Jonnie’s Gift

Sometimes things reappear in your life so suddenly, so surprisingly, that they cause a kind of whooshing in your head and stomach. That’s what happened a few days ago, when my sister Liz reached into the back of her car and handed me a painting. “This was in a storage unit that I’m cleaning out. Do you want it? I know it was originally yours.”


For the first time in 35 years, I looked at the long-lashed palomino with the solemn gaze who used to hang on my bedroom wall. My maternal grandfather, Jon Gnagy, painted him for me as a Christmas present in 1970. He was a fictional horse—much as I longed for a horse, I didn’t have one—but his halter, printed with my middle name, “Duffie,” allowed me to claim ownership.

I barely knew my grandfather; I’d only met him once, when I was six. He and my grandmother lived in California and didn’t like to fly, especially not across the country to New Hampshire. But my mother kept Jonnie and Mary Jo posted on their grandchildren’s passions and accomplishments, and together they cooked up the idea of a horse painting for me.


This was no amateur outing for Jonnie. He was the nation’s first television art instructor: his show, You Are An Artist, began on the NBC network in 1946 and continued in syndication until 1970, holding the world’s record for the longest continuously running show on TV. His Learn to Draw kits are still sold today.

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I was 12 years old when I received the painting, and not particularly aware of its stellar provenance. Mostly I loved having that wistful palomino within my sights, with its promise that a real horse might materialize.

And I did get a horse within the year, a bay pony, whom I’ve chronicled in my blog. I outgrew her and—rather foolishly—gave up horses for boys. When I went off to college, I left Jonnie’s painting behind. I graduated, married, had a son, divorced, moved from New England to North Carolina.

At various points, my parents said, “Do you want us to send you Jonnie’s horse painting?”

“No,” I always answered. It didn’t match my decorating style. It was a dusty reminder of my distant past. It didn’t fit.

My parents passed the picture along to my sister Liz, whose daughter Margaret went through a horse-crazy phase. After Margaret lost her interest in horses, the painting went into storage for almost two decades.

Until it resurfaced in Liz’s car this week.

Now it sits in my living room, a direct line to those days when I doodled horses on the edges of my school papers, read every Marguerite Henry book, and dreamed of my someday horse.

How apt that the painting has come back, now that I have Mystic, the horse of my dreams.


I also have a thousand times more appreciation for the grandfatherly love that went into creating a painting for a faraway, horse-obsessed granddaughter. I appreciate the sly artistic touches: my name on the halter, Jonnie’s name “carved” into the stall boards, the upward dreaming cast of the horse’s eyes. I appreciate Jonnie’s ability to look into my 12-year-old heart and know exactly what it held.

Thank you, Jonnie, for giving me a horse that will last forever. This time I won’t let it go.


5 thoughts on “Jonnie’s Gift

  1. Oh my, Mary! How wonderful that you have your grandfather’s painting again . . . as you may recall, I used to watch him, and draw with him, every week when I was a boy.

    Trust all well down there.




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