Shanna Kunz | Landscapes of the Heart

More than beautiful scenes of nature, Shanna Kunz’s paintings resonate with deep emotional meaning

By Norman Kolpas

Shanna Kunz, Christmas Meadows in the Fall, oil, 16 x 24.

Shanna Kunz, Christmas Meadows in the Fall, oil, 16 x 24.

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

At first engaging glance, and then followed by closer inspection that reveals rich subtleties, the painting TRANSCENDENCE [see page 50] invites the viewer into a scene worthy of its title. In the foreground, a stream meanders through meadows turning from green to late-summer brown. A line of evergreens stands at midrange, beyond which gentle tawny hills rise to mist-shrouded, tree-covered mountain slopes, their peaks turned white with an early dusting of snow. All is hushed, suffused with an air of quiet expectation, as if some sort of divine transformation may be about to occur.

The primacy of this emotional message, rather than specific geographic details, was the very intention of the painter, Shanna Kunz. Yes, the setting is the very real Christmas Meadows in Utah’s Uinta Mountains, a frequent multigenerational camping destination for the artist’s family—including her uncle, Les Allen, only nine years older than Kunz and more like a brother to her, who passed away recently from cancer. But Kunz’s hushed, richly evocative rendering of that landscape aims to convey more feeling than fact. “That painting is my tribute to Les,” she says. “I like to think it might be a place where he would like to transcend to.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Kunz feels unsatisfied, at times, when her painting style is given the convenient label of “contemporary representational art,” a term that she reluctantly admits does apply. “My compositions are contemporary,” she goes on. “But I’m not really interested in detailed realistic painting. Art is emotional for me. It isn’t about reality or making something look like a picture. It’s about the feelings behind the imagery.”

Kunz grew up feeling deep connections to the land. Her dad worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and though she was born in Ogden, UT, where she now lives as well, throughout her childhood the family moved from one natural setting to another, including Delaware, the San Francisco Bay Area, “and lots of places in between.” She picked up a passion for maps from her dad, who began his career as a mapmaker. “I love to study the land and see what it’s all about,” Kunz says. And she had plenty of opportunities to study the land, she adds, thanks to the fact that “all our family vacations were built around camping.”

From the time she was able to pick up a pencil or crayon, Kunz was also drawing, though nature didn’t figure into her earliest efforts. Instead, she was obsessed with fashion, filling “notebooks and notebooks with drawings of women in dresses.” Her talent for sketching realistic images led to many of her drawings being hung up on the bulletin boards in her school classrooms during her grade-school years in the 1970s. “But nobody thought back then that you could ever make a living as an artist,” she says. Instead, she enrolled in business courses at Weber State University in Ogden, developing administrative and stenographic skills that landed her steady work; she married at 21 and had two children. Art seemed to recede into the past for her.

But then, when she turned 29, she was given a watercolor class as a birthday present—her first foray beyond line drawings into color images. “And I fell head over heels for painting,” she says. “I called my mom and said, ‘I finally know what I want to do when I grow up.’ And she said, ‘Honey, you’re grown up already. You can do it as a hobby.’ But I didn’t want to paint as a hobby. I wanted it for my life.”

A few years later, Kunz took concrete action to bring that goal to life when she enrolled in the art program at Utah State University in Logan, an hour’s drive each way from her Ogden home. Under the mentorship of revered professor, painter, and printmaker Adrian Van Suchtelen, she immersed herself in classes on studio art, life drawing, painting, printmaking—“everything that I knew I would need as an artist.” That thirst for knowledge extended to art history, too, as Van Suchtelen “taught me not just about painting but inspired me to think and learn about what is in the heads of great artists of the past, why they did what they did, what they were passionate about, and why good art stood the test of time.”

