At the opening reception for the exhibition Verdant Dream: Landscape Paintings of the American West, Phyllis Shafer, 61, met a young couple and their son—three of the 400 people in attendance that night. Shafer looked at the young boy and asked what his favorite painting in the show was. “And he points immediately to ‘Loggerhead Shrike,’” she said. It’s a stylized, abstract landscape painting with sweeping views of the Eastern Sierra, as seen from Bishop, with two loggerhead shrikes—small, gray songbirds—in the foreground. “How come you like that one best?” Shafer said. The boy responded, “because that’s the one we’re taking home.” “Loggerhead Shrike” was one of the show’s 35 paintings that sold. In fact, Verdant Dreams sold out entirely before the first people walked through the doors for the reception.
Selling out is the norm when it comes to Phyllis Shafer exhibitions at the Stremmel Gallery in Reno. And this show, her seventh solo exhibition there, was no exception. Her first? A group show in 2003 when Shafer was in her early 40s. She remembers having eight paintings in the show. Six sold at the opening, and the other two sold before the exhibition closed. “It was a revelation for me,” she said. But what she didn’t know at the time was that her relationship with the gallery—and subsequent success—was just getting started.
Shafer was raised in upstate New York. She attended The State University of New York at Potsdam, where her professors said, “if you want to be an artist, you have to do it in New York City.” She listened, and after graduating, moved to a fifth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side, where she painted fantasy landscapes.
After living in Manhattan for three years, Shafer embarked on a cross-country road trip to San Francisco with a girlfriend. It was then she got her first taste of the landscape of the West. “Really, once you get past Chicago, it’s like the landscape just exploded,” she said. “And all that subtlety of the Northeast is seen on this grander scale.”
Shafer was drawn in by the landscape, met a guy in the Bay Area, and was hooked. And so she went back to Manhattan, packed her belongings, and moved to Oakland. She stayed for 10 years and attended a graduate program at UC Berkeley. By the time she graduated, the relationship with “said guy” had “run its course,” and she accepted a teaching position at Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake Tahoe. Today, Shafer is co-chair of the art department and director of the college’s three art galleries. She celebrated 25 years of teaching at LTCC this past fall.
It was while working at LTCC that she first met Turkey Stremmel, who co-founded Stremmel Gallery with her husband Peter in 1969. “Up until then, I had maybe sold five paintings in my entire career,” Shafer said. “And here is this woman. This whirling dervish who just gets behind you.”
Shafer was introduced to Turkey by Frank Hill, who was, according to Shafer, an advocate for emerging artists in Reno at the time. Hill sent Turkey some slides of Shafer’s work. The gallery owner was apprehensive to take on a new artist, arguing she had enough talented artists to showcase, but eventually agreed to meet Shafer and put some of her paintings in a group show. This was the same group show Shafer referred to as “a revelation,” where she more than doubled her all-time career sales, selling six paintings on opening night. The rest, you could say, is history. “It’s just gone from there and been fantastic,” Shafer said. “I’ve never had such an amazing support system from a gallery owner.”
The paintings in Shafer’s current show feature her signature look—abstract and stylized landscapes with exaggerated elements and vibrant colors. What’s new about this show, however, is that Shafer has included living creatures to animate the landscape—grasshoppers, butterflies, birds, and bees. She traveled to Death Valley, the northern coast of California, and to an artist residency in Wyoming called Brush Creek to paint the works featured in Verdant Dreams.
She spent the entire month of August concentrating on nothing but painting. “You’re given a place to stay and a studio, and they feed you,” she said. “You’re just off the grid and have this wonderful opportunity to just focus on your work.
“Thistle’s Repose” is one of the works she painted at Brush Creek. To begin her process, Shafer traveled the Wyoming landscape looking for a composition—a set of relationships between objects—to catch her eye. “It’s a combination of observed landscape, still life, and also this sort of abstracted, stylized element,” she said.
Each of Shafer’s paintings begs a different approach. For “Thistle’s Repose,” she spent five afternoons, or 15 hours, on location. Then, she spent another 100 hours in the studio. “But the most dynamic part occurs in the field,” she said. That is where the inspiration takes place.
Phyllis Shafer’s painting exhibition, Verdant Dream: Landscape Paintings of the American West, is on view at the Stremmel Gallery in Reno through Nov. 23.