Take one look at Phyllis Shafer’s paintings, and it’s clear she’s a hiker. She’s a South Lake Tahoe artist whose name has long been synonymous with gorgeously rendered paintings of off-the-beaten-path mountain and desert scenes. But she was a painter long before she was a hiker.
“I grew up in a rural area in New York state,” she said, “so the land has been part of my consciousness from the beginning.” For a long time, though, she painted indoors.
Back when she was in art school, the idea of painting out of doors, she said, “was for little old ladies on a Sunday afternoon. I would have been ousted from school. … So I was doing these big, bombastic, surrealistic landscapes that had, like, machine parts and plants that had gone haywire. They were big. They were aggressive. I was in my 20s and early 30s.”
Long story short, Shafer, now in her 50s, is well known in the region as a painter of elegant landscapes. They’re pensive and serene—yet so lively they almost appear animated. She’s highly celebrated in art-collector circles, so much so that Stremmel Gallery owner Turkey Stremmel said Shafer’s exhibits consistently sell out before the opening receptions.
After finishing art school, Shafer lived in Marin County. She was still working on those assertive landscape paintings, until one day she saw an exhibit in Sonoma County by a group of plein air painters—painters who work outside in the elements, watching the sunlight crawl across a mountain or forest as they render it.
“I hadn’t been that turned on by painting for a long time,” she said. “I’m living in the Bay Area, and in the thick of the art scene there. And it just felt so fresh and so honest and true. … There was life. Those paintings were breathing. They were out there in nature capturing the wind, the movement, the sun, the rhythm, the color, the texture. It just captured me.” She started sneaking outside to paint.
Shortly afterward—by then it was 1994—she moved to Tahoe to work at Lake Tahoe Community College, where she still teaches painting and also runs the gallery.
“You can’t not hike if you live in Lake Tahoe,” she said. She picked up that habit immediately. Now, in between her full-time responsibilities at the college, she spends as much time as possible exploring Tahoe and the Eastern Sierras, toting small canvases and paints, sometimes miles down a trail.
Her signature style is mix of patches of realism with bands of abstracted color.
“I think that that play between fantasy and observation is what really intrigues me,” she said. She wants her paintings to be at once true to the scene and subjective. She wants viewers to recognize the backgrounds—Fallen Leaf Lake, Swall Meadows or Lake Ediza, for example—but the foreground, she said, is more her invention.
“It becomes like a character in my play,” she said.
While the region’s hikers will easily see see home in Shafer’s work, she said she steers clear of heavily traveled locations.
“I actually prefer to paint scenes that are not recognizable,” she said. “One year I went to Yosemite and painted Half Dome, and there was a kind of almost a little bit of pressure, to be painting something that iconic. Something like this, it doesn’t really matter where you are, then it becomes my story. It’s more about the painting than about the place.”