This is the first of two posts about Kathy Wipfler’s upcoming solo exhibition and the practices, history and special knowledge inspiring Wipfler’s work.
By her own admission Kathy Wipfler is a solitary sort, and she’s built a solid core of dedicated collectors. Her masterful painting “Lower Falls of the Yellowstone” hangs beside works by Moran and Bierstadt at the BBHC’s Whitney Gallery of Western Art. Recently she hit the road and headed to John Clymer’s hometown of Ellensberg, Washington. There, the John Clymer Museum is mounting a solo show for Wipfler in June, 2013. As no Clymer Museum artists knew Clymer, and Wipfler did, the museum’s curator invited her to do an exhibition. “Art of the West” is doing a piece Wiplfer’s studio for their September/October issue–great timing for the Fall Arts Festival and Wipfler’s fall gallery events in Cody, Wyoming.
“The Clymer has a lot of John’s early work, his illustrations,” says Wipfler. “It has pictures of John’s and many descriptions written in his words–and the words of other artist friends about John. He was a such a gentleman. I visited him in his studio in Teton Village. Nobody ever had anything crummy to say about John. And of course when he lived here, he was on his own. He was not doing his illustrations anymore, he was researching Western history with his wife Doris. I had great respect for what he was doing.”
If she was going to be in a show at John’s museum, then Wipfler should paint the country where he grew up. Wipfler drove out to see it and make studies; the Clymer has given Wipfler a generous 18 months to prepare. The region is beautiful country, marked by its position east of the Cascade Range. The area’s surrounding Kittitas Valley is known round the world for its prodigious hay production.
Smiling, Wipfler says the area’s main income is hay production. “And,” she adds, “that’s right up my alley!” Wipfler’s life in Jackson is primarily about haying. She leads the agricultural life. Seeing Ellensberg’s hay meadows and tractors was deeply pleasurable; on a clear day it’s possible to look over the coast mountains and see Mt. Rainier. More mountains to the north are also visible–Wipfler says the area is not unlike Jackson, but it is a wider, more open valley.
“I spent 4-5 days there painting, morning and evening and did about seven studies,” she says. “It was rainy off and on, but that made for some beautiful light. I got to know the country a little, and the Clymer, a really fine little museum. It’s great to see that country. It takes some effort to get out there, it’s a 13-hour drive, but I wanted to make sure I captured John’s country. They’d mown the hay, it’s a lot thicker than the hay we have out here. It was so graphic, with the rows of hay and the way the sun broke over the nice older barns in the distance.”
It helps Wipfler’s art to intimately know her subject. She’s pretty sure she was the first to paint the Porter haystacks. Ralph Gill, who owned the ranch at the time, bought Wipfler’s first haystack painting.
“I asked him later—we are still good friends—is anyone around here painting those haystacks? And he said “no,” and he would know. He owned some property in town that housed Main Trail Gallery, where I hung at the time, and he’d always come to the shows. I ended up helping him in the hay meadow, because I can rake and bale. I did that for Clifford Hansen, too, for part-time money when I was starting out. I love working with hay.”
The opportunity of having her own show at the Clymer ties in with what’s important to Wipfler. When she arrived in Jackson in the 1980’s, Clymer and Connie Schwiering were still out and painting. Wipfler says the two were great role models and prolific workers at the height of their careers.
“I could compare their early work to what they were doing in their 60’s and 70’s, and it gave me hope to get better than I was,” she recalls. “Everyone starts out at a pretty rough level; I did, certainly! Just watching them work was encouraging.”
It’s a gift to have a solid year and a half to prepare for the Clymer. Wipfler can create thoughtful work. The museum houses two display rooms; Wipfler’s work will occupy one while a group show will be exhibited in the second room. Wipfler plans on making 30 paintings and will pick the strongest 20 or so to bring to the show. She’s currently working on big pieces—up to 48 x 60 inches— for her Wyoming galleries, Trailside and Simpson Gallagher. People are buying.
“The Clymer Museum show is a sale venue, too,” Wipfler adds. “But that’s not what they focus on. They focus on bringing in art they want their clients to see, art that has meaning to people.”