Peggy Immel | A Place Called Home

Peggy Immel’s landscapes reflect a deep connection to her corner of the West

Peggy Immel, Winter Rhythms, oil, 24 x 30.

Peggy Immel, Winter Rhythms, oil, 24 x 30.

This story was featured in the December 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art December 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!

There’s a certain spot along the creek in Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona, AZ, where, as a young girl, Peggy Immel and her grandfather would go to fish. Helping him tie flies, her small fingers worked carefully, her excitement quietly building as she shared her grandfather’s pleasure in being outdoors in a beautiful place. Years later, visiting and painting the same section of sparkling creek, Immel found herself filled with visceral memories. A sense of childhood wonder and the warm, comforting presence of her grandfather seemed to radiate from the rocks and trees as she stood at her portable easel, paintbrush in hand. “There was the whole emotional connection with family and love. How do you convey that in a painting?” the artist wonders. “It’s one thing to go to a place and paint a pretty scene; it’s another thing to go to a place and have these memories and feelings come up.”

A setting imbued in this way with emotional depth is all the more meaningful for Immel because, as the daughter of a career Air Force veteran, she was rarely in any one place long enough to develop a bond with her surroundings. An exception was Oak Creek, where, at age 5, she lived in a lodge with her Arizona grandparents while her father was stationed away from home. On the other hand, the family’s frequent moves exposed Immel to such diverse environments as Alaska, Kansas, Washington, the Philippines, Georgia, and Long Island. Later, with her husband, she lived in California, several parts of New England, and New Mexico. The nomadic life taught her to appreciate the immense variety of terrain the world has to offer, a quality she taps into each time she goes out to paint.

Yet after all her traveling, Immel finds herself most at home in the West. For the past 12 years she and her husband, fine-art photographer Steve Immel, have lived in Taos. The artist has planted herself on five acres of unusually lush valley land just west of town, with towering cottonwoods, pasture, willows, and a small pond. From there, she can drive a short distance, pull over, and set up her easel wherever the landscape calls. Or she can heft a backpack filled with painting equipment and hike to an extraordinary view. Or she can simply step into her yard and find something that catches her eye.

Peggy Immel, Ridgeline, oil, 9 x 12.

Peggy Immel, Ridgeline, oil, 9 x 12.

Immel’s rendering of the western landscape’s many faces and moods has earned widespread admiration from collectors and fellow artists and resulted in numerous honors over the years. Among them: Best of Show awards at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos and the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, TX, and top awards at plein-air events around the West. In August at the Plein Air Artists Colorado show at Denver’s Abend Gallery, she received the Allen Award for her painting RIDGELINE. The striking, small-scale image of a sunlight-rimmed Grand Canyon ridge is memorable for other reasons as well. As Immel and an artist friend were painting the scene, they witnessed a “whole flotilla of condors that came in, circling above us. It was very inspiring,” she says. Then another bird flew overhead, and its droppings landed directly on her palette. “I guess one of the ‘locals’ didn’t like my painting!” she laughs.

Learning to adapt to changing circumstances with ease and good humor is a side benefit of the lifestyle in which she grew up, Immel believes. One of those circumstances was the recognition, early on, that she needed art to be part of her life. Her mother’s father was a weekend painter, and while Immel never saw any of his canvases, she was given his oil-painting kit, on which he had painted the face of a clown. At age 10 she asked for and began taking weekly lessons from a painter in Salina, KS, where her family lived at the time. Later, pondering her next step after finishing high school on Long Island, she was drawn to architecture for its combination of creativity and engineering.

In fact, architecture courses at Arizona State University provided Immel with a solid foundation in drawing, three-dimensional perspective, and black-and-white design, skills that became building blocks for later training in fine art. A year and a half into her studies at ASU, she and Steve married. She left school and spent four years working as a designer for architecture firms in California, where Steve began a corporate career. Later his work took the couple to New England, and Immel enrolled in classes at the Silvermine College of Art in New Canaan, CT; the deCordova Museum school in Lincoln, MA; and Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Instruction with landscape painter John Pellew was especially influential at this time. It was through Pellew that Immel discovered her love for painting en plein air.

Then another outdoor passion moved into her life. The artist was introduced to rock and ice climbing and found she couldn’t get enough of the exhilarating intensity of such sports. While she continued to paint on location and take part in painting groups, her time in the mountains nudged studio painting to the side for a time. Immel sees scaling a rock or ice wall as not entirely different from standing in front of an easel and translating a beautiful scene into paint. “I personally believe that climbing, painting, music, and other meditative things use the same part of the brain,” she reflects. “They put you into a timeless moment, and they don’t involve logic, and I think climbing replaced some of the kinds of thought processes that I’d had in the studio.”

Peggy Immel, Storm Over Seco, oil, 11 x 14.

Peggy Immel, Storm Over Seco, oil, 11 x 14.

When Steve retired from corporate life and the couple considered where they would most like to live, they answered the call to return to the West. They settled in Taos, and soon afterward, Immel returned to the studio. “It’s interesting—when we moved back to the West, I climbed a little, but I found I’d rather paint than climb. I said, okay, now climbing is not in the way. Now there was nothing else in my life in the way of painting,” she recalls and then adds, “Taos has absolutely everything a painter would want.” Immel is endlessly inspired by northern New Mexico’s expansive views, exquisite colors, and special quality of atmosphere and light. She also has studied with Taos still-life painter Laura Robb and envisions delving more into still-life and figurative work at some point. But the landscape remains her first love. “There’s a certain precision required with still life, and I’m interested in experimenting with lighting and composition. That’s still in the germinating, formative stage for me. With landscape painting, it’s kind of like a dance. It’s very physical, you move around,” she observes. “I’ll never give up painting the landscape.”

Working on location in all seasons, Immel moves into the studio for larger pieces, using sketches, oil field studies, and her own photographs for reference. About half her paintings these days are done in the studio and half are completed en plein air. Most of her favorite places to paint are within driving distance of her home. Among them is the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, encompassing more than 240,000 acres of public lands and stretching from the Colorado border to just south of Taos. RIO GRANDE SONATA, a studio painting of a vista within the monument, captures the rhythmic flow of curves and late autumn reflections in the iconic river, with layers of mesas and mountains beyond. Scenes such as this are a response to the visual excitement of color, landforms, seasons, and light, but also reveal the painter’s growing interest in expressing essential themes through her art. “One concept I’ve always wanted to study in painting is time and the passage of time, and I’m contemplating how I might do that,” she muses. “Or something as simple as a feeling of attachment, love, and affinity for a place.”

This last approach is especially important for Immel, who finally feels solidly at home after a lifetime of moving from one place to the next. “I think the gypsy lifestyle, where you never put down roots, makes me value home more. Now I find that what I really want to paint is right here and in Arizona and Colorado,” she says. “I travel and paint, and I enjoy that almost as a holiday. But there’s a whole subtext that happens when one has a personal connection to a particular place. I like to think that gets translated into the way the paint goes onto a canvas—that it’s more than just pushing paint around. There’s a richness, an emotional energy that goes into it, and I like to think that comes through in the work.” By Gussie Fauntleroy

Sorrel Sky Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and Durango, CO; Wilder Nightingale Fine Art, Taos, NM; Z Forrest Gallery, 
Tubac, AZ.

Featured in the December 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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