Shanna Kunz finds quiet beauty in landscapes of the West
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the August 2010 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art August 2010 print issue, or get the Southwest Art August 2010 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
A CONFLUENCE of challenging circumstances surged over painter Shanna Kunz’s life a few years back. The stumbling economy, the end of her first marriage, and other difficult issues coincided to leave her standing waist-deep in question marks. Should she continue pushing on with what had been a successful and growing career as a landscape artist? Or should she shuffle the cards and pull out plan B, whatever that might be?
“Things got really hard, and I was at a turning point as to whether to keep on this [artistic] journey. I made a huge, do-or-die decision,” she relates, sitting in the kitchen of her 1918 Arts and Crafts-style bungalow in Ogden, UT, just a stone’s throw from where she was born.
The 48-year-old artist is quiet for a moment, remembering that turning point in her life as she gazes out the kitchen window at the mountain peaks just east of Ogden. Downstairs in the cozy basement-turned-studio, four paintings from a current series await her attention. They are testament to the commitment she made two years ago: She swallowed her doubts and applied to take part in the juried, three-month-long Celebration of Fine Art, a festival in Scottsdale, AZ, where artists set up working studios that are open to the public. It was a decision that changed her life.
LONG BEFORE Kunz had any notion of becoming an artist, it was clear that the natural world would always be a central part of her life. Her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and the family spent as much time camping and fly-fishing as possible. Moving every 18 months until Shanna was 16, they lived in Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah, expanding their experience of mountains, lakes, and forests with each new place. When her father’s job landed them in urban settings in Delaware and San Francisco, museums—both history and art—became the family’s territory to explore.
“Whenever we were living far away from Utah, my parents made it like a vacation. Every weekend we’d go somewhere, and we’d always visit museums,” Kunz recalls. “We got to see more than most people do.” As a result she developed a passion for history and art, as well as mountains and woods.
Living in Utah again as a teen, Kunz finished high school, studied business at Weber State College in Ogden, married young, and had two children. At age 29 she took her first watercolor painting class. “I picked up a paintbrush and I knew. I called my mom and said, ‘I know what I want to be when I grow up!’” she recounts, laughing. Working in the uncompromising medium of watercolor—which she did for 10 years before switching primarily to oils—was excellent training for learning to plan compositions and make good decisions before beginning a painting, she notes.
After four years of self-teaching and painting “obsessively,” as she puts it, Kunz realized she needed more professional instruction. “I knew that if I wanted to paint the way I envisioned, I needed to go back to school,” she says. She enrolled in a fine-art program at Utah State University, focusing on the figure in drawing and painting. She loved portraying the human form, yet once again it was her own self-directed study that changed her path. The new direction led to landscape painting and eventually to her tonalist style with its contemplative, atmospheric feel.
Every two weeks while in college, Kunz would go to the school library and pull out a stack of art books. She would take them home and pour through them in her own personal program of art history study. In this way she stumbled upon the paintings of George Inness, which led her to three American landscape painters in particular—Dwight W. Tryon, John Henry Twachtman, and James Whistler—whose work caught her eye. “They were all quiet, minimalist, subtle painters,” she observes. By the end of her third year at Utah State, she was painting landscapes. And she never looked back.
“Studying art history was absolutely instrumental,” she affirms. “It changed me from focusing on technical ability to artistic expression. I realized art is about expression and translation—capturing the spirit of something—and not just about pictures. To be able to get inside the heads of other artists changed the whole idea of art for me. It makes me realize that every single person has their own voice. Each one is as important as the next, and our goal is to find our unique voice.”
“Trees are my figures. Their form tells their history—the way trees are bent, how they grew.”
Kunz found her artistic voice, and with it, gallery representation and collectors who appreciated her vision. Then came divorce and an uncertain art market, and her world tipped on its side. All that she had worked many years to achieve was brought into question. It was at this point that she was accepted to take part in the Celebration of Fine Art. It was a “last-ditch effort” at moving through the roadblocks life had set up and re-establishing a vital relationship with painting, she explains.
Each year the event raises a huge white tent on the outskirts of Scottsdale, and artists who are juried into the show set up temporary studios where they create every day for three months. The public is invited to watch, and to buy freshly completed paintings. Kunz parked her small RV nearby and each morning she “went to work.” Separated from friends, her teenage children, and other distractions of home, she experienced the time as an intense, life-altering immersion into her art and herself. “I had to focus, dig deeper, and push myself as far as I could push,” she relates. “Some days I was selling, some days not. You have to love what you’re doing through all of that.”
What Kunz discovered along the way was that regardless of what any other artist was doing, her own approach to the image—and her love of painting—was unquestionably worth the effort of continuing. “It was amazing. I was learning to have faith in my quiet little landscapes,” she explains. “They don’t jump out at you and scream, but I was finding that what I do, despite everything, is important.”
After Scottsdale, Kunz returned to Utah more committed than ever to spending as much time as possible in the outdoors, painting on location, and reinforcing her lifelong connection with the land. The artist’s personal life found its feet again as well. On December 26, 2009, she was married—in a 19th-century Ogden mansion-turned-art-center—to a high school classmate, Marco Hernandez, whom she had dated in her early 20s and reconnected with after her divorce.
These days Kunz paints in series, selecting elements such as landforms or other visual themes and exploring them in myriad variations. Sometimes season or time of day is the thread. On other occasions she investigates the subtleties and complexities of composition, or the differences in a landscape rendered in high-key colors or more somber tones. “I look for new ways to express spatial relationships and distance with layers of paint, brushwork, gradations, and diffused light,” she explains. As a result, each painting offers another voice to the range of moods and feelings a scene may elicit—as well as to the artist’s own ever-deepening relationship with a place.
Among Kunz’s favorite areas to spend time and paint is a particular high marshy meadow in Utah’s Uinta Mountains. She has painted the meadow dozens of times, including STILLWATER SPRING, a quiet, autumn-toned scene. SOLACE IN BLUE, with saturated colors and a serene, subdued atmosphere, resulted from waking up on a camping trip one morning and finding the mountain valley hung low with heavy clouds. ILLUMINATE, on the other hand, celebrates the radiance of warm light on a cold winter afternoon.
Trees, alone or in small groups, play a prominent role in Kunz’s art, and not just because she is drawn to wooded scenes. “Trees are my figures,” she points out, referring to her early interest in drawing and painting the human figure. “Their form tells their history—the way trees are bent, how they grew.” And it’s not just trees, she adds. “I’ve studied what the elements do to the landscape, and if you pay attention, the land will tell you about its past.”
A certain grove of aspens in the Uinta Mountains is like that for Kunz. She has painted them as many as 40 times, but each time she sees them in a different light, she is stunned by their beauty. “It’s how they rest in the landscape; it’s how the mountains sit behind them, the way the afternoon light hits them,” she reflects. “I go out with my camera and think I’m doing something different, and I come home and find I’ve photographed those same trees again!” She smiles. “I don’t get tired of them.”
Featured in the August 2010 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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