Artist’s Studio | Kathleen Dunphy

Interview by Bonnie Gangelhoff, Photos by Paul O’Valle

Kathleen Dunphy in her studio

Describe your studio. It’s a room in the log home that my husband and I designed and built in 2004. It has a vaulted ceiling in part of it and big, north-facing windows. I have heart-of-pine floors that I can’t keep paint off of, so now I call them “distressed.” There are French doors leading out to a deck that I can use for still-life set-ups, teaching, and taking a break. I started out with plans to just use this one room, but a studio has a way of taking over the whole house. Now I also use a room in the basement for all my supplies, and we’re in the process of finishing off another room in the basement for framing, packing, and shipping.

What type of terrain surrounds your studio?
Murphys is in the Sierra Nevada foothills, halfway between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe. We have rolling hills and oaks, lots of open space, vineyards, and cattle ranches. We live on top of a ridge with a view toward Murphys and vineyards. On clear nights, we can see the lights from Stockton, 60 miles away. And on clear days, we can see all the way across the Central Valley.

What is the history of Murphys?
The town came to be during the 1840s Gold Rush. There are still many historic buildings in use today, like the Murphys Hotel, where you can see the old guest register signed by Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain. Prior to the 1990s, the main industries were cattle and lumber, but now it’s wine-making and tourism. We have basically a one-road downtown that’s lined with restaurants, tasting rooms, and shops. There was quite the uproar a couple years ago when we got our first and only traffic light.

What are the advantages of living in a small town?
You know just about everyone, and there’s a tremendous sense of community. It’s hard to just pop into the grocery store and pick up a couple things without spending at least an hour talking to friends and acquaintances.

How do your surroundings influence your work?
I started painting more architecture when we moved here. The old buildings have so much character, and they’re probably not long for this world. There have been several old barns I’ve painted that have since fallen down or been torn down to make room for new buildings. It breaks my heart to see them go. In many ways, I feel like an historian documenting the times we live in. Also, it gets really hot here in the summer, so I’ve had to adjust my schedule for plein-air painting. If I’m going to paint outdoors, I often get up at around 4 a.m. so I can be done before it gets too blisteringly hot.

Why do you enjoy painting landscapes?
I love to be outside, and I really relate to the natural world, much more so than the man-made.

What music do you play in the studio?
When I start a painting, I have to listen to very specific music to get me to focus and work from the right side of the brain: Gregorian chants, Italian opera, Baroque music. Once I’m pretty sure the painting might work, I can mix it up and crank up Lyle Lovett or Alison Krauss.

What artwork do you have in your studio?
The studio is so packed that I don’t have room for original works by other artists, but I have pictures from magazines tacked up all around and a large collection of art books for inspiration—books on contemporary painters like Tim Lawson, Richard Schmid, and James Reynolds and on “old dead guys” like Sorolla, Sargent, and Zorn. In the rest of the house, I have originals by painter friends Gil Dellinger, John Poon, Brian Blood, Chuck Waldman, Terry Pappas, and Matt Smith.

If your studio was on fire, what one thing would you save?
My dogs, Louie and Angus. Everything else is way down the list.

Tell me about the classes you teach.
I teach three to four plein-air painting workshops a year in the Douglas Flat School, the oldest surviving schoolhouse in the county. It looks like some sort of movie set for Little House on the Prairie. There’s an ancient chalkboard inside and faded, old pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the wall. I always feel like I should have on a calico dress and my hair up in a bun when I’m teaching there.

What impresses you about other artists? I really love seeing growth and development in an artist’s work—when each new painting is somewhat different yet still retains the basic essence of the artist. I enjoy originality, when artists are not trying to look like other artists who have already made a name for themselves. And I love the unexpected composition or subject matter, a painting that makes me say, “Dang! Why didn’t I think of that?”

What kind of work are you drawn to?
I love seeing energy and passion in work. I know that’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it. Like a painting where you know the artist just had to get out the paints and get it down on canvas. I enjoy seeing the hand of the artist in paintings—the brushwork, areas of thick and thin paint—so that the painting is interesting not just for the subject matter, but also for the actual tactile sense of paint on canvas.

What is your favorite subject matter?
Transient, fast-moving light.

Describe yourself in one word.
Can I have two? Determined and enthusiastic.

People would be surprised to learn that…
I was a floral designer and special-events planner for 10 years, running my own businesses in California and Germany, where I did all the flowers for the U.S. Air Force at Ramstein Air Base for 6 years. So art is a second career for me.

Kathleen Dunphy painting outside

When you are not painting, what do you enjoy doing? Anything outside—hiking, cross-country skiing, gardening.

What is the one place people will never find you?
In a casino. I always say that if I’m bad in this life, I’ll die and wake up in Las Vegas.

When people visit Murphys, where do you like to take them?
If it’s summer, to an outdoor concert at Ironstone Vineyards. In the winter, skiing in Bear Valley.

Featured in “My World” in November 2010