Kathryn Mapes Turner paints her world
By Elizabeth L. Delaney
This story was featured in the April 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
Kathryn Mapes Turner paints to celebrate, explore, and show gratitude for the beauty that surrounds her every day. Her pigments, brushes, canvas, and paper are the vehicles through which she expresses her abiding fascination with and appreciation of the land and its animals. Turner seeks to reveal through paint the innate connection among physical and spiritual elements shared by nature and its inhabitants.
Representational with a twist, her paintings are characterized by something deeper than the soft lines and incandescent light that compose them. Each one harnesses the energy of its scene, exhibiting a palpable aura that is manifested in the dramatic tones, soft edges, and subtle swell and retreat of the picture plane. Thoughtfully employed natural elements like fog and mist play key roles: They do not decorate but define. All of these factors ultimately collide to create rich, full surfaces that mimic the natural world but also retain a sense of mystery that evokes reflection and wonder.
Turner has spent her whole life surrounded by, and embracing, the wildlife and panoramic spaces that comprise her most cherished subject matter. Growing up on her family’s dude ranch in Jackson Hole, WY, she spent every day before the backdrop of the Grand Tetons, underneath the wide-open skies. Wild animals were a large part of daily life as well. Horses, mules, elk, raptors, and even badgers were common neighbors. Living in such pristine surroundings cultivated more than a simple appreciation of nature; it solidified her intrinsic relationship with it. The land is part of her, and she keeps it close, in both heart and mind.
Turner was moved to draw from a young age, and although she had limited opportunities for formal training, she thrived on the weekly art classes provided by her rural school district. She fondly remembers those first experiences in a classroom created from an old bus outfitted as a mobile art studio. At home, she found creative inspiration at the feet of renowned landscape painter Conrad Schwiering, who often visited her family’s ranch to paint. She spent many hours watching him work, in awe of his command of the medium and his ability to capture their glorious surroundings on a two-dimensional surface. She credits her time with Schwiering as “planting the seed” for her realization of expressing her love of the land through paint.
Turner began painting her own landscapes in high school, working with noted painter Ned Jacob, among other local artists. She later attended the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a bachelor of arts in studio arts, and then studied in Rome and at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, DC. From there, she went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Virginia. Though she painted consistently, Turner’s path to full-time fine artist was a long one. She worked first as an art teacher, and later she held positions at the Smithsonian and the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
As she made the transition to career artist, Turner also decided to manage the commercial aspects of her vocation. In 2005, she partnered with two of her colleagues to open Trio Fine Art in her hometown. Owning a gallery has provided Turner with a dedicated space to show her work, while also teaching her to navigate the business side of the art world. And, just as importantly, it enables her to interact directly with patrons, building lasting relationships among art, artist, and viewer. “It has been really special to have that direct connection with my collectors,” she says of her fine-art enterprise.
Turner primarily paints the landscape and its animal populations—the things that have informed not just her artwork, but also her identity. Her subjects are familiar to her but also present a continuous stream of discovery. “Jackson Hole is an amazing place to be an artist. There are many lifetimes of material here,” says Turner, who never tires of watching the days pass and seasons change across Wyoming’s pristine landscapes and infinite skies. She enjoys painting all four seasons, finding a unique solace in the spring, when she can witness nature’s gentle rebirth. “It is a dynamic landscape,” she says, “with light, color, and weather constantly in flux.”
Her portraits of horses, birds, elk, and other wildlife conjure a quiet majesty, revealing both the tangible and spiritual quintessence of each creature. “There’s no substitute for painting animals from life,” she says, noting that personal encounters remain the best method of capturing the animals’ musculature, movement, and form. “I find when I paint them that I wind up with a relationship with their forms.” She elevates these compositions beyond fundamental studies of form, however, adding elements of abstraction that create contemplative ambiguity along with a greater depth of feeling.
Whether in Jackson or on the move, Turner sees the world through her own creative lens. “I explore the imagery through paint while I’m traveling,” says Turner, who is always equipped with paint and brushes, ready for inspiration to strike. She lists Italy and the California coast as among her favorite painting spots outside of her mountainous home base.
Turner’s art-making is a combination of plein-air and studio work. She considers working on location absolutely essential for being able to extract the essence from her subject matter, and she channels that firsthand experience directly onto the canvas through loose, lively brushwork and simplified yet elegant lines and shapes. Working outdoors, she can feel the elements, breathe the air, and share space with the indigenous fauna. “That’s where the je ne sais quoi happens,” she explains.
Her studio time is the pragmatic, thoughtful counterpoint to her experiences in the field. In her studio, the artist takes time to carefully consider her compositions—to refine the raw emotions she initially captured and distill each image down to its most compelling visual and emotional elements. She refers to this controlled environment as her “intuitive, interpretive space.”
Turner began painting in watercolor and continues to employ that medium in addition to her oil paintings today. She holds watercolor in a special place, as it frequently teaches her about the “importance of letting go” and about allowing each piece to evolve on its own instead of manipulating the pigment to push it in one direction. “My work is at its most spontaneous and organic when I’m using watercolor,” she says. Watercolor reminds her to receive the work as it comes, instead of attempting to control its outcome. She takes a similar approach when deciding what size a particular piece will be by trying to eliminate any preconceived notions about how large or small the subject will emerge. “Some images want to be big, some want to be intimate,” she remarks. Her overall body of work runs the gamut from 8 inches to 8 feet square.
Turner tasks herself with the challenge of transcending the physical presence of her subject matter—to paint its visual attributes while at the same time penetrating its most fundamental substance. She considers her role as an artist as not simply to record, but to capture the intangible energy flowing in and out of her subjects. “I believe artwork should evoke emotion in us, and it has been my goal to create paintings that tap into the inherent nature of our emotions rather than re-creating photo-realistic representation,” says Turner. She further cites “simplification, color, and mystery” as visual means to express her experiences with and feelings about her subjects. “I know I’ve stumbled on something when it has an element of mystery, as well as a sense of universality,” she explains. “That’s where we explore the core of what makes us human.
“My work is always changing and evolving,” she continues. Never content to get too comfortable in her methodology, she finds motivation in experimentation. She believes this ongoing pursuit of innovation is the key to extracting the unique aspects of her medium, subject matter, and creativity.
While Turner continually explores new ideas and techniques to develop her painting style, she also mines the canon, drawing motivation from the artists and discoveries that preceded her. “It’s a really exciting time to be an
artist,” she says, mentioning the wealth of artistic innovations from Renaissance, Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Abstract Expressionist painters. “I love the lessons from every time period. I try to form a distillation of these ideas within my own work.”
Recently she has been studying the works of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Helen Frankenthaler for their “unorthodox paint applications.” The result has meant increased abstraction within her compositions, with the aim of creating a more nonreferential, universal viewer experience. Just as Turner lets her paintings unfold moment by moment, she wants viewers to engage with her work spontaneously and without bias—to formulate their own conversations and interact with the work on a personal level.
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