With the start of spring, the Kentucky Derby Festival is gearing up to begin. LEO sat down with local artist Liesl Long Chaintreuil to discuss her experience creating the 2023 Kentucky Derby Festival poster.
After a few minutes talking with her, it doesn’t take very long to understand why the Festival reached out to Long Chaintreuil to commission their official 2023 poster art. If there is one takeaway from our conversation, it’s her sincere appreciation for the place many of us call home.
“I’ve always loved painting artwork around Kentucky, I’ve always been drawn to horses,” said Long Chaintreuil. “I love the beauty of Kentucky, and all the events they have to offer. I don’t know, I just love Kentucky!”
Long Chaintreuil was born and raised in Louisville, and has retained a deep attachment to the place. Growing up, she had a “wonderful neighborhood community,” one that took part in Derby Festival celebrations, often meeting up to watch Thunder Over Louisville or the Pegasus Parade.
Discussing her formative years as an artist, Long Chaintreuil credits her experience attending the locally and nationally well-known visual arts magnet program at duPont Manual High School for helping her reach her professional goals over the years. In particular, Long Chaintreuil praises how the program helped her develop into her own as an artist, with a personalized style and confidence to later attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, California.
“It was a huge stepping stone,” she said, “I was just very thankful for all the support and encouraging me to embrace my style.”
Even now, Long Chaintreuil remembers the sheer motivation gained from being in community with peers who shared that motivation to create in their own subjects and unique ways. “I loved it because I was in classes with people that were really driven,” and “we were together in the Annex building, just creating art.”
That sense of community from her high school years was shaped by an association between place and relationship, and extends to the present and Long Chaintreuil’s lifelong bond to Kentucky. “Family is huge to me,” she said, explaining how Kentucky as a place is synonymous with family, a sense that now includes her three young children and husband.
“I lived away for a little while. I went to California for school and I stayed out there for almost nine years, and I think people always say you’ll go away, but some people will come back.” Long Chaintreuil certainly considers herself to be the type of people that come back, too drawn in by the pull of a conceptual and physical “home.”
She returned to Louisville in 2013, appreciating the growth and experience of being away, but she “always had this feeling too of being excited to come back to Kentucky.” It was “the people here, growing up, my community.”
The theme of community is a noticeable constant in her work. In particular, the appeal that a sense of community can have as a wholesome source of joy, and of knowing that you relate to someone just because the proximity they hold to you has allowed a relationship to build and become something valued. Speaking with her, I understood how that joy is tantamount to her artwork, expressed through detailed layers of bright colors and patterns.
The artwork for the 2023 Derby Festival reflects this, featuring a small sea of people facing a skyline of the city, framed by a sky of pegasi, bright fireworks, and even brighter hot air balloons. Without seeing their faces, there is still an unmistakable sense of wonder coming from the crowd as they look up at some of the more iconic imagery of the Festival.
Despite the similarities in style and qualities to her other artwork, Long Chaintreuil did have a specific vision in mind, because she “was so excited when they asked me. There are so many wonderful events, I wanted to make them all blend together, I really decided to focus a lot on the events in the sky, so that’s kind of where I took it and bringing in the people and skyline to really show the excitement to be at the events.”
This vision was shaped by her lifelong experience with the Festival, of “rolling down the hill at Kingfish as a kid, getting ready to watch the steamboat race and eating hushpuppies with all my friends,” and riding bikes as a family to the waterfront to watch Thunder Over Louisville.
Long Chaintreuil wanted “to create this melody of events for the Derby Festival,” something that showcased the variety of events and evokes the same joy of nostalgic memories.
The work is titled the “Spirit of Kentucky,” and the poster captures how that sense of wonder bonds the crowd, turning them from neighbors and coworkers into something more, something Matt Gibson, Derby Festival President and CEO, considers “the spirit of the festival.”
In addition to this “spirit,” Long Chaintreuil also sought to demonstrate the joy of being in-person. “Especially with things happening again, and people are so excited to be able to go to these events again, I really wanted this piece to show that. And people are present, they are there, and they’re ready to celebrate.”
Despite the ways we’ve learned to build community virtually over the last few years, for some there is still a marked difference regarding the value of in-person events. And since the Kentucky Derby Festival consists of so many events, it makes sense that for some, there is a deep anticipation for the feeling of community they build and have through attending and engaging in these events.
And with the poster artwork, Long Chaintreuil’s fresh take on the concept sought to capture the celebratory tone and camaraderie of the Festival. She provided more insight on some of the intentional elements, describing how “in my mind, I think of celebration when I think of balloons and pattern and color in the sky, and they bring the light in the sky as well so I was really excited to incorporate the balloons. It’s always fun seeing balloons in the sky!”
The positioning of the symbolically important pegasus in this year’s poster was also intentional, and by situating it in the sky near these elements of celebration, Long Chaintreuil wove the two together.
Jennifer Morgan, the Derby Festival merchandising manager, said “Liesl really re-imagined the Pegasus for this year’s poster and incorporated it in an entirely new way. Instead of it being the focal point and a literal depiction, it’s part of the texture in the background, while still being a key element of the piece.”
On the Derby Festival website, you can find every poster since German-American artist Peter Max’s first installment in the series in 1981. Some are out of stock, but most posters are still available to purchase now, with prices ranging from $25 to $30. Over the years, the details of the posters have varied but almost all contained some version of a horse, later shifting to feature the Festival’s iconic pegasus.
LEO asked if the forty-two previous posters in the series had any influence on her take, especially with the noticeable difference. She said, “Naturally I look at them and then I take my own vision and pull a little bit here and there but I had a vision.”
If you are interested in purchasing your own piece of this “vision,” and other Festival merchandise, you can do so at the Festival Unveiled event, presented by Four Roses Bourbon, on Thursday, March 16, at the Mellwood Art Center. The Festival’s full merchandise line including the 2023 poster will be available, as well as the opportunity to have yours signed by the artist herself.
If you can’t make it to the Mellwood Art Center, there are a limited number of signed copies, as well as regular prints, available on the official Kentucky Derby Festival website, with shipping starting on March 17, after the official launch. You can see and purchase more of Long Chaintreuil’s work on her official website or Etsy shop; if you prefer in-person purchases, there is a list on her website of local boutiques and galleries currently offering some of Long Chaintreuil’s original work and prints. •