Color my world

Phyllis Shafer

Phyllis Shafer’s “Family of Four” and other paintings go beyond the brown to show the magical qualities of the West.

Phyllis Shafer’s “Family of Four” and other paintings go beyond the brown to show the magical qualities of the West.

Photo By David Robert

My mom was in town last week. No matter how much fun she has when she visits Reno, she always says, “I could never live in the West. Too brown.” Mom lives in lush South Carolina, and to her East Coast eye, the subtler high-desert hues—sage, pine, asparagus, jade, olive and fern, just to begin to list the greens—barely count as colors.

I wish Mom could have stuck around to see the two dozen browns in one of Phyllis Shafer’s prickly pear cactuses. The South Lake Tahoe painter always manages to wring a rainbow of variations on some humble hue like that. Her pictures of desert and mountain scenery are easily recognizable by her characteristic ribbons of, say, 15 solid blues in the same alpine sky.

Shafer is a plein-air painter, which means she hauls her paints, easels and brushes out into the mountains or the desert and renders what she’s looking at.

“I see an arrangement that has narrative possibilities,” she says. “It speaks to me in a way that I translate into a narrative. It’s like I’m going to tell a story.”

If her paintings were a novel, they’d be magical realism. The balance of restrained color palettes and celebratory swirls and squiggles makes still scenes jump off the paper just enough to be surreal and believable at the same time—much like the Western vistas she paints.

“I want to give you my experience of what it’s like to be out there,” Shafer says. “It’s kind of those rhythms of nature where everything is a part of everything else. Bottom line: I feel OK when I’m out there, like it’s going to be OK. I use the landscape as a metaphor for my own passage through life.”

So far, her life passage has brought her to several places, and she’s noticed that her artwork has always reflected her surroundings. She grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. Later, at the University of California, Berkeley, she earned an MFA painting “big, quasi-abstract, plant-machine type of things” in response to a busy life in an urban setting. For art students, “Painting plein-air landscapes was a dirty little secret or something that little old ladies did,” she says, laughing. After grad school, she relocated to quieter Marin County, which rekindled her interest in nature. Twelve years ago, she moved even farther from an urban center to South Lake Tahoe, where she’s been teaching art at the community college ever since.

“I was thinking ‘a couple years and get back to the city,'” she says. But now, “I would never go back. There is no art scene here to speak of, so you don’t feel any social pressure to be a certain way. I feel a lot of freedom. You can have a certain experience that’s not man-made, not commercial, not societal.

“Painting outdoors had become like a religion,” Shafer says.

This is exactly what I’d like to convey to Mom, that if you look at the West from a certain perspective, it makes up for not being bright green with its mythological, larger-than-life open spaces that can feed the spirit and the imagination as much as its sepia, beige, wheat, khaki, rust and taupe can feed the eye.

It’s hard to explain, but Phyllis Shafer, a native East Coaster herself, has got it down.