The Old West lives on in Kate Hartfiel’s paintings: silhouettes of horses and ranch hands at work, caught in a moment’s graceful gesture and set against wide open spaces rendered in swaths of rich crimson, ochre, and cyan.
She remembers her childhood in Minnetonka as a rural one. “This was before Ridgedale, before the big suburban developments, when the land was mostly pasture,” she says. “We rode horses the way kids now ride bikes.” She got her first horse – a pinto, “a naughty little thing” – at age 7; at 12, she got a beautiful 1/8 Arabian mare, “but I had to sell her when I went out East to Skidmore to go to college,” Hartfiel says.
In her youth, she was involved with the local rodeo circuit: barrel racing, Western Pleasure, pole bending. And the images in Hartfiel’s work recall those formative experiences: the lone cowboy on horseback, rope held high in hand and ready to throw; a horse, neck bent low with legs outstretched for maximum speed; a trio of wranglers, leaning shoulder to shoulder, a shadow of fringe at their cuffs. Her landscapes are stark and gorgeous, lines of sun and shadow on flat land, unbroken by any but the sparsest vegetation. Look at her stylized silhouettes of horses and rodeo riders, captured in hues of baked earth and sun and blood, and you see pure Western romance.
She begins with photographs, taken on site in her travels through the Great Plains to Montana and Wyoming. She turns those shots into templates for her paintings by digitally manipulating the images to scale and rendering the figures in silhouette. She paints in bold strokes – broad sweeps of saturated color and clean, thick lines. The results are heroic, graphically arresting works, set against unforgiving horizons and swaths of rich, sometimes textured color. The scenes are populated with figures rendered life-size, such that her paintings draw a viewer right into the frame.
“These are quintessentially American images,” she says. “With so much shit in politics, uncertainty and angst,” there’s something in this landscape, this work and these people, that cuts through the murk of contemporary urban experience to