By Franz Brown
Among the early settlers of Nebraska and Kansas were Dutch-German Mennonites. Founded in the early 1500s in Ukraine, the Mennonite sect of Christianity was persecuted for their interpretation of the Bible and their rejection of oaths and military service. They brought these beliefs with them from the grasslands of Ukraine to the prairies of the Midwest in the late 1800s.
Phil Epp [b1946] grew up in a Mennonite farming community near Henderson, NE. His ancestors came to the United States from the colony of Molotschna in southern Ukraine. In Low German he was told stories about the hard times when Ukraine was part of the Russian empire. He also learned about the family’s farming days on the American frontier a rugged lifestyle that was nonetheless colored with the optimistic hope of freedom.
With his parents’ encouragement, Epp became an observer of the natural world that surrounded him on the prairies of southeastern Nebraska. The Platte River, which flows about 30 miles northwest of Henderson, was a signpost for him, as it is for millions of migratory birds flying along the great Central Flyway between North and South America. Marshlands surrounding the farm were part of the vast catchment area for rain and snowmelt that still attracts mallards, wigeons, blue-billed ducks and Canadian geese. Harvesting leftover grain from the cornfields around Epp’s farm, the birds cackled during the spring and fall, while the croaking of leopard and bullfrogs hidden in smartweed and bullrush filled the humid summer nights.
The most striking feature of Epp’s childhood home, however, was not wildlife but the vast open spaces unimpeded by forests or urban structures. While many early settlers found the seeming emptiness of the view overpowering and oppressive, true prairie people found it liberating and exhilarating. Epp says that his mother felt hemmed in by matured corn fields and looked forward to the harvest, when she could once again see the distant view.
“We were always aware of the weather, nature and the way the grass was growing,” remembers Epp. “There was an aesthetic about the way things grew. On the farm, the weather and the environment had a spiritual edge to them.”
To the east of their house, a dirt road led to a big expanse of lowland. It was often flooded and seldom traveled. “That road led to a land of mystery. When an occasional car appeared, I wondered, ‘Where are they going? What’s going on down there?’”
Phil Epp went down that road in 1965 to attend Bethel College in Newton, KS. With him he carried his determination to become an artist and his Mennonite background of “feeling different, of being separate. We tend to look at the world as outsiders,” he remembers. “I was an observer of the world.”
After marrying in 1966, Epp fulfilled a two-year alternative service assignment during the Vietnam War, completed his degree in fine arts in 1972 and began teaching at a middle school in Newton. During his art training he came to admire the ideas of such minimalist painters as Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Jules Olitski. “The Mennonite lifestyle has a purity about it, a wiping away of the superfluous—I like that aspect of abstraction,” says Epp, who also acknowledges a debt to Depression-era artists and printmakers such as Thomas Hart Benton, Arthur W. Hall and C.A. Seward, who documented the landscape in the 1930s and ’40s.
For Epp, ab- stracting also means eliminating sentimentality so that the painting can develop a life of its own. He eschews a mirror image of reality, opting instead to “venture into unfamiliar territory” by reducing the landscape to its essential elements. “Olitski painted big, empty, gray canvases with bits of color on the corners that remind me of sun popping out on a gray day or being swallowed up in a dust storm.”
The wonderment that Epp felt about that road leading away from his home continues to influence images such as Crossing the Plains, in which solitary white clouds scutter across a dark, moody sky. These are not real places but composites of numerous views distilled to their essentials. “I strive for a bit of mystery in my work,” he says.
For many viewers the impression is one of loneliness, but Epp says that is individual interpretation rather than his plan. For him these windswept horizons are places of escape where the frenetic pace of ordinary life disappears. “There is a presence in this nothingness; something occupies the void, whether atmosphere, the wind or the sun beating down. What dominates here is the weather, which cleanses with its intensity. The environment swallows things up.”
In a place where the uplifted eye constantly scans the distant horizon for approaching storms, it is only natural that the sky typically dominates Epp’s Kansas landscapes. But he is also drawn to the same phenomenon in New Mexico when he travels from his home in Wichita, KS, to Taos and Santa Fe.
“New Mexico keeps me honest and visually stimulated. It gives me insight into what I’m seeing here in Kansas.” Yet there seems to be more hope in works such as New Mexico Evening, with its hint of city lights beckoning in the mid-ground. “Perhaps,” explains Epp, “the New Mexico work is more celebratory because I’m on vacation when I’m there and have a visitor’s attitude, a visitor’s awe. In Kansas, where I live, I see more seriously.”
Like the Kansas weather, Epp cleanses the environment, leaving only a stone monument or an empty road as a reminder of human passage. His goal, like that of his ancestors, is to find within the empty prairie a degree of freedom. “It isn’t a lonely view,” he says, “but a reverent one.”
Featured in June 1997