There are two essential driving forces to the work of Woody Shepherd, but instead of an interrogation of which came first, we shall assume that in the context of his work they are married for an artistic synergy that results in the incredible and fantastical — two adjectives not commonly associated with woodland scenery.
The most apparent driving force in the work of this Utah State University professor, who is the featured artist at Salt Lake’s Modern West Fine Art this month, is the subject itself — woodland scenes that at first glance seem conventional. The summer scene “Gibson Lakes” seems illuminated by bright color and those tones of the season are intensified and brightened in the summer sun. A riparian setting, “Honey Blues” shows a lazy creek as its flow meanders through a forest, playing obstacle course with dead branches and stones while hanging branches overhead create a maze through which the course is led. “Autumn Spring” is, at the most casual glance, a dense autumnal forest ripe with the most auburn colors of fall at its apex, just as the leaves are to fall. These three canvas are on a monumental scale, 79”x 73”, 86”x74” and 47”x 60” respectively, each as at a height: a height of summer, a height of a waterway teeming with life, and a height of autumn.
It is through no ordinary way that Shepherd approaches these paintings and a second or even third glance reveals the second driving force of the incredible and fantastical that permeates his work — his fauvist use of color, a use of color that has abandoned all sense of academic rules in favor of ones that create a scene that is not deciphered but felt.
So accustomed are we to thinking of the blues of water, the yellow of sun and the deep greens of foliage that the true colors of “Honey Blues” may be entirely glanced over. But when considered a second, or even a third time, one realizes with an astonishment how amplified every element in the entire composition really is; that in nature colors do not appear at this level of intensity, that the blues are too royal, that they are too sinewy and pervade the canvas, twisting their way through it; that the yellows are far too lemony, infiltrating the deliminated shapes and accentuating them too precisely; that the seaweed green flows through with too much finesse, accentuated by many violet undertones.
However, when we take a look at a painting such as “Honey Blues” and say it is too this or too that, what is this measuring stick we are using to judge Shepherd’s colors as too amplified, intensified, or exaggerated? It was over a century ago that Vincent van Gogh was painting nature with a far more aggressive palette than Woody Shepherd’s, and many like to think that it was within van Gogh’s sensibilities to paint as such, that his was a unique vision and he saw life with a lucid eye full of meaning and that we too might look at what van Gogh painted and enjoy his vision and glean our own meanings from the fabric he created.
Who is anyone to judge just what is in the mind’s eye of Woody Shepherd that he is fabricating or manipulating? What he is doing is opening a door to a wealth of possibility whereby the realms of nature as he experiences it on a more heightened scale might be opened up to his audience and experienced on a level also more increased and beautified until we forget we are looking at nature and find ourselves looking at color, at shape, at exquisite line and form and how they bleed into one another and create their own unique pattern.
In “Autumn Spring” — perhaps the painting that deviates most from academic norms — the height of the season is felt with great intensity, perhaps more so than if it had been painted academically… the colors literally burst from the canvas. This is a canvas whose magic is realized almost immediately, and again, we cannot disqualify Shepherd and his vision of nature, and must allow him to share his vision of autumn as he sees it with his viewer — the deep raspberry magentas, the sinewy fuchsia that tangles through the composition, the mixture of violet and watermelon with powder blue in the background, the flecks of gold lined with aspen green, and the base which is a cornucopia where mint green dominates. Do we question? Of course not. We embrace.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.