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[whitespace] Pony Midnight in the Garden: Lynne Zachreson's pony, 'Midnight,' is stabled in the window of Madame Sidecar.

Photograph by Tim Flint

The Pony Whisperer

As the Pony Brigade herd saddles up for auction, a humble stable boy mounts a campaign to get a pony of his own

By Mike Connor

I HAVE BECOME entangled in a web not of my own making and only one thing is clear to me: I must have Dag Weiser's Who's Really in the Saddle. Who's Really in the Saddle, or W.R.I.T.S., as it's affectionately called, is a star-spangled pony with flashing red eyes and a mechanical drill atop its saddle. The pony sits in the Front Street window of Metro Santa Cruz, where I've sat next to it for more than a month.

The pony is part of the Four-Eighteen Project's Year of the Horse Pony Brigade. Ponies were given to 35 local artists, who modified, painted and embellished them as they pleased. The ponies were corralled and paraded during First Night, and now they're on display in businesses downtown.

At a Feb. 24 benefit for the artists and the Four-Eighteen Project, the ponies will be auctioned off to the highest bidders by Slewinski Auctions of Felton. The event is catered by Chocolate, an excellent consolation for those of us who end up leaving empty-handed. It's bound to happen; not everybody can have a pony, especially the one I want.

I'd heard a wild rumor that the City Council members discussed pooling their money to bid on Who's Really in the Saddle. So when Mayor Chris Krohn and his daughter showed up at the office to check out the horse, I was ready for him. I knew instinctively that the key to securing the pony lay in my ability to undermine his confidence. I sized him up: tall blond guy, beard, glasses.

"You are such a wimp, Chris Krohn. We both know that you are NEVER going to get that horse," I thought, and then said aloud "Aren't you the mayor?" oozing subterfuge and scheming subtexts. He gave me a humble smile and nodded, and then he and his daughter left the building. I'm pretty sure I saw him counting bills (looked like hundreds) across the street, undoubtedly a move designed to psyche me out. He knew I was watching him, but Mr. Mayor, you don't fool me. I'm onto you like a rig on a pony and you know what? That pony is MINE.

I am the pony's official caretaker; I see to it that the horse is plugged in every morning and unplugged every night. The day that two friendly volunteers from the Four-Eighteen Project brought it to the office I was instantly struck by its genius: exquisitely rendered stars and stripes; a miniature wooden oil derrick that actually functions; and then there's the inscription: WHO'S REALLY IN THE SADDLE. It's posed like a question, but make no mistake about it--there's no question mark. They helped me put it in the window and plug it in. The little motor inside began to whir and the derrick pumped. The eyes flashed an ominous red.

One man was more interested in the cord emerging from the horse's rear. "Look at that," he said to me. I looked at the horse's anus. A black cord emerges from a hole punched into its white rump just below its tail. I looked back at the man and obliged him with a puerile snicker. "You don't think that's unintentional, do you?" he asked, and I looked back at the cord blankly. He explained excitedly that the pony was pooping out energy derived from the oil.

"But the horse is taking energy in through that cord," I countered. "Yes, but still," he offered wisely, "there's something to it."

"Out of all the ponies, this one really spoke to me," a woman once explained to me. "The other ones are interesting, but I didn't always get them ... this one clearly has a great message."

I started to think about the other ponies. Were they indecipherable enigmas? They didn't speak to her, but would they speak to me? What would they say? I decided to take a walk.

I rounded the corner to ID Building to look at the two ponies created by Darryl Ferrucci. Defense I was suspended in the front window in front of bubble-wrap plastic. It's painted black and studded with hundreds of meticulously embedded nails like an equine porcupine. Defense II is more subtle--from afar it just looks like a prancing black pony. But upon closer inspection I found that it was wrapped entirely in black bandages, even over the eyes, a sprightly young steed charred and mummified in midprance, like a demented evolution of the "I can't see you so you can't harm me" philosophy of a child hiding beneath the sheets from the bogeyman.

I took this lesson to heart, and strolled casually down the street to see Lynn Zachreson's Midnight. In the window at Madame Sidecar I found a haunting tableau: an opalescent pony with a headless, armless infant astride it, facing another headless mannequin clothed in a tattered dress; a naked baby doll clutching a headless mannequin's black velvet dress; and an open vintage chest, promising untold musty relics in its drawers. I was swept into and entranced by the scene.

I wandered away, pondering this public art project. We've seen how the cows and sharks of big cities provide an element of whimsy and a splash of color to the concrete jungle, like a clown wig in a board meeting. In Santa Cruz, we already have a stockbroker--Julio Morgani--who dresses up like the River Street sign and plays accordion. We've got whimsy in spades.

Then I looked at Sean Monaghan's Seahorse in the window of the Marty Magic Gallery. The artist had completely reshaped and repainted the pony to resemble a stone sculpture of a pony with a fish tail, the equine equivalent of a mermaid, mounted upright on a faux stone pedestal. I marveled at the originality, the craftsmanship. I thought about subversive art, how it can undermine our complacency by painting the familiar and comforting in macabre shades of fear, in broad strokes of beauty.

At Jon Michael's salon, I found myself standing face to face with Peter Kronokos' pony, Self Portrait of St. Michael on His Way to Battle Satan. Awe-inspiring title aside, the horse is remarkable. The holy black steed is emblazoned with white crosses and is carrying its rider--a body made of sticks and doll parts with a vegetable strainer for a helmet, a bloody hammer in his hand and two live .38 caliber rounds on his waist--through the painted wooden flames of hell. I related to this St. Michael, a crude hero in a cartoon hell, heroically challenging the ultimate Evil.

Then I remembered a deeper, more pressing injustice that I needed to face. A bearded, bespectacled face, to be exact.

As I drifted off to sleep that night I had a dream. Out of an inky black void galloped a frothing phantom horse, a terrifying beast with glowing red eyes and blue flames licking its oily black coat. A young girl sat astride the beast holding a doll, staring at it like it was a crystal ball. As the vision passed by, I saw the beard and glasses on the doll, the bills (looked like hundreds) fluttering out of the horse's rear end. "Krohn," I snickered.

Suddenly the horse sprouted wings, the void gave way to wide open sky and a whole stampede of ponies followed suit. I reached out for them but they eluded my grasp. High above, David Jackman's golden sparkling pony, With Open Arms, floated serenely on a cloud of feathers, the scales of justice in one hand and an auction gavel in the other. It looked at me and spoke with George W. Bush's voice: "MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT; WE WILL FIND ALL THE PONIES."

I awoke with a gasp. I puzzled over the dream but could not decipher its meaning. Then I thought of St. Michael charging ahead with his hammer in hand, and I realized I would have to steel myself in my resolve. I'll see you at the auction, Krohn.

Year of the Horse Pony Brigade Live Auction takes place Sunday (Feb. 24) at the Four-Eighteen Project, 418 Front St., Santa Cruz. Doors open at 6:45pm, auction begins at 7:30pm. Tickets are $20, available at Madame Sidecar, 907 Cedar St. For more information, call 466.9770 or visit www.four-eighteen.org.

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From the February 20-27, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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