This is the second of two posts about the life, times and art of Kathy Wipfler. All paintings by Kathy Wipfler.
So much arts writing is hyperbole, don’t you think? Reading it is like hacking your way through dense jungle. A small percentage of artists seem conscious of what their art is really about. I viewed an exhibition this year that I felt was a room full of minimal, abstract sculptures of female genitalia. When I mentioned my observation to the artist, her face went blank. For her, she was simply experimenting with natural forms and materials.
Maybe it’s me. Everyone sees something different in art. That’s why it’s so damn refreshing to talk to painter Kathy Wipfler. She knows exactly what her subject is, and exactly why she’s painting it. Zero hyperbole; after all, she did grow up at the end of a dirt road. Wipfler paints the outdoors and scenes from ranching life. She’s worked on ranches for decades, and she’s observant. She can paint the hell out of farm machinery.
“I’d be out there painting, and Robert (Gill) would yell to me, “What are ya doing later?” and I’d say “Nothing,” recalls Wipfler. “He’d say, ‘You want to run that buck rake?’ That’s what they used to gather hay when it was still put up in loose stacks. It’s an old car, they turned the steering around so the radiator isn’t up front—because it would catch too much hay and get plugged! The other thing you learn when you know about haying is how to stay out of the way! You don’t set up your easel right between their hay rows because they’re going to need you to move, you’ll slow everything up.”
Wipfler laughs, but these are valuable memories and lessons. You can’t paint machines correctly if you don’t know how they work.
“When you are looking at running one of those beaverslides, and you don’t understand them, you can’t paint it right,” she explains. “Same with roping scenes. I know people who want to paint cowboys roping, but they can’t do it right because they don’t know how roping really works. When you rope a steer, the cowboy is on horseback and you throw your loop. Your loop goes away from your hand, and then you have to pick up the slack—the string in the rope attached to the loop. So after the loop goes around the cow, you have to pick it up. Then you dally to your horn to catch it, or the steer will run the rope through your hand and burn you. And if you grab your rope with your thumb down and dally, you’re going to get your thumb caught, and the rope will get tight, and that 600 lb. steer will pop your thumb off.”
When Wipfler sees roping scenes with the cowboy’s thumb towards the steer, she knows that artist knows nothing about roping. And, she adds, a collector who knows roping would never buy a painting depicting a guy jerking his hand the wrong way.
Same with wildlife painting and plein air, Wipfler says. Painting bears? You need to know how they act to paint them convincingly. Painting plein air? You need to understand how light is affecting your subject. The coolness and warmth of shadows, how the light cools at the edge of a shadow and warms up towards whatever is casting the shadow. You need to know flora and fauna, some geology, wildlife.
“John Clymer was a perfect example of professionalism. He wanted to paint Western history, so he and his wife would drive to local museums, delve into history—they wanted first person accounts,” says Wipfler. “He’d look at any drawing he could to know a culture and place. He wouldn’t give a mountain man a rifle that hadn’t been made in 1830. He gave them an 1830 rifle, not an 1850 rifle.”
Nobody trails cattle anymore, because it’s politically incorrect and impractical. Wipfler remembers Connie Schwiering following those cowboys around—many are now deceased, but she worked for them. Schwiering approached ranchers when they were “mothering up,” or branding. He would ask politely if they would mind if he’d set up his easel. They’d let him, if he was out of the way—and he’d paint all day, as long as they were branding, he’d paint.
“So I’ve done the same,” says Wipfler. “That’s what sets the professionals apart from amateur painters, I think. And that’s what the “ag” life means to me. You get out there and do physical labor, you feel good. But you can also think about your painting.” www.kathywipfler.com