Phil Epp's depictions of striking clouds, impressive storms, and lonesome moons make for moving and profound pieces of art.
If you happen to be driving through the unending wheat fields outside of Newton, Kansas, just as a majestic full moon rises over the sprawling horizon, you might catch a glimpse of a lone cowboy photographing the breathtaking spectacle. Give a friendly wave as you drive by — that would be Western artist Phil Epp.
Raised on a “ranch-farm” in rural Nebraska from the 1940s to the ’60s, Epp spent his days playing in the pasture, riding horses, and taking care of the family’s cattle. At an early age, he fell in love with the wide-open plains and vast skies. He would take pads of paper and a pencil outside and start sketching.
“As a youngster, I figured out that art was something that I came by naturally,” Epp says. “People liked my drawings and encouraged me to pursue art as more than just a hobby.” He really didn’t stand out or excel at anything, he says with a chuckle, and drawing was a good way to portray his thoughts and communicate. “I have always been very aware of different visual scenarios, very conscious of what things looked like in my environment. Whether it was the structure of the room I was in and the objects that occupied that space or what I saw while looking out the window — our horses in the field, a landscape, or billowy clouds in the enormous Nebraska sky — it all translated in my mind to what that would be like on a two-dimensional surface. That trait has stayed with me to this day.”
The simplicity of that life, with all its natural beauty and inspiration, was interrupted only briefly in the early 1970s when Epp worked in a hospital. After a two-year hiatus from the canvas, he returned to his art and also to what would ultimately become a 30-year career as an art teacher. He had attended Bethel College, where he gained a deep and lasting appreciation for a genre not normally associated with his traditional Western style: modernism.
“I started out with an interest in realistic Western art. ... After college, my art became a mix of traditional cowboy realism and modernism. Then, later, it teamed up with regionalism, so it evolved into a kind of hybrid of styles. I like to think of it as an ‘open space’ theme. It’s the wide-open empty spaces and clouds — sort of the emptiness of the American West — that interests me more than anything.”
Open spaces have been the enduring common thread for the five-plus decades that Epp has been painting. His love of spacious plains and especially “deep air-filled skies” is evocatively depicted in his low horizons, minimalist topographies, and stripped-down subjects. Empty corrals, grain elevators, train tracks, horses marooned on a patch of dry ground in a flooded field — whatever he’s painting on the ground, his art is equally, if not more, about what’s going on in the sky.
It’s in that expansive space inhabited by his striking clouds, impressive storms, and lonesome moons that Epp expresses his most profound connection. “I think the sky is important,” he says. “I drive through suburbia and I see that all the land is manipulated — the trees, the grass, the ponds. The only thing that is honest is the sky. I see the sky as a universal place of visual natural honesty. And I like to incorporate a sense of mystery or intrigue — a ‘what lies beyond’ for both myself and the viewer.”
A recipient of many awards and honors, Epp holds two achievements particularly close to his heart. In 2009, he was selected to go for 10 days to Kazakhstan with the State Department’s Art in Embassies program. “It is the land of open spaces and horses,” Epp says. “It felt like Kansas, and I was totally comfortable there. It’s amazing how cowboy it is!”
In 2016, Epp was invited into the membership of the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America. “They’ve been a part of me since my childhood,” he says. “I grew up looking at [their] paintings of cowboys on the covers of magazines, and I never would have imagined that I would actually have the honor of being a part of the organization that was so influential in my early life. I didn’t know if I would be accepted, because my style was not typical of most Western art. It’s a huge commitment, but it’s wonderful, and I love the people that I’m working with and learning from. They are absolute geniuses, exceptional people in terms of their skills and ideas. I only hope I can make a meaningful contribution.”
Phil Epp is represented by Leopold Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri; Trailside Galleries in Jackson, Wyoming; Reuben Saunders Gallery in Wichita, Kansas; Acosta-Strong in Santa Fe; and Modern West in Salt Lake City. You can also see his work at the 54th annual Cowboy Artists of America Sale & Exhibition November 1 – 2 at the Amon G. Carter Jr. Exhibits Hall/Will Rogers Memorial Complex in Fort Worth, Texas. The itinerary includes an exclusive preview party on Friday night and on Saturday, an artist meet-and-greet and autograph session, celebratory awards luncheon, all-day access to view the art, artist demonstrations and presentations at nearby museums, and an evening fixed-price sale. cowboyartistsofamerica.com, philepp.com
Photography: (featured): Hilltop View; Moonlight Riders; Approaching Storm; All images courtesy Phill Epp
From the October 2019 issue.