12 Sep Artist Spotlight: Phyllis Shafer
Phyllis Shafer joyfully defies expectations with her plein-air paintings. For starters, she forswears the easily portable format most landscape painters rely on when working outdoors. Instead, the artist, who lives in South Lake Tahoe, California, may lug canvases as large as 4 feet wide into the wild to help her achieve the effects she’s after. With her latest works, she wants nothing less than to render a scene in such a way that it immerses viewers in the natural world just as birds, butterflies, or bees might see it, miraculously shifting perceptions.
Consider Bumblebee Bouquet, in which a sextet of larger-than-life, pollen-plump insects hover around a cluster of fuchsia thistle blossoms that occupy almost half of the painting. Beyond, hillsides covered in golden grasses unroll toward a mountainous horizon beneath a near-psychedelic swirl of clouds and sky.
“What I’m trying to capture,” Shafer explains of this and her other mesmerizing landscapes, “is the wonder and beauty and idiosyncrasy of the things I’m seeing. I’m twisting and tweaking normal cropping and composition to provide a more intimate look at the scene.”
Not only will she trek arduously into the wild to achieve such bee’s-eye-view verisimilitude, but Shafer also occasionally brings plants or rocks back into the studio for reference to help her finish a painting. Take those thistles. She came upon them in 2017 while starting the canvas during a one-month residency at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in Saratoga, Wyoming. “I yanked one out, put it in a bucket of water, and carried it back,” she recalls. This enabled her to transition some 15 on-location hours over several days into another 50 hours of painstaking detail work back in the studio, “using a small brush to orchestrate the magic with colors, edges, brushwork, everything,” she says.
Shafer comes by such meticulous mastery through a lifetime in the classroom, as both student and teacher. An Upstate New York native, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from SUNY Potsdam before heading west to earn her Master of Arts at UC Berkeley in 1988. Then, 25 years ago, she accepted a job offer to teach studio art and art history at Lake Tahoe Community College, where she still serves on the faculty. That led her to reach a deeper understanding of her goals as an artist, and also gave her a firmer grasp on how best to achieve them. “Through teaching, I’ve taught myself to be a better painter,” Shafer says. “I can render anything I see with a lot of fidelity.”
Her ultimate goal is to capture an emotional response to nature. “I’m concerned about the future of wild spaces, and if other people are attracted to my work, that may lead them to stewardship and then advocacy. You protect what you care about,” Shafer says.
Verdant Dreams: Paintings of the American West, Shafer’s solo show featuring more than 30 oil and gouache works, takes place October 24 to November 23 at the Stremmel Gallery in Reno, Nevada, her exclusive representatives.