By Norman Kolpas
Storm clouds glowered over the Rockies as Karen Vance set out in her GMC van late one afternoon from her home on the outskirts of the Colorado ski resort of Winter Park. She headed down a country road she knew would lead her into a large old ranching community.
“I came across a spot where the fence rails were nailed right to the trees, showing that the ranchers were using what they had,” she recalls. “I loved such a human element in this beautiful landscape.” In the distance, beyond a bend in the road, she spied a gateway and a pile of hay bales. “By then, big snowflakes were coming down, and I knew I was in love with this scene,” Vance says. She pulled over, placed her pochade—the portable paint-box-and-easel-in-one favored by plein-air painters—on her lap, and began to capture the scene.
Before sunset, Vance had completed ALMOST HOME. The modestly sized oil painting preserves the moment with uncanny accuracy and immediacy: the snow-covered lane and meadows, the makeshift fence and towering trees, the hay bales and setting sun. But something deeper abides in the painting as well, beyond even its quietly enthralling subject matter and the masterly way in which the painter has composed and completed the work. You can feel the eerie sensation of cold, wet, heavy snowflakes fluttering down. You can almost hear the crunch of snow underfoot. More powerfully still, you can sense the way the sunset’s warm glow beckons you irresistibly, comfortingly, toward the welcome of a farmhouse that must be there, just out of sight around the bend.
Call it talent infused with a spiritual element, if you must. “I don’t think about those things when I’m painting,” Vance responds to the notion. “But when I’m painting something, I’m actually experiencing more of the surroundings than if I were just viewing it. And so my plein-air paintings can become emotional experiences.”
Emotional experiences demand an abundance of talent and an absolutely sure hand if an artist is to convey them without crossing that point of no return into melodrama or kitsch. There’s no chance of that happening in Vance’s oil-on-linen paintings. She’s spent too much time honing her skills. She’s put too much effort into perfecting the process of rendering landscapes with unerring realism, tempered with a touch of impressionism in the passionate yet thoughtful way she applies her paints. And she cares too much about the scenes she chooses to portray—or, more to the point, the scenes that choose her to portray them. “I wake up some mornings and look outside, and the landscape is beckoning me, ‘Come on out and paint me!’” she says.
Artists often claim a calling, that they were born to do what they do. In Vance’s case, this may be literally true, right down to the genetic level. Born in Chicago in 1951, she’s among the seventh generation of her family to pursue the arts; works by all six previous generations decorated the walls of her childhood home. Paternal grandfather Nelson Rudolph Swartwout worked as a graphic artist and also painted and did carpentry. Her father, David Swartwout, painted, carved wood, and was a graphic artist and art director for Popular Mechanics magazine before opening his own advertising agency, where Vance worked for several years in her teens and early 20s.
Art appreciation was a household habit the way Vance was raised. Her father gave her (and her older sister, Susan, now also an artist, and younger sister, Lindy, an illustrator) an intensive education in the arts every Sunday afternoon.“The highlight of our weekends was to go somewhere with Dad,” Vance recalls. “He’d show us how to draw trees or paint boats, or we’d go to summer art shows in the Gold Coast or Old Town, or to the Art Institute. Of course, we always got sketchbooks and pencils for Christmas and birthday presents.”
No surprise that Vance won awards in school for her artwork, or that she was in demand to dash off illustrations in friends’ notebooks and yearbooks. She went on to study at the Art Institute, then at Lincoln College, Northern Illinois University, and the Village Art School in Skokie, IL, a classic atelier-style program started in 1965 by plein-air master Joe Abbrescia and his brothers, Dominic and John. “I learned drawing there the old-fashioned way, with plaster casts of faces and hands, and you had to do it right or do it over again,” she remembers.
In her mid-20s, Vance moved to Denver and then, because she’d always loved the mountains, to Winter Park, 9,000-plus feet up and just south of Rocky Mountain National Park. For a decade, she worked at a variety of left-brain day jobs—office manager, town clerk, orthodontics assistant—while keeping her right brain satisfied by painting at home each night. “I just kept working away at it,” she shrugs. She married, moved to California and Washington state to accompany her airline-pilot husband, then divorced. She returned to Winter Park in 1992 having recently turned 40, determined finally to make her way as a full-time painter. “There was no way I was ever going to work for anyone else again,” she decided, “and so I started painting and painting and painting, not to mention studying under some of the best people I knew.”
Vance’s “best people” list reads like a roster of today’s top plein-air and landscape authorities: Burton Silverman, Scott Christensen, Mark Daily, Michael Lynch, David Leffel, William Reese, Quang Ho, Clyde Aspevig, Richard Schmid, and Michael Workman. From Ho she absorbed an insistence that “visual intentions must be absolutely clear”; from Aspevig, insights into nature and lighting; and from Workman the fearless way in which he “invests a painting with great emotion.”
Now, almost 13 years since she dedicated herself wholeheartedly to her natural-born calling, Vance is a frequent participant in major art-world events. She recently concluded a one-woman show at Angler Art in Denver’s chic Cherry Creek, and her plans for this year include the C.M. Russell art auction in Great Falls, MT, next month, the Colorado Governor’s Invitational Show in Loveland (May), a solo show at Winter Park’s Elk Horn Art Gallery (July), the Buffalo Bill Art Show in Cody, WY (September), and the National Academy of Plein Air Painters Show at Manhattan’s National Art Club (September).
If anything, she’s working harder than ever these days, heading to her studio each morning soon after her 7 a.m. cup of coffee. The 20-by-24-foot space is filled with north light, thanks to windows that start at shoulder height and stretch to the 17-foot ceiling. There are views of nearby lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, and aspens, as well as the impressive prospect of 12,804-foot Byer’s Peak. “It’s a joy coming in here every day,” she says. Most mornings find her selecting one of her fine Belgian-linen canvases and starting a new painting. “The beginning, when I’m slinging paint and making the big shapes, is almost like dancing. It’s one of the most creative times,” she observes. Usually she’ll have 10 to 15 different pieces going at once.
Sometimes the view from her home alone is enough to give rise to an artwork, such as ROCKY MOUNTAIN SUNSET, which depicts a snow-covered high valley studded with lodgepole pines and, in the background, majestic peaks etched by the fading sun. But Vance doesn’t necessarily need nature on a grand scale to be inspired. Take WILD ROSE, completed from her pochade on a whim in a friend’s garden. “I was waiting for her while she had an appointment, and I sat and painted it in the sun,” Vance recalls. “That was one of the most pleasant mornings I can remember.”
Having such an intimate connection with her subject matter, the process by which she captures it, and the emotion with which she vests every canvas, Vance understandably feels torn when she parts with a painting, something she does many times a month. What mitigates the parting is the knowledge that her buyers often find comfort, even healing, in the emotional bonds they themselves form with Vance’s works. “I get incredible letters from people,” she says.
To further the concept that good things should come from her paintings, Vance also donates as much as 15 percent of her sales to raise funds for organizations that benefit the arts, the disabled, and victims of domestic violence. “I feel like I’ve been given so much with this talent,” she explains, “that it’s so gratifying to give back.”
Vance is represented by Angler Art & Gifts, Denver, CO; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ; Bozeman Trail Gallery, Sheridan, WY; Elk Horn Art Gallery, Winter Park, CO; The Sportsman’s Gallery & Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; and Two Rivers Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO.
Featured in February 2005