Phyllis Shafer is a South Lake Tahoe landscape painter who’s been working in the Sierra Nevada since 1994. Her solo exhibition Nature Transcendent opens at Stremmel Gallery in Reno this Thursday, May 11, with a reception from 5-7 pm.
I remember you telling me the story of being in your New York City studio, painting landscapes, and thinking “Why am I living in the city and painting these?”
So, were there any experiences that got you moving out here, toward the West, and painting outside?
I think it’s important to know that I grew up in a tiny little agricultural community in upstate New York, and my grandparents were farmers on both sides of my family. … So growing up in a small town, nature is what you’re aware of, and it’s very much a part of where I come from. But I wanted to get to the city because my professors told me, “If you’re going to be an artist, you have to go to NYC.” And of course, I was young and itching to have experiences that were different. So off to NYC I went and lived in a 5th floor walk-up on the Lower East Side in the ’80s and started doing these fantasy landscape paintings. Then I crossed the country and saw once you get past Chicago how the world just explodes, and the drama and the scale of the West is pretty amazing.
A lot of people get a real sense of place out of your work. How much of that do you think comes out of now painting on-site, outside, for a long period of time?
I think it’s absolutely critical. And you know this from growing up here [South Lake Tahoe], the Sierra Nevada has a unique feel. It’s about the flora, the fauna, the quality of the air. There’s something that is just so magical about the Sierra Nevada, and I think I could never be a landscape painter who uses photographs, because it’s not about that. It’s about being in this place and living in this place and seeing the cycle of the seasons. It’s about … those hikes where you see the minute things … right by your feet, and then the vast, deep space as well. It’s really important to me to make those peaks that are in my paintings recognizable to the people who spend time there. And obviously there’s a certain amount of stylistic exaggeration … juxtapositions, scale shifts, that kind of thing, but all that is my intuitive response to being in nature. … It would feel very artificial to make those decisions about stylization and exaggeration without having felt it from the experience of being in the place.
In the last couple of years, I understand you’ve gone a little further afield. Tell me a little bit about that.
I retired from my full-time teaching job, now I have more time. … What’s been great about retirement is now I can … get to places a little further away. … I get bored really easily, so a new set of shapes, a different kind of space, different palette—all those things heighten your awareness of these places and bring something new to the work.
Having said that, I can go down to the end of South Upper Truckee, which is right down the street from my house, where I’ve done probably 25 little paintings, right down at that spot, and what’s interesting to me is that when I’m close to home, on my own turf and the areas that I know so well, the place becomes the stage for me to then introduce more of the conceptual stuff like the birds or the outsized flowers. I start to focus on other things because I’m so comfortable in that space.
And what are some of the new locales where you’ve been working?
Well, definitely down the East Side (of the Sierra). I love painting around Bishop. And this show … has quite a few paintings from the Bishop area. I went to Joshua Tree. I went to Anza Borrego Desert last spring, out to Utah a couple of times, and you know with this superbloom going on in the central coast of California I’m just dying to get down there and paint those hills that are covered with mustard and with lupine and with poppies and all that. I’m getting to the point where I’m very selfish about March, April, May and also September and October, which are just ideal painting times.
Cover image: a detail of “Mountain Fellowship,” gouache, 2022
Images courtesy of Phyllis Shafer and Stremmel Gallery