Air plain

Phyllis Shafer

A river runs through it: Phyllis Shafer and her painting “Tallac Rex.”

A river runs through it: Phyllis Shafer and her painting “Tallac Rex.”

Photo by BRAD BYNUM

The old saw is that you’re not a true Nevadan until you’ve learned to appreciate all the different shades of brown. Phyllis Shafer, a Lake Tahoe-based artist, qualifies as a real Nevadan; her paintings convey the surreal, mystic colors and qualities of the desert landscape.

“When you first head out into the desert, you might think there’s no color,” she says. “But after you spend some time there, that spectrum opens up.”

Shafer is a plein air painter. (Plein air is a French expression that means “plain air,” i.e. outside.) She hikes out into the desert or the mountains, “trolling for locations,” as she says, and when she finds a view she likes, she stops and begins to paint.

Shafer says she came to plein air painting “by the back door.” As a young painter, she pursued more abstract, contemporary styles of painting.

“But then I was sneaking out to paint outside,” she says. “It felt like sneaking out because of the pressures of the contemporary art scene—it’s not hip or cool.”

Plein air painting is often considered the province of Sunday painters, old folks looking for a way to relax during the autumnal years. But Shafer has a unique take on landscape painting. Her style, once recognized, is unmistakable: The colors are vivid, the compositions are fluid and lyrical, and through it all there’s an incredible sense of movement—the compositions tease the eye along. The plants and trees, cacti and sage, seem to breathe, the clouds spiral and swirl. The effect is downright psychedelic.

She says this sense of movement comes, in part, from her background as an abstract painter. “But I’ve also always been interested, on a very amateur level, in dance. I look at nature and sense the natural rhythms of plants to mountains to sky.”

Shafer is not a realist, but her paintings convey a strong and precise sense of place. Her paintings typically focus on Northern Nevada and Northeast California, though many of the paintings in her current exhibition at Stremmel Gallery, Into the Landscape: Vistas and Visions, were painted in the Sonora Desert of Arizona. It’s a testament to Shafer’s appeal to the sensibilities of Nevadans that this exhibition was almost sold out—nearly 50 pieces, in this economy!—before the show had even opened.

“Tallac Rex,” one of the largest pieces in the exhibit, depicts the Truckee Marshes, where the Truckee River flows into Lake Tahoe at the southern end of the lake. The river guides the viewer through the painting—it creates compositional as well as narrative movement.

“I love the idea of river as passage,” says Shafer. “It’s narrative formally as well as conceptually.”

In “Tallac Rex,” as in many of Shafer’s paintings, the horizon line is rounded—it’s as if the viewer can perceive the curvature of the Earth. Shafer describes it as a fish-eye effect, and it adds to the sense of movement—the compositions that flow, river-like, from foreground to middle ground to background, from plant to mountain to sky.

“I start by zooming in on what’s at your feet,” says Shafer, “and then take you all the way out.”