Cholla (born May 20, 1985 – died March 22, 2013 in Nevada, United States) was a mustang-Quarter Horse mix known as the painting horse for his very special ability. Because of his wild temper, the cowboys named him after the cholla cactus.
After being tamed by the cowboys with the sacking out method, at the age of 5 the horse was bought by Renee Chambers, a trained ballerina, who succeeded in gaining his trust. Many years later, in 2004, his ability to paint was discovered by chance, when he was following his owner painting the corral fence.
The horse used a sturdy easel and some watercolor tins. He showed will, awareness, intention and pleasure when he painted his abstract strokes, straight or curved. He used to choose the brush and color, then moved the brush in his mouth using his tongue and teeth to determine his preferred angle. Then he started to paint. Cholla never chewed, sucked or destroyed the brush, which is very unusual for a horse; he stood in front of the easel for minutes without even caring for food; he might need assistance — and then he would show he wanted to be helped — when the brush accidentally dropped down for his saliva. This behaviour has been studied by scientists and ethologists, and is extraordinary because the horse was not trained to do this and was a semi-wild horse.
Cholla's paintings were shown in local exhibits in the U.S. In 2008 Cholla received international media exposure when his owner sent one of his earlier artworks (The Big Red Buck, 2004) to a painting competition in Mogliano Veneto, Italy. The embarrassed jury had to admit the artwork, as the competition is "open to everyone". The horse was awarded an Honor Mention of the Jury, without receiving any money reward, and the artwork was exhibited together with the 30 finalists'.
As part of the prize regulations, some partner galleries had been given the chance to grant a special prize (a solo exhibit for free) to one or more finalist; the Giudecca 795 contemporary art gallery based in Venice, besides the two human artists Benny Katz and James King, decided to also award Cholla with a "personal" exhibit (the first overseas) and a catalogue (the first ever), considering him a very special and "young" artist. The Venice exhibit occurred from 24 April to 15 September 2009 and displayed 30 original watercolors painted between 2004 and 2009, and some video showing the horse painting. (Some video is also available online.) The horse's owner and the gallerists decided not to transport the horse from Nevada to Venice; such a big and wild horse would have been exposed to unnecessary risks and injuries.
Some original watercolors by Cholla have been shown on preview at Palazzo dei Congressi, Rome, April 2009. Some of Cholla's artwork has been sold. Renee Chambers is actively contributing to animal charities including helping the wild mustangs in Nevada. Cholla died on 22 March 2013 at nearly 28—an exceptional age for a horse, and also an exceptionally creative life.
Other animals have created artwork as well. Congo, a chimpanzee, was the first animal-artist to be 'discovered'. Congo was observed by Desmond Morris, and impressed Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Cholla's story could be very similar to the painting chimp's, Italian ethologist Danilo Mainardi says. Cholla's creativity is held in contrast to the trained and repetitive gestures of the so-called elephant artists, who look trained to repeat gestures with their flexible trunks.
- Jumping Cholla, the cactus after which Cholla was named
- Mainardi, Danilo. L'intelligenza degli animali ("The intelligence of animals"), Cairo Publishing, 2009.
- Horse takes up painting, has works exhibited, CNN, 18 October 2008.
- Adam, Georgina. The Art Market, The Financial Times, 6 June 2009.
- Cholla Exhibition Featured in Venice, ArtDaily, 24 April 2009.
- "Cholla", VeniceDream, 2009.
- Antonucci, Simona. "Arte, provocazioni a briglie sciolte (Art, provocations in full gallop)", Il Messaggero, culture page, 4 April 2009.
- Video of Cholla Video: Cholla paints
- Cholla the painting horse Web (various languages)
- Cholla in Venice Cholla's solo exhibit (English and Italian)
- Premio Arte Laguna The prize which presented Cholla with a special mention
- Ioema Collection with Cholla Artwork by Cholla at outsiderart.info and the Ioema Collection