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Shirle Wempner: Impressions of Montana

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By René Kraus, Contributor

Shirle Wempner is at once charming, engaging and self-effacing. After many years working as a legal services professional, she now devotes her attention full time to her art. She’s enjoyed increasing visibility and professional success in recent years, something she says is improbable, incredible and wonderful.

Growing up on Eagle Cliff Ranch outside of Billings, Wempner had few nearby playmates. Comfortable with solitude, Wempner’s vivid imagination was inspired by mystical animals and fairy-tale creatures, and horses and other ranch animals became her real world companions.

The connection to animals is evident in many of her impressionist paintings today. She tells a revealing story from her recent past: Several years ago, she came across a sick eagle while she was out riding across the ranch. She sat with it, and fed it over the next few days.

“That bird would look directly into my eyes,” she says.

Eventually, the eagle recovered and she watched it fly away. Profoundly influenced by the encounter, Wempner describes it as cathartic and emotional.

Using broad, sweeping strokes and a vivid, intuitive color palette, Wempner paints an impression of an animal without specific individual features, leaving viewers to fill in the detail. This drive to evoke emotion is a central element of her work.

“If you find you are wrapped in the essence and passion of the subject matter, I feel I have succeeded in communicating with another soul,” she says of her art. “Emotions are what touch and form our souls, and a churning of emotion is what I strive for.”

Surprisingly, Wempner only recently began painting horses—for many years, she wasn’t confident she could authentically capture them. A recent first place award at the annual Art at the Classic juried art show for a study of a Belgian draft horse must certainly now dispel this doubt.

“The most enjoyable aspect of my creative process is allowing the unknown—and unplanned—to take shape on the canvas,” Wempner says.

This theme is recurring in Wempner’s work, and is something she learned early on. While studying art in college, she was trained in metalsmithing. She found that she loved the mistakes that resulted in crafting metal art; instead of discarding them, she accepted these pieces as fully intended. Now, through her painting, Wempner consciously tries to silence the analytical voice, allowing a painting to create itself.

Wempner has sought artistic coaching and counsel from such heavyweights as Jack Hines, Jessica Zemsky, Thomas English and Carolyn Anderson. She’s also influenced by Native American traditions and reverence for animals and sometimes consults ‘animal cards,’ which are traditionally used by Native Americans to interpret animals and the messages they impart.

Being an impressionistic artist in Montana is somewhat unusual, but Wempner is confident in her intuitive and open style. She looks forward to each new piece as it unfolds, revealing new insights and emotions.

Shirle Wempner is represented by the Creighton Block Gallery, in the Big Sky Town Center.

René Kraus is a freelance writer and communications consultant with an avid interest in the arts and Montana’s outdoor lifestyle. Her work appears regularly in print and online media. She is currently finishing a children’s book about life lessons from a dog.

This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. Read more here

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