William Shepherd | Crossing Borders

LA FERIA, OIL, 48 x60.
LA FERIA, OIL, 48 x 60.

By Gussie Fauntleroy

William Shepherd is talking about gigantic frogs, about magpies and geese, about Wyoming ranchers and kayaking across the Sea of Cortez. He points out a thick, meandering grapevine along a fence as we amble down a dirt track beneath enormous, spreading cottonwoods and willow trees. He’s showing off the estate, an oasis of tree-rimmed meadows and ponds in arid northern New Mexico, where he rents a studio and house.

Shepherd is a still-life painter who spends days and nights in his studio. But fairly often, his soul needs to step outside. That’s not surprising, since the artist’s boyhood world was the enormous Wyoming outdoors. He hiked in the mountains near Casper and spent endless hours fly-fishing in mountain streams—activities that eventually segued into years of creating stunning close-up portraits of streambeds and rocks.

Today, the powerful physicality of that world has moved indoors and now quietly pours itself into the objects in Shepherd’s magnificent still-life work. An arresting, palpable sense of life is evident in his paintings, but it’s been transformed into delicious color, the texture of woven Mexican fabric, and the soft folds of silk.

Shepherd finds himself intrigued these days by the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes of the artist’s eternal quest to convey a convincing feeling of realness or “thing-ness” in an object. Rilke refers to this quality as the “silence of their concentrated reality.” Shepherd speaks of it as “presence,” an ineffable trait he strives for—and achieves—in his work, but for which he often comes up blank when he tries to put it into words.

Yet explanatory words have never needed to take center stage in Shepherd’s life. When he wasn’t outside as a boy he would sit quietly drawing, an activity his parents generously encouraged. There were no role models in Casper for the profession of artist, but his mother took him to visit every neighbor she knew who painted as a hobby.


While in the Navy after high school, Shepherd acquired role models indirectly, by discovering a love of books. For four years he read voraciously, and among these volumes were biographies of artists. When he returned from Vietnam he enrolled in the University of Wyoming to study art. In 1980, torn between the opportunities of a city and the outdoor activities on which he thrived, he compromised and moved to New Mexico. Here were mountains, streams, desert, and space, as well as Santa Fe’s art scene.

From the start, Shepherd’s primary artistic interest was realism, although strong abstract traits found expression in such details as rocks, pebbles, water, and currents in streambed sand. He began his career painting landscapes containing mountain creeks; then the focus got tighter and the larger scenes gave way to close-ups of streams. After 20 years, as if the representational view was dissolving under a microscope, the artist moved into a phase of almost pure abstraction, employing colors and patterns that had often been part of his streambed work.

Then came a challenging transitional period. He was finished with landscape and had enough of rocks. He was still drawn to realism, but unsure of what he wanted to paint. “I spent a long time running through things, trying different things,” Shepherd remembers, his large frame leaning forward in a chair in his adobe-walled, one-room studio. Yet through all the changes, collectors and galleries snapped up his work. It has found its way into numerous permanent collections, including the Hirshhorn Collection in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, and many private collections, Robert Redford’s among them.

One series of paintings during this period was of tropical fish, a subject that combined Shepherd’s love of water and a growing attachment to the people, culture, and land of Mexico. With a strong concern for ecological issues, the artist donated several such paintings to a Mexican environmental organization, Unidos Para La Conservación. In cooperation with Unidos, the Mexican postal service produced postage stamps of the images, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the protection of wildlife and the environment.

Shepherd’s visits to Mexico opened another important door as well. He brought back souvenirs, just as his parents had from their Mexican vacations many years before. As a child he held the colorful little ceramic figures and imagined a south-of-the-border world that was “absolutely exotic,” he says. More recently, he came across a Guatemalan mask he’d brought back and did a sketch of it. He threw the sketch away, but then did an-other. Using things he loves, especially Mex-ican and Latin Amer-ican objects and south-western kitsch, the en-ticing taste of the still life had instilled itself in his mind. “It started as a nibble for me,” he says, “and worked its way into a feast.”

Many of the ingredients of this feast are stored in his studio. “I just love the things I paint,” he says. He smiles, turning a ceramic bowl from Mexico’s Tlaquepaque region to show off its painted scene. “Look at this wonderfully corny pottery! I absolutely adore it,” he says. “The scenes are painted almost like cartoons. They’re little slices of life—I think they’re almost surreal, kind of dreamlike.”


Other objects, many from the 1940s and ’50s, were made for the southwestern tourist market as America exuberantly motored west. There are silly, stereotyped ceramic cowboy and Indian figures, a pair of cloth dolls in sombreros and Mexican dress, and a stamped tin cowboy on a horse. And there are antiques, including the lovely Peruvian pot that has been in more than one of Shepherd’s paintings.

When it’s time to start a new piece, Shepherd chooses a few objects, often including an eclectic combination of textiles, and arranges them. He photographs the set-up and then changes it, replacing and rearranging items, moving an object to shift a line or shadow, or adjusting a light to reduce the glare on a pot. After each change he takes a picture, and all the images are loaded into a computer. From this wealth of subtle variation, a perfect arrangement is constructed and the painting is done, not from the photo, but from life. In the end, any story the objects seem to suggest is unintentional, the artist says.

“I don’t paint narrative paintings. What I like are objects that seem to interact and work well with each other, and that have a nice weight and feel. It’s a matter of just getting the right things in the right place to make it all work together.” As for things in a painting conveying a “presence,” that’s a hoped-for result of the long and often tedious process of applying paint, as the artist and the painting develop an intimate and ever-changing dialogue. “You play and play and play,” he explains, “until it finally begins to seem right.”

Shepherd’s Southwest/south-of-the-border still-life work is still fairly new; he’s only been doing it for about the last five years. As it evolves, he envisions the possibility of stronger abstract elements coming into play, for example through the overlapping lines and patterns of different types of cloth. He also plans to experiment with incorporating the human figure, most likely a female dressed in a distinctive local style that blends the mood of Mexico with northern New Mexico.

“I only paint about things that are joyful and fun for me,” Shepherd says, and then, with characteristic, low-key charm, he adds, “I don’t see how people can paint about morbidity—it seems like that would shorten your life.”

Shepherd is represented by Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Leslie Levy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; and Meredith Long & Co., Houston, TX.

Featured in March 2003