Michelle Condrat | Fresh Vistas

Michelle Condrat interprets the western landscape through broken edges and patches of bright color

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Michelle Condrat, Virgin Waters, oil, 24 x 36.

Michelle Condrat, Virgin Waters, oil, 24 x 36.

This story was featured in the August 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Whether you see it in the first light of the sunrise or the last light of sunset, Yaki Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers truly stunning views. The vantage point juts out over the canyon, allowing visitors to behold a vast panorama of buttes and mesas that sprawls westward for miles. Last November, when painter Michelle Condrat hiked to Yaki Point at
dusk, she found it irresistible as subject matter. She is fond of saying that if the moody terrain was set to music, the canyon would be singing a lullaby. “This is the last light before the canyon goes to sleep at night,” she says. “So I named my painting of the view THE CANYON’S LULLABY.”

For the past several years in September, Condrat has journeyed from her home in Salt Lake City to Arizona to participate in the annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, a juried plein-air and studio show featuring 24 talented artists. This September THE CANYON’S LULLABY is one of Condrat’s paintings showcased at the event. The piece displays the artist’s long-standing affection for portraying dramatic light and depth in the landscape.

Several years ago, Condrat described her style of work as “contemporary impressionism.” But today, she searches for another art movement “ism” to describe her style. She pauses, stumped, and then jokes, “I guess you could call it ‘Condratism.’”

Condrat’s take on today’s western landscape is not only original but unusually open to wide-ranging interpretations. One observer described her style as “pixelated impressionism,” referring to computer-generated digital art. When Kathy LaFave, owner of LaFave Gallery, which represents Condrat, is asked about the artist’s style, she replies, “It’s a cubism type
of style. Michelle has a unique, fresh twist on the landscape. There’s a hard edge to her work, but she pulls it off. All those lines surprisingly result in something soft and soothing. Collectors gravitate toward it.”

Clearly, arrays of energetic lines are a key element in the artist’s work. Combined with patches of bold, bright colors and broken edges, her landscapes are known for evoking a shimmering sense of movement. In some paintings, a viewer can sense leaves fluttering on trees on a breezy afternoon. At other times, Condrat’s lively depictions suggest that her trees are even capable of uprooting themselves and dancing right off the canvas.

Indeed, in “Condratism,” a sense of movement reigns supreme. “I want to give viewers the feeling of motion,” the artist says. “When people are outside, elements like trees and water are not standing still. They are always moving. I want people to feel as if my paintings are alive.”

Condrat was born in 1983 in Salt Lake City. Like many future landscape painters, she relished exploring the outdoors as a child. She hiked, fished, camped, and made regular journeys to Zion National Park with her family. Her father was a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and he enjoyed teaching his children about nature—picking up a rock in the water, for example, and showing them the living creatures that thrived beneath it.

A keen interest in art also flourished amid Condrat’s love of nature. Her mother was a professional ballerina with Salt Lake City’s Ballet West. Too bashful for the performing arts, young Michelle wasn’t interested in following in her mother’s ballet footsteps. Early on, painting and drawing became her pathway into the arts.

In retrospect, she recalls that even art supplies themselves fed her fertile imagination; she was content just arranging her felt-tip markers and pens according to color. Condrat says the first artist who inspired her was Bob Ross, the television host of The Joy of Painting, a popular instructional show that aired from 1983 to 1994 on PBS. Ross mesmerized Condrat with his ability to create a landscape painting in 30 minutes. When each episode concluded, she toted her paints to the front porch and followed his instructions on portraying trees (Ross’ favorite subject matter), log cabins, and snow. She can still remember Ross’ calm, mellow voice advising viewers, “Give this tree a little friend.”

In elementary school Condrat enrolled in basic art classes, but at East High School she landed in the Advanced Placement program for art. During her senior year she won a top prize in an art show, and the school purchased her still life depicting a rose, her very first sale. There was never any doubt about what she wanted to study in college. “Art was a given for me,” Condrat says. “I wanted a career I enjoyed. If I had to work a part-time job to paint, I would do it.”

Throughout her stint at the University of Utah, she sold paintings at coffee shops and to friends and family. The university purchased two artworks during her college years. And, true to her word, after graduating with a fine-arts degree in 2007, she accepted a position at Blick Art Materials in Salt Lake City and painted in her leisure time. She entered various art shows and
landed representation at a small, local gallery in those early days.

Condrat explains that acceptance of her visual take on the western landscape came very slowly at first. Gallery owners and collectors didn’t quite know what to think about it. “I believe it took people time to get used to it, like anything new,” she says. “People gradually warmed up to it.”

In 2016, her first year participating in the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, the temperature of collectors and galleries officially shot up from warm to hot. She sold out all of her paintings at the show. “There were red dots everywhere,” Condrat says. “I was shocked. I thought ‘selling out’ was just a myth.”

Until recently Condrat has maintained part-time employment at Blick Art Materials, gradually cutting back on hours as her painting career blossomed. This month, however, Condrat officially departs from the store’s staff roster. With growing demand from collectors and galleries for her artworks, she has put the job in the rearview mirror and begun her new life as a full-time fine artist.

Step inside Condrat’s Salt Lake studio, and one of the first things you notice is the smell of coffee drifting through the air. A cup of joe is part of her morning ritual. “I can only have one cup, though,” she says. “I have to draw straight lines, and I don’t want to get too jittery.” Still, she loves coffee so much that she has come up with a creative solution to her caffeine-
induced jitters: a collection of peppermint mocha- and latte-scented candles that she burns while she works so that she can at least enjoy the aroma.

On this day, a painting featuring Zion National Park—her favorite subject matter—rests on one of her three easels. Although she regularly participates in plein-air events, Condrat is primarily a studio artist. The indoor space, she says, is more conducive for working on large canvases as well as spreading out her beloved painting materials.

Condrat is not consciously referencing architectural history, but at first glance, students of ancient civilizations may see traces of cultures from long ago. For example, the geometric shapes in some of Condrat’s paintings bear a resemblance to the flat-roofed grand temples and cities the Aztecs built in central Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries.

But of all the interpretations of her artworks, ranging from pixelated impressionism to cubism, Condrat treasures most what young children have to say about them. Often at art shows, she notices youngsters making a beeline for her paintings. “At first, I think they are attracted to the bright colors,” she says. “Then they come up to me and start a conversation, often telling me that my paintings remind them of Minecraft, the video game that has blocky-shaped characters and landscapes.”

Other times the kids have a different analysis. They ask Condrat if she is painting buildings or scenes constructed with Legos, the colorful plastic interlocking blocks popular with children across the globe. Perhaps, unwittingly, it’s the young ones who have nailed the most innovative way to describe Condrat’s unique modern style—Legoism. “I think it’s really cool, and it’s quite endearing that they come right up to me and start conversations about my work,” Condrat says. “Maybe they will become artists someday.”

As this story was going to press, Condrat was going fishing, taking a vacation day to drive to Mirror Lake about 75 miles east of Salt Lake City. The goal: to relax and catch rainbow trout. As an afterthought she mentions that on the scenic byway that leads to the lake, she plans to photograph aspen trees for reference material. An artist’s roving eye never really goes on
vacation, even when she hangs out a sign that says, “Gone Fishin’.”

LaFave Gallery, Springdale, UT; Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; 15th Street Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT.

This story was featured in the August 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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