Show by Ignacio painter will open at college

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Even though she already lived in a beautiful place — Cape Cod, Mass. — Rebecca Koeppen said she and her husband were in the mood for a different kind of beauty when they decided to pull up stakes and head west in 1999.

"Ojito Wilderness" by Rebecca Koeppen is part of the artist's "The Wild West: Scenes From Our Un-peopled Places" opening this weekend at San Juan College in Farmington.

"We thought, 'We should move to Colorado and buy a piece of land,'" Koeppen said. "That came from a desire for more earth and less people."

In her younger years, Koeppen had pursued a formal education in art, bouncing around from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to the Pan America Art School in Manhattan to the Art Institute of Boston. But when her children fell ill and she found the treatments offered by traditional medicine lacking, she put the creative life aside and became a holistic health professional.

She stuck with that career even after she moved to Colorado. But in 2005, on a whim, she took an art class and said she couldn't have been more surprised when she quickly produced a pastel landscape painting.

"Yeah, I was shocked," said Koeppen, whose work will be featured in her "The Wild West: Scenes From Our Un-Peopled Places" exhibition opening this weekend at San Juan College. "First of all, I had never done much landscape painting before when I was in art school. The fact that that came tumbling out of my heart came as a complete shock."

Artist Rebecca Koeppen paints Western landscapes but eschews plein air painting in favor of working in her studio from photographs she has taken.

Koeppen found herself moved to stick with her new passion, and for the past dozen years, she's been visiting all sorts of scenic, remote locations throughout the Four Corners from her home outside Ignacio, Colo., in search of artistic inspiration. Her next exhibition is a collection of 27 pieces produced over the last year and is her second show at the college.

"I love living here in the Four Corners because of all the beauty," she said during a phone interview last week as she delivered her new paintings to the college. "My husband and I travel as much as we can in the back country. When I see something beautiful, I stop and take a photo of it, then pull it out in the studio and paint it."

That particular process is important to her, Koeppen said.

"I don't do plein air painting," she said. "I tried it a couple of times, but the idea of dragging hundreds of pounds of pastels into the back country doesn't appeal to me. ... What I want to paint is not conveniently on the side of the road."

"Over and Under" by Rebecca Koeppen is included in the artist's opening this weekend in a new show at San Juan College.

After driving to a wilderness site, Koeppen and her husband usually set out on four wheelers in search of an inspiring scene. Once she's found such a location, Koeppen snaps several photos of her subject, which provide her with a foundation to work from later when she's in her controlled studio environment.

Plein air painting simply provides too many challenges, she said.

"I don't like the idea of the light changing a half hour after I'm all set up or the bugs being too bad," she said. "I don't think I'm hardy enough for that."

More to the point, Koeppen has found this process allows her to be inspired by a scene twice — once when she finds it and photographs it, and again when she paints it at home.

"I really appreciate the skill of the plein air painters, but for me, the quality of what I do seems to come from working in the studio from a photo I've taken," she said. "It has to be something that resonated in my heart when I saw it. And I can't really work from a picture someone else has taken, either. If I did that, I'd just be copying a photo."

"North End of Comb Ridge" by Rebecca Koeppen

Her search for inspiration has led her to capture untold numbers of images over the years.

"My computer is stuffed with so many hundreds of photos I've taken," she said, laughing. "I feel sorry for whoever's going to have to go through it when I go."

One aspect of preparing for an exhibition that Koeppen apparently doesn't enjoy is choosing a title for the show. She sighed when asked about the significance of "Scenes From Our Un-peopled Places" and expressed her discomfort with the task.

"Choosing a name for a show is such a pain in the butt," she said. "First of all, it corrals you in. When I start painting a year in advance, I never know what it's going to become. But public lands are so important to me. They're filled with such beauty, and you're allowed to be there."

"Hot Weather Dream" by Rebecca Koeppen

That high regard for the land is obvious in Koeppen's work. Though she remains active in the alternative health field, roaming the back country of the Four Corners and capturing its charms is her priority in life these days.

"I'm just one of those kinds of people that the natural world is like church for them," she said. "I think a lot of people who live in this part of the country feel that way. For me, this is the only game in town. It makes me feel like life is worth living. To be able to capture that in a painting is equally exciting."

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

'Geology' by Rebecca Koeppen

If you go

What: Opening reception for artist Rebecca Koeppen for her "The Wild West: Scenes From Our Un-peopled Places" exhibition

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3

Where: The Henderson Fine Arts Center Art Gallery on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

For more information: Call 505-566-3464

"Light Waves" by Rebecca Koeppen