Heading north on Route 31 into Ringwood, the new mural on the barn at Rancho El Calate is hard to miss.
Completed by local artist Melissa Wallace, 43, the mural depicts homeowner and horse trainer Roberto Antunez atop a dancing stallion set before a “Starry Night”-inspired sunset. It stands 18.5-feet tall by 14-feet wide and was completed in about 50 hours in just more than two weeks.
Wallace first put brush to barn in early November and finished on Nov. 16, a process that she said would have been quickened by better weather.
This was Wallace’s first barn mural and, by far, her largest work to date.
“It was my first time painting while on a ladder 24-feet up,” Wallace said. “I learned that I’m fearless when it comes to painting.”
Wallace has been painting professionally since she moved to McHenry 20 years ago and has been “doodling artwork ever since [she] could.”
Her favorite part of painting the mural, she said, was how it made her feel connected to the community.
“People kept honking and stopping to talk and take pictures,” she said, “it was so interesting and amazing. I wasn’t used to such a strong sense of community.”
Homeowner, horse trainer, and subject of the painting, Antunez commissioned the mural after a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Wallace’s work.
Antunez, 53, is from Guerrero, Mexico, and has been working with horses as long as he can remember. He began learning the craft from his grandfather when he was 13 years old.
At 14, Antunez left Mexico in 1982 to come to the U.S. He worked in landscaping for 30 years while he and his wife raised their two sons.
“When my kids graduated from college was when I decided I was living for me,” Antunez said. He decided to focus on his true passion – horses.
Antunez commissioned the mural to bring some of his culture to the ranch and to advertise his horse-training talents. He specializes in training dancing horses. Dancing horses traditionally come from Spain and Mexico, but Antunez said he can train any horse to dance.
“The horse in the picture is an American quarter horse. They’re known for racing, but he learned to dance, no problem,” Antunez said.
Rancho El Calate currently houses 10 horses, and Antunez is planning to add more.
Most of his horses come from Mexico, and Antunez said he insists on transporting them himself. His last trip took a few days because he always makes sure to stop at places that have somewhere for the horses to get out and run.
The name Rancho El Calate comes from a nickname Antunez received as a boy and roughly translates to “the baby deer ranch.” He bought the ranch this time last year and his horses have been living there since.
The property was once a dairy farm which provided much of the area’s milk. The barn currently housing his horses was constructed in 1906.
Antunez plans to begin constructing an arena on the property next year to give his horses more room to roam. He tossed around the idea of hosting events and competitions, but said the reason for the arena is to give his horses space.
“I’m doing it for them,” he said. “Horses need to have freedom.”