Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merto
The best thing about being a full-time artist, says Santa Fe painter and former gallery owner Phyllis Kapp, is being able to paint for hours at a time at any time of day. “I can paint whenever I want, and I love that,” explains Kapp, who celebrated her ninetieth birthday on December 5. “The only day of the week when I don’t paint is on Saturday. That’s the day I devote to listening to opera.”
A lifelong painter who owned Waxlander Gallery on Canyon Road from 1985 through 2017, Kapp continues to be an integral part of Santa Fe’s art scene. Canyon Road Contemporary Art, which is in the same building that had housed Waxlander, now represents Kapp’s vibrant watercolor paintings of Southwestern landscapes.
“Phyllis Kapp is as much a reflection of her work as her work is a reflection of her,” says gallery owner Nancy Ouimet. “Both exude positivity, romance, drama and the bounty of life. Phyllis doesn’t paint just one or two stars in the sky. Her skies contain entire galaxies, shooting stars, the sun and the moon as they dance together. Her landscapes are overflowing with life and her colors are unstoppable.”
Born in Chicago in 1930, Kapp attended the Art Institute of Chicago and Cornell University, where she majored in art and botany. She had her first solo gallery show, an exhibit of paintings focusing on Lake Michigan and people in the park, in Chicago when she was in her mid-thirties and raising three daughters and one son with her husband Arnold.
Family has always been incredibly important to Kapp, who now has eight grandchildren and twenty-seven great-grandchildren. She sees the creative spirit alive and well in her offspring and credits her father, a writer, and her maternal grandmother, who designed embroidery, as pioneers of the family’s artistic journey.
That journey continues daily when Kapp prepares her watercolors for a day of painting. Music is her constant studio companion. “I love listening to music while I’m painting,” Kapp says. “It’s mostly classical, but sometimes I feel like listening to show tunes or jazz.”
Always open to new experiences and ideas, Kapp sees her work as continually evolving. The eight months she recently spent living with her daughter Wendy in Belize has made a strong and lasting impact on her painting process. “I was so relaxed in Belize,” she explains. “I did a daily meditation practice with a group of women there. It really calmed me down. It used to be that ideas would come at me lickety-split and I would do things really fast. Now, I’m taking my time when painting. I have a more relaxed painting style.”
Kapp notices more detail in her latest paintings, although she’s quick to mention that she is not moving toward realism. “I create expressionist landscapes,” she says. “My paintings are wonderful fantasies about how the land and the sky feel to me. It is also about a state of mind, a feeling of joy, of being one with the universe.” She adds, “I love to play while I paint. I love to make people smile. I’m passionate about the landscape and render it in depth and vibrancy of color.”
What hasn’t changed in Kapp’s artistic life is the way she gathers information for new work. She never photographs the landscape, but she does make pencil sketches of it, whether she’s in Santa Fe or enjoying a day trip to Ghost Ranch near the northern New Mexico village of Abiquiú. “I look at the land around me more than anything else,” she says. “I get absorbed by the shapes I see. When I sketch, I’m really putting ideas down on paper. I’m never sketching a full painting.”
Back in the studio, Kapp doesn’t end up referring to her sketches when she begins a painting. Memories of shapes, colors and feelings flood her mind. She looks at her colors, listens to which colors are talking to her that day and immediately begins putting paint on archival paper. That’s a daunting task, considering that she chooses from several dozen different greens, reds, blues and yellows, as well many other colors.
While Kapp enjoys having all the time she wants to create art, she values the connections she made with artists and collectors during the many years she operated Waxlander Gallery, which started small and eventually grew to fifteen rooms with 4,000 square feet of exhibition space. Among the artists she represented are Marshall Noice, Javier Lopez Barbosa and Matthew Higginbotham.
“I still get excited about the work of new young artists,” she adds. “Years ago, when I owned my gallery, I watched cutting-edge artists having trouble getting their work accepted in the art world. Now, many of them are enjoying success. And I love the new materials that artists are working with. It’s all very exciting!”
Emily Van Cleve is a Santa Fe-based freelance writer and journalist. Since 1994, her work has been featured in local, regional and national magazines and newspapers.