By Susan Nicholas Gephart
(See Susan Nicholas Gephart at the 2019 Plein Air Convention and Expo)
Over the last 30 years I’ve watched individuals who had never had art in their lives develop a passion for collecting my landscapes. Two happen to be sisters, Kay and Becky, who babysat my three children – my oldest of whom will soon be 34. These second generation, American-born women were raised in a large family with frugal Czechoslovakian parents.
Through time, these two wonderful women become the sisters I never had. Their appreciation for art grew as our relationship deepened. Their children began to request my art as gifts, culminating in a combined collection of 48 oils and pastels bought, bartered and commissioned since the mid-1980s. They have all convinced me that art in the home, changes and enriches lives!
The Story Behind the Sister Commissions
After more than 30 years of collecting my finished pastel and oil work, the sisters and I embarked on a journey of commissioned art. It began three years ago; Becky wanted a painting of the view from her window, looking through the snowy woods to Kay’s house. Being a very close family meant that they walk between their homes to visit each other almost daily, so this view holds special meaning for Becky. She already had a magnificent antique gold leaf frame picked out, so my biggest challenge was to do the oil on a panel cut to fit it.
It was a joy to paint the fresh snow on the apple trees leading to the woods between the two sisters’ homes. I used a toned panel and a combination of brush and palette knife work. Becky’s house stands high up on the hill, looking out towards the distant mountains of Central PA. Kay’s house was barely visible through the woods, but the story was a special one to paint. Being primarily a plein air painter, it was important to me to be able to work on location and not from a photo, so I had to return to Becky’s house several times to work; however, the snow kept melting, so it took until the following winter for me to complete the painting.
I was given unlimited time and choice of subject matter to create Becky’s Sunset at Hameau Farm, which would again need to fit into an old gold leaf frame. I arrived early to instruct at the Hameau Farm Studio Artist Retreat and set up my easel during sunset. Having many students to attend to prevented me from completing this painting during the May retreat. I returned to it in October, but the light and atmosphere was completely different. I chose to take it to the studio and assess the essence of what I had established plein air. Standing at a distance, I could see what was working and realized that careful yet emotional brushwork could finish it.
When Kay saw Becky’s January Snow completed, she requested a painting for herself. Kay also wanted a winter scene, but of the reverse view, this time looking up through the woods to Becky’s house. Again, the painting needed to fit into a refurbished antique gold leaf frame. This time, I had to rely on her personal experiences walking between her two friends’ homes and a few less-than-helpful reference photos. It was important to establish a detailed value sketch before beginning Sister Walk in the studio.
I used a similar method to the one I used for Becky’s January Snow to begin Sister Walk. I was faced with many challenges while establishing the composition of the tall, vertical format required to fit the frame. In my mind, I envisioned the light and shadow patterns in the snow leading me through the woods to a dear friend’s home. I asked myself questions, such as what time of day would it be? How warm should the sunlight be? Or should it be moonlight? I can truly say creating Sister Walk was a journey that took time to conceive. Just as much time was spent looking as there was gliding paint across the panel and touching snow on branches with the edge of a palette knife. Because I am a painter who balances personal time in the studio, plein air painting, traveling, and teaching, many interruptions broke my connection to the feelings and the story I was trying to establish.
Sometimes commissions take longer than anticipated to complete. In this circumstance, these loving friends left the completion date open. Sometimes, this is an advantage; sometimes it is a disadvantage. Bottom line, I only wanted to work on these when I felt emotionally connected to telling the stories. I purposefully let Becky’s Sunset at Hameau Farm and Sister Walk sit on display in my studio for an extended period of time while I worked on many other projects. When my mind was clear and focused on the individual paintings, the story became clear, and it was as if the paintings told me where to go next.
Author’s note: I would like to thank my artist father, Thomas C. Nicholas Jr., for encouraging my creativity and giving me the freedom to become an artist. Growing up in a house with art on the wall was the beginning of my journey.
About the author: Susan Nicholas Gephart (www.snicholasart.com) graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Pennsylvania State University in 1979, and an Associate in Arts from Montgomery County Community College in 1977. Her colorful, impressionist plein air pastels and oils are in private and permanent collections across the country, such as The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. Susan is an Associate Member of the Pastel Society of America, and a Signature Member of the Central Pennsylvania Pastel Society. She also co-founded the Plein Air Painters of Central PA.