzles her.
"This interrelationship is so valuable, sensitive and intimate. And it's so typical of the exchange of love and affection and closeness between two creatures, human and horse," Fadhli says.
Observing life in its most touching and basic moments, and translating those perceptive glimpses into bronze, makes Fadhli a passionate artist. Yet his instinctive veneration for people and life guides him always to give priority to his career as a doctor over his work as an artist - although he enjoys both. "I have a first responsibility as a surgeon, and love what I do, although I wish I had started sculpting many years ago," he admits.
Committed to his adopted country, the United States, Fadhli nevertheless maintains strong ties with his Iraqi homeland. He occasionally ships Fadhli Arabians to Iraqi breeders, and his regular visits there include consultations with medical colleagues and some surgery, balanced by raids on Baghdad music stores for Umm Kalthoom tapes. For the future, Fadhli dreams of one day sculpturing monumental works - perhaps even one to be placed permanently in the land that nurtured him.
"I feel a sense of responsibility to pay back what I have gained," he says, "and I feel you must still communicate with the 'old country' and keep that emotional feeling nourished. This does not detract from loyalty to the new country - but I believe that if a person doesn't have a sense of responsibility to something in the past, to some important part of himself, then he will never have a sense of responsibility in the new country he lives in."
Fadhli's philosophy has found expression in his storytelling bronzes of Arabian horses and other Middle Eastern subjects, and he admits that the desire to share his heritage in this way is a conscious one. "I know people who came to this country who try to ignore their past, and don't even say where they are from. But not me. I am proud of what I am, of my background and where I'm from. I'm always ready to show people, through my sculpture, part of the culture of the Middle East."
Patti Jones Morgan, a freelance writer based in the southwestern United States, frequently writes about art and artists.