Gem State’s beauty inspires Idaho artists to capture its ‘wonder’

Artist talk about Idaho's landscape

Painters Geoffrey Krueger, Karen Woods and Chi E Shenam talk about their Idaho influences.
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Painters Geoffrey Krueger, Karen Woods and Chi E Shenam talk about their Idaho influences.

Sunlight sparkles on the Boise River’s surface as it flows along the Greenbelt, past the glass-covered University Plaza off Broadway Avenue. Cool breezes rustle lanky cottonwood trees that bow over the water, their leaves glittering like sequins as they move. Elm sprouts and wild grasses, weathered stumps and rocks line the riverbank.

Nearby, artist Chi E. Shenam Westin puts his brush to a canvas to capture this everyday wonder.

“Idaho is just gorgeous,” he says. “There’s a quality about what we have here that’s really magical. I’m trying to capture that.”

He works fast as the light shifts, blending colors on his glass palette — purple, orange, a variety of greens — that he deftly applies to the canvas to create rocks and wisps of foliage with his knife.

“I use color to get that vibrancy people can feel,” he says. “Pure cadmium red and it works.”

Through color he interprets the surroundings rather than giving a literal reproduction. He offers his vision, as he chooses what to include, embellish and emphasize.

As landscape painters, we’re like poets. We’re trying to express what’s around us.

Chi E. Shenam, painter

“Nature is full of harmony, and that’s what I want on my canvas,” he says. “I’m using all the shapes, values and color notes I can to find that harmony ... in a way that someone can engage with.”

Artists depict, describe and glorify Idaho’s beauty, strengthening our cultural connection to the land. The terrain they grew up with, or have adopted, influences them in ways that give their art a sense of place.

Landscape is environment

“We live in it, we create it, we frame it, preserve it and glorify it through art,” says plein air painter Rachel Teannalach. “It’s what I’m immersed in, and when I’m living in a place filled with natural beauty, that’s what I focus on.”

Teannalach grew up in the high desert of New Mexico, where she found her early influence in Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscapes. She and her husband moved to Boise from California’s lush Marin County, where she painted the coastline and the rolling green hills of the neighboring wine country.

“(Boise) took a while to grow on me,” she says. “I had to get used to the starkness of the Foothills. But then I realized, they’re not stark at all. They’re always changing. They’re simplified forms, they’re affected by light in interesting and pure ways that constantly change throughout the day.”

Since moving to Idaho, her work has evolved through both happenstance and intention. It started two years ago, when she lost one of the most personal items an artist uses — her brushes.

“I was packing for a painting trip and they must have rolled out in the alley,” she says. “They were brushes I’d had for 15 years.”

When she replaced them, she felt drawn to flat-edged brushes, rather than the rounded Filberts she had lost. That change took her work in a new direction.

“It was a happy accident that helped me evolve. I started doing bigger, broader strokes of paint that blend more colors, abstracting it a bit more,” Teannalach says.

Abstracting nature

A landscape painting, even a hyper-realistic one, is never a perfect replication of nature. It can’t be because everything is filtered through the artist’s process.

Driving to Ketchum during the winter last year, artist Lisa Flowers Ross noticed bright dogwood branches popping out against the gray hills.

“I kept thinking about it, so one day, I pulled over and photographed it,” she says. The image inspired her “Field Series” — striking orange, maroon and red panels that reduce the image to its basic elements.

“This is what I saw,” she says. “Blocks of bushes. Simplify. I like to do that with my life, too.”

Ross grew up in the green valleys of Ohio and got her art degree in Michigan before moving to Boise with her husband, Frank, who works at Micron. She dabbled in different drawing mediums for years. Then, after she took a quilting class, she happened on a fabric art book and something clicked.

“It was a revelation,” she says. “In 2001 I made my first fabric art piece.”

Ross uses quilting techniques to create textile art pieces that reflect her love of the world she finds out her back door. She hikes from her Highlands home nearly every day, picking up leaves, rocks and twigs and taking photographs along the Greenbelt of things that inspire her.

Getting outside calms me. I think it comes through in my art.

Lisa Flowers Ross, textile artist

Using hand-dyed cotton fabric, created with her own color palette, she has created a series of compositions on leaves, flowers, aerial views of the Greenbelt and the geometry of nature.

Light to dark

One element that makes painting Idaho landscape different than anywhere else is the light, says painter Geoffrey Krueger, who is known for his large-scale tonal landscapes and portraits of dilapidated houses.

“The light and the energy you feel from the land and the people is different here,” Krueger says.

