I was born and raised under blue prairie skies in Carrington, North Dakota. I grew up on the family farm, once homesteaded by my grandfather, with plenty of open space to roam, explore, and imagine.
Farm life in the 70’s and 80’s provided an idyllic backdrop for a little girl who liked to dream and draw; to run about making friends with flowers, trees, and barnyard animals. My three younger siblings and I were fortunate in having parents who generally encouraged curiosity and adventure (as long as our chores were done and we didn’t get into trouble).
I was also lucky enough to have an artist grandmother (eternally loving, patient and kind, even after having raised 14 of her own children), who gently guided my early attempts to bring fantastic scenes to life on paper. Her watercolors and gorgeous sketches, along with her elegant calligraphy on my birthday cards, have been life-long inspirations. I’ve always wanted to be able to do what she did.
At Grandma’s suggestion, I enrolled in a high school painting class. I had complained that sketching left me a bit flat. I loved to draw, but didn’t feel the picture was satisfying until I could add touches of color, and colored pencils and chalk didn’t deliver what I was looking for.
I had a passionate love/hate relationship with that painting class. I adored learning how to mix paint, use the different brushes, and prep my canvas; but after that I wanted to be left alone to follow my own wandering trails of inspiration. I wanted to paint the image on the cover of a book I was reading. It was a sweeping montage of Native American scenery; running horses, leather clad lovers, buffalo skulls, feathers, tepees, mountains and snow covered plains. My teacher had other ideas. She wanted me to paint bowls of fruit. I was a 15 year old romantically minded girl and fruit left me yawning. I displayed zero inspiration or enthusiasm. We eventually agreed I would try harder on the fruit to learn the skills I required, and she would then turn me loose to paint what I wanted during my study hall. (And I eventually did complete the book cover scene, to the best of my ability. It was my entry into my very first art show.)
In spite of our taste differences, I had a fine teacher who taught enough basic painting for me to recognize that I had some raw talent; that this painting thing could become a life long passion. I loved it! What I hadn’t been able to convey with a drawing pencil came much easier with a paintbrush. I was somehow able to find ways for the paint to echo what I wanted to express. I had vague “someday” teenage thoughts of art school, fame and fortune, but one of the ultimate dreams was to create incredible album covers for my favorite bands. (I was much inspired by The Steve Miller Band’s “Book of Dreams”.)
When I was 16 and unexpectedly found what I knew was true love; I painted a cougar for a smiling young man with gorgeous brown tiger-eyes. A few years later I married that man, and then my art aspirations were shifted slightly to the side in favor of love, children, jobs, moving across the country, a busy home business and 12 crazy years of home-schooling. (Thirty five years later, that cougar painting still hangs on my living room wall…and it was definitely true love.)
My art always remained part of my world, and evolved along with my changing life. I taught my growing children, and they certainly taught me. With them I learned how to see amazing imaginary creatures (some of whom were rumored to live in my five year old son’s light bulb), and together we conjured a world of “what if” scenes and adventures. They allowed me to look through their wonder-filled eyes when I read them fairy tales, which later on inspired dozens of paintings. I gave them free rein with their art experiments and they were ever willing to help and encourage me with mine. I discovered that I could have it all, my family, a business, and a thriving art life.
The kids and I covered the walls of their bedrooms with huge murals that each child designed; and then we repainted them years later as they outgrew unicorns and dinosaurs in favor of wizards and fire-birds. I experimented, played around with different styles, read lots of art books and watched many Bob Ross episodes on PBS. The online world gave me unlimited access to incredible artists I could follow for tips and inspiration. I painted everything…rocks, windows, kitchen cupboards, dog houses, mail boxes and ceilings. Nothing in our home was safe.
I painted signs for entrepreneurial friends, designed murals for baby nurseries, and helped with theater sets. Nocturnal painting sessions after my family was asleep helped build up my inventory enough so that I could join the local artist co-op. Seeing my work in a gallery was such a thrill and I loved the interaction with the other artists. I started to sell paintings, prints and greeting cards, and then branched out to eBay and Etsy. I began to get commission requests and learned how to be choosy in what I was willing to paint. I painted for pure pleasure in the wee, small hours, and looking back now, I realize that I was creating a colorful, visual chronicle of those busy days with my young children.
A few years later, my husband and I opened a gift boutique/art gallery and I was able to enjoy selling my own work, in my own shop.
Hearing what our customers had to say (usually without them realizing that I was the creator of the painting they were looking at) gave me more confidence in what I was doing. Yes, I was different. I didn’t really fit into a particular genre. It took me years to discover I didn’t need to….I just created my own. And people liked what I was painting. It’s an incredible feeling, to pull an image out of your creative soul and put it on display for others to (hopefully) enjoy. It takes courage. And when others “get” your art; when they tell you it moves them in a particular way…it is deeply satisfying.
Over the last few years I have had the honor of having one of my paintings on the cover of a book of North Dakota poetry written by my high school English teacher. I was also privileged to design a magical flying tiger who is now gracing the cover of a children’s book soon to be published in Germany.
Most recently I was able to achieve my teenage dream of creating the cover art for an album. A band from Sweden contacted me after viewing some of my work online and commissioned me to design the artwork for their upcoming single and EP album. It was going to be a very demanding schedule and I hesitated, until I listened to their songs. Beautifully poetic, their words painted pictures in the air and dared me to say yes to this collaboration. Three intense months later, I had the pleasure of seeing my own painting pop up on Spotify while I listened to the awesome music of Maple & Rye.
As a mostly self-taught artist, I’m grateful I was able to explore and find my own path through my personal art process. Nobody told me things shouldn’t be done a certain way,so I just went ahead and tried them. My imagination and curiosity were my teachers.”What if” was always the question of the day. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I learned through trial and sometimes comical error. Today I realize that being “untrained”, (something that used to embarrass me when people would ask where I studied), gave me the ability to spend decades creating my own distinctive and particular style.
I currently live in Bonners Ferry, Idaho and prefer to work mainly with acrylics on canvas. Over the years I’ve perfected the very specialized art of painting with at least two dogs sleeping around my easel. (Dogs and good music…necessary ingredients for a happy studio!) When I’m not painting, reading, or playing in the garden, I am an avid gamer and crochet addict (which is really just painting with yarn). And now that I’ve successfully raised two wonderful children and numerous slightly spoiled dogs, I can put all those amazing life experiences and emotions into words and pictures. I’ve been doing quite a lot of writing lately, and I’m planning on eventually putting my stories together with beautiful illustrations to share with all of you.
Theresa Stahl (August 2018)