She enriched such musings with regular visits to the university library. “Every two weeks, I would come home with 14 books and would completely absorb myself in art history,” she recalls. In particular, she developed a passion for the Tonalist movement that thrived in America from the 1880s through World War I, discovering a sense of artistic kinship between herself and the spiritually informed landscapes of artists including George Inness, John Henry Twachtman, and Dwight W. Tryon. “Their work took itself away from reality as it appears and made art more emotional,” she says. “That’s what spoke to me.”

Thus inspired, Kunz began painting prolifically and earning money from her art even while she was still a student. “I started selling paintings way earlier than I should have,” she admits. “But we really didn’t have a lot of funds for me to go to school.” So she would deliberately create highly commercial, decorative works—lining up her children’s stuffed animals, for example, to paint them as a still life in moody tonal contrasts of light and dark using the Renaissance technique of chiaroscuro she’d been studying.

In retrospect, she says with a chuckle, “I do wish I could get some of those paintings back.” But, she quickly adds, “They were all a means to an end. The money I earned from them got me my education, and they took away the stigma and the fear of making a living as an artist.” In fact, with one year still to go to earn her degree, she left the university, having proven to herself that she could support her family through her art.

Though she had primarily done figurative work as part of her course’s emphasis on life-drawing classes, in her newfound professional life Kunz quickly found herself drawn to the subject matter in which she had been steeped since childhood, realizing that “my heart, my passion is in the landscape,” as she puts it. Influenced by workshops she subsequently took from landscape artists Daniel W. Pinkham and T. Allen Lawson, she gained deeper self-assurance that “how I saw things, my authentic voice as a painter, was as relevant as anyone else’s.”

Kunz quickly discovered that an important factor for expressing her authentic voice involved producing her paintings as series, in which she explores a particular location through as many as a dozen different works. While each piece in a series certainly stands on its own, for her “there are no one-off landscapes.” Rather, the progression of new works exploring the same scene enables her, over the course of six months to a year, to delve ever more deeply into her subject, exploring every nuance of its emotional impact.

What results are works that richly reward prolonged contemplation. Take REMNANTS, for example, an 18-by-20-inch view exploring an inlet of Redfish Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range. “The water is so cold and so clear there,” says Kunz, “that you can see everything.” In fact, in this painting Kunz capitalizes on that chill clarity to transform the waterway into an underwater pathway that carries the viewer on a guided, meditative journey deep into the painting. “The rocks and the logs in the water,” she says, “are little staccato notes of color that lead you all the way to the back, where the river disappears.” Yet the details themselves become almost irrelevant when compared to the overriding sense of serenity the work induces. Kunz herself experienced just such an impact in the process of creating it. “I was so absorbed that, six hours after starting, I came out of it going, ‘Wow! Where did that come from?’ It literally painted itself.”

With every new work, Kunz finds the literal subjects of her paintings are becoming less and less significant than their emotional content. As a result, she’s been moving more and more in the direction of abstraction. She applies her oils almost like watercolors, with “thin brushwork against a little bit of palette knife.” Her forms are becoming more simplified, her compositions featuring more angles, greater depth of field, and less reliance on “the horizon line as a strong balance that holds all the shapes together.” Adds the artist, “I think that someday, eventually, I could go completely abstract and do big, rich, color-field paintings like those of Mark Rothko or Richard Diebenkorn.”

Whether they veer toward realism or abstraction, Kunz’s works have continued to win not only growing numbers of collectors but also critical acclaim, including invitations in recent years to participate in highly regarded annual shows such as Maynard Dixon Country in Utah and the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale in Denver.

Despite the sense of triumph she still feels by being able to support herself through her art, Kunz does not measure her success by sales or invitations alone. “It’s not the accolades that I’m looking for,” she concludes. “What’s important to me is that my work is considered authentic, that it expresses authentically how I feel about the subjects I paint, and that I have a unique voice of my own.”

A. Banks Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Bella Muse Fine Art Gallery & Studios, Ogden, UT; Kneeland Gallery, Ketchum, ID; The Mission Gallery, St. George, UT; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR.

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

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