Krueger honed his painting skills in Orange County, Calif., where he became obsessed with documenting the area’s vanishing open space. There, close to the ocean, the humid salt air colors everything.

“It changes how the light reflects on things and it scatters the blue light,” he says. “That’s beautiful to paint. Here it’s clearer and drier, so it doesn’t scatter it the same way. When it’s clear here, it’s really clear and you literally see differently.”

Last month, Krueger took his canvas outside. He paints mostly in the studio, so a trip to paint plein air freshens his perspective.

“You see more,” Krueger says. “A photo flattens out everything so you get this really odd sense of the values. Dark is darker. If you’re working from a photo you have to add the third dimension.”

Krueger will paint the occasional beautiful slice of scenery, but that’s less interesting to him than something more raw.

“I don’t trust those beautiful places very much,” he says. “There have been a lot of landscapes painted, and some places have been painted so much that they lose their power. I feel like you can see that anywhere.”

It’s not about painting the mundane or ordinary, either. It’s something that just has to feel right.

As soon as you spend the time to paint it, you’ve suddenly made a statement about it and you can hear it fall into place.

Geoffrey Krueger, painter

Urban landscape

Idaho landscape is not all rivers, hills, mountains and majesty.

“The geography here is incredible, the weather is dynamic,” says painter Karen Woods. “The sky is a blue that you’d think it was Photoshopped. For me it’s too intimidating to try to capture that sense of awe of the land. What I got excited about was the pictures I took from the car.”

Woods and her husband, Shelton, a Boise State history professor, moved to Idaho from Los Angeles’ Rampart District in 1994. It was a tough adjustment for Woods until Shelton’s colleague Todd Shallat asked her to illustrate his book on historic buildings. She started taking photographs of Boise’s streets from her car for her illustrations and she began to see beauty there.

“There were intersections that I loved and empty lots that I would drive by so I could look at them,” she says. “I didn’t see other people appreciating it, and I did, so I thought that’s what I’m going to communicate when I paint.”

Woods’ early renderings of Boise streets and Idaho highways are filled with moody lighting and the bustle of modern existence. Then one day she took a photo through her rain-spattered windshield.

“It just knocked my socks off,” she says. “It spread the color all over the windshield. Red lights became streaks across the gray sky. Then it turned into something else. It encapsulated the idea of being inside the car and all this stuff going on outside, the hard rain on the roof. I love that. I decided I need to follow this and see if I can communicate that moment to anyone.”

And she has. She’s created similar series for galleries in New York City and Los Angeles. You can see her latest Idaho series and explore her process in “The Way to Wilder” at the Boise Art Museum, 670 S. Julia Davis Drive.

Songs of Idaho

After years of roaming the world, Boise native Eilen Jewell found herself sitting on an overlook above Payette Lake on a sultry summer evening about 2011. These words came to her:

“Been all around this world; Just to come back to you. ... Gonna wrap myself around you; And sing to you this tune. Oh my love. My sweet love.”

They became “Worried Mind,” the first cut on her “Sundown Over Ghost Town.”

“It sounds like a love song,” she says. “And it is. It’s my love song to Idaho. When I sing it, it feels like Home with a capital H.”

Subtly, the song helped her decide to move back to Idaho with her husband, Jason Beek, in 2012.

Jewell grew up in Boise and it got into her blood. She had been grappling with ideas of home and place since she left for college at 18, she says.

She busked on the streets of Los Angeles, started a band in Boston with Beek and traveled the expanse of the U.S., Europe and beyond. But her blend of blues, roots, country and 1960s pop always brought her home.

“I’ve noticed that Idaho is the standard I compare against,” she says. “ ... It’s so much part of my identity it would be impossible to extract it from me. It’s like being a mother now. Everything I do is shaped by that.”

Singer-songwriter Steve Eaton spent much of his career working in Los Angeles, where he wrote commercial jingles and songs recorded by the likes of Art Garfunkel. He worked in a tiny office at Capitol Records and when he hit a wall, he would retreat to his native Pocatello.

In the early 1970s, Eaton was working on a song but ran into a dead-end.

“So I came back home to Pocatello where I had a girlfriend,” he says. “When I got home, I found out she had jilted me. I went up to Scout Mountain to air myself out and after what I went through with this girl, and the words to ‘All You Get From Love is a Love Song’ just came to me.”

The Carpenters recorded it in 1977 and it hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart. It is still a staple on radio stations.

“I’ve always thought about Idaho as being that place of peace,” he says. “I write my best songs when I go up in the hills where it induces me to conjure up my subconscious and think deeply.”