Legally blind dressage rider and acclaimed equine artist Lisa Marie Bishop has turned adversity into success
By Jennifer Mellace
“I’m a rider,” says Lisa Marie Bishop, “before I’m an artist.” Her passion for the horse shines through in each brushstroke in her paintings, some of which—like the 10-by-12-foot canvas, New York Half Pass, commissioned by a patron as the focal point of a room in her New York City residence—seem larger than life.
Painting was neither Bishop’s first passion nor the self-taught artist’s intended career. But when she found her equestrian pursuits “in limbo” after she was diagnosed with a hereditary disease that will eventually lead to complete blindness, she had to find a way to make a living other than as an equine professional.
“That was where my art started,” she says, “and why it exists today. My artwork wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t going blind.”
Act I: The Rider
Hailing from upstate New York, Bishop was a horse-crazy kid who didn’t start riding until she was 12. It was then that her twin siblings were born and she became her mother’s helper. Earning $10 every other week, she paid $8 a lesson and was jumping by her fourth ride.
Bishop took to the saddle “like a duck to water,” she says. “I knew I was meant to do this.”
Bishop became a working student under the watchful eye of well-known horsewoman Doris Clarke at Fox Run Farm in Aurora, New York. An avid eventing competitor, she and her Thoroughbred gelding, Beetle Bailey, earned the US Eventing Association bronze medal at the preliminary level, and he was named the 2007 Intermediate Mid-America Combined Training Association Horse of the Year.
But even as Bishop was garnering these awards, she was facing a grim medical prognosis. In her early twenties, she was diagnosed with Stargardt macular degeneration, a genetic eye disorder that causes progressive vision loss.
As the condition progressed, it caused “a huge blank spot in my central vision,” Bishop says. “My peripheral vision is excellent, but I knew eventing wasn’t safe. Leaving [the sport] was really hard, but I did it on my terms.” She stopped eventing altogether in her late thirties.
Galloping cross-country might have become a thing of the past, but Bishop wasn’t done with horses. She moved to a discipline that enabled her to keep riding and competing, even with her limited eyesight. In 2011, when Bishop was in her forties, she began pursuing dressage aboard a Percheron-Thoroughbred cross named Graphite. Three years later, she earned her USDF silver medal.
Act II: The Artist
No longer a trainer of event horses and riders, Bishop found herself wondering how she would continue to support her horses and herself. Inspiration took the form of a blank wall in her home in Iowa, where she was living at the time.
“When we lived in Iowa, we had a really big wall that I couldn’t find artwork for,” Bishop recalls. “So I painted my own five-by-six-foot mural.” People who saw the painting clamored for the artist’s name—and then the commissions started rolling in.
Nevertheless, Bishop’s newfound career entailed some trial and error.
“When I first decided to try painting, I went to the store and picked up equipment without any knowledge of what I was buying,” she says. She came home with acrylic paints—her primary medium today—which she sometimes augments with charcoal and oils.
“I would paint and then quit for a while. I would throw paintings down the stairs into my basement because I thought they were awful! Then, a week later, I’d go drag one back upstairs and figure it out. Now I get it right more often than not,” she says with a laugh.
Bishop’s initial clientele was local, but then the equine photographer and HorsesDaily.com and DressageDaily.com website owner Mary Phelps discovered her work. Phelps (who was also a Markel Insurance rep) and Markel commissioned a piece to be awarded as a prize at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Illinois. The painting, appropriately named Promising, was won by Endel Ots, who rode the Hanoverian gelding Lucky Strike to the Markel/USEF Young Horse Six-Year-Old national championship title.
Since that time, Bishop’s work has found its way to the international scene. The Master was presented to 2012 British Olympic team gold medalist Carl Hester at the 2017 New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Symposium. Showstoppers—depicting Hester’s famous protégé, Charlotte Dujardin, aboard the superstar horse Valegro—was auctioned off to benefit the working-equine charitable organization Brooke USA during the 2018 NEDA Symposium.
Today, Bishop’s work is on display at Gisela Pferdekaemper’s Studio Gallery in Loxahatchee Groves, Florida. The introduction was made by Anna Niehaus, who owns a commissioned Bishop original of herself and her 13-year-old Oldenburg gelding, Ziggy.
“I was fascinated by Lisa Marie’s love of the horse,” says Niehaus. “The love that she has for horses is expressed in her paintings. There is so much emotion in them. It’s a passion for her. She’s a fabulous rider, too.”
Bishop’s visual impairment serves to imbue her art with an abstract quality. Instead of trying to render every detail with photographic precision, she focuses on capturing the energy and emotion between horse and rider. And to do that, she needs to know her subjects, and so “I’m particular about the commissions I take,” she explains. When she does, “I go watch them so that I can capture what is going on in the ring and what makes that pair so special. That is what I try to portray in the painting.”
If she plans to depict the horse in motion—say, in a canter pirouette—Bishop watches not with a judge’s eye, but rather to get a sense of how the rider develops the movement and how the horse responds.
“I look at the energy versus the mechanics; that’s what makes my paintings a little different,” she says. “My son Colin once said that I paint how I see. He was right. Riders [in my paintings] don’t have faces because I don’t see them. Or I miss a leg or a tail. What’s missing is what I didn’t see. But you get what I was feeling, not what I was seeing.”
Even though Bishop has produced numerous commissioned paintings—she completes about 10 a year—she admits that her nerves still flutter when she unveils the finished work. It’s because “each painting means so much to me, so when I hear someone say, ‘You captured the energy, and it looks just like him!’, I always cry.”
Bishop typically has four or five paintings—a mix of commissions and her own inspirations—in the works at any given time. One subject on her wish list: the legendary German champion Isabell Werth and her 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games gold-medal partner, Bella Rose. Bishop is drawn to “that special connection Isabell has with that horse. That emotion—I want to capture that.”
“I thought about giving up [riding] after a health scare” in early 2020, Bishop says, “but Jaime wouldn’t let me quit,” referring to her dressage instructor, New Jersey-based Jaime Dancer.
Dancer “had a horse—Dhecanter—who she wouldn’t sell to anyone, but she sold him to me,” Bishop says proudly.
“Lisa Marie is extremely passionate about riding, and she’s driven and determined,” Dancer says. Even though Bishop now lives in Texas and the Hanoverian gelding is only four, Dancer believed that the pair would be successful.
Bishop hopes to one day become an international Grand Prix-level dressage rider. But in 2020, aided by the pandemic shutdowns, she focused on the here and now.
“This year allowed me to take a great big deep breath and look at what’s important in my training,” she says. “There’s no worrying about the next show and next thing. I just ride my horse.”
Friend Jillian Kirkpatrick believes that it is Bishop’s ability in the saddle that transfers to the canvas.
“I think she has such a great eye for the horse and the way that they move and flow. That’s what you see in her paintings,” Kirkpatrick says. “You see the circle of energy within the artwork, and that translates so beautifully from how she rides.” What’s more, she says, Bishop’s “awesome sense of humor” and her energy—“a sparkle and light to her that is infectious”—come through in her art.
“Even with the hard things I had to go through,” Bishop says, “I don’t have any regrets.” In fact, she says, her health issues have been blessings in disguise.
“It was a doom-and-gloom diagnosis, but I’m glad I didn’t listen. I would have missed out on a whole lot!”
To learn more about Lisa Marie Bishop and her artwork, visit lisamariebishop.com.