Artist Ashley Collins survived poverty to become world-renowned artist
Ashley Collins overcame homelessness and poverty to becoming one of the world’s top artists.
The multimedia artist’s collectors include husband and wife actors Arliss Howard and Debra Winger, as well as Steven Spielberg and Kate Kapshaw.
Collins’ equine-themed images have found international homes in Beijing’s Cultural Palace Museum, Manila’s Metropolitan Museum in the Philippines, the Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.
The artist is now set to show her works locally in her exhibit that opens this weekend at the Prospect Gallery, 573 Main St.
Although Collins’ works prominently feature horses, she doesn’t consider herself a horse artist. She says, instead, that she paints an angel that came into her life in the form of an appaloosa.
“I was lost when I was a child, and I saw a horse up on the hills in Northern California,” she said. “Someone told me that this horse had ringbone, which prevented adults to ride him.”
Every day Collins would hike up the hill to be with the horse, who was known as Chief and suffered from a painful joint disease.
“I would climb on and he would throw me,” she said. “Every time I got back up, I would smell his breath and know that he was telling me to get back up, because there was a world for me and a lot for me to do.”
When Chief died, his guardian’s cousin sent Collins copies of his paperwork.
“Though he was called Chief, his registered name was Shaman,” Collins said. “This is why you see the horse imagery in my work.”
Still, Collins’ work is more than meets the eye. Before she starts to paint, she creates her own canvas by layering hundreds of dictionary pages.
The words on the pages represents the noise of the world, she said.
Within those layers, she always includes pages of industrial era books that convey stories of people who she believes paved the way for her.
In addition to the stories, Collins said the people who touched those pages as they read the books also become part of her work.
“That’s why I tell people to touch my paintings,” she said. “When they do, they become part of the creation.”
Collins’ road to becoming a world-renowned artist was rough, according to her manager, Douglas Crowell.
She arrived to the Los Angeles art scene in the late 1980s to find an old-boys club searching for the next Basquait or Andy Warhol.
Galleries would agree to represent her because they assumed her name Ashley, which was traditionally a male name, meant she was a man. When they found out she was a woman, they would drop the contract, Crowell said.
The artist ended up living in her car and on abandoned boats in Marina Del Rey, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
She was once hired by a restaurateur to paint a mural, and when she met with him to review the plans, he raped and beat her to the point she needed hospitalization, Crowell said.
Through it all, she would be visited by “angels” in the human form, and two of them took the form of Debra Winger and Arliss Howard.
“When Howard would go out of town, he would hire Collins to water his plants and watch the house,” Crowell said. “But in reality, they didn’t have any plants. They were just being kind.”
With their help, Collins earned money by waiting tables and taking any odd job she could find to open a small gallery in Venice.
She told people the artist named Ashley Collins was an English male recluse in order to sell the art, and she was able to sell her first painting for $2,500.
Instead of keeping the full amount for herself, Collins gave half to AIDS Project L.A., Crowell said.
“It was her way of giving something back,” he said. “Her reason was simply there were people who needed help more than her.”
Throughout the dark times, Collins never veered away from her creativity.
“I believe I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “I knew I was put here to create.”
Even as a child, Collins loved to draw.
“My mom would bring home rolls of butcher paper and I would draw from one end to the other,” she said.
Her parents, however, really didn’t know how to handle an artist, and when she told them she wanted to be an artist, her father told her she would “go to Hell and wind up penniless in a gutter.”
“He was right for a good 10 years of my life,” she said.
Today, Collins has a good relationship with her parents, even after not talking with them for 20 years.
“My father was born in rural South Carolina,” she said. “He picked cotton and his parents died of white lung disease, and all they really knew about the world was old-time religion, hard work and education.”
Speaking of education, Collins is a self-taught artist, and all she wanted to do was create from her heart.
“My medium was anything I could get my hands on,” she said. “I would go to junkyards when I couldn’t afford canvas, and buy a sheet of steel for 15 cents and use that as my canvas.”
The least expensive oil paint was black, and she began using a lot of black and earth tones, which she still uses today.
As a reminder to create from her heart, Collins has a tattoo of a Japanese kanji on her right painting hand that means “to tell the truth.”
“When ever I lift my brush or shake your hand, I’m reminded to do it unless I do it from the right place,” she said. “The primary inspiration below it all is unconditional love. Love with a great power behind it.”
In keeping with that thought, Collins paints to heal the world, and her work has helped people who are dealing with the death of a spouse or their child’s cancer.
During the last time she was in Park City for an exhibit opening, she met a man who had been mourning the loss of his son for the past 20 years.
“I was able to help him let go,” she said. “I showed him that we need to be kind to ourselves and love ourselves and heal the world through being kind to other people.”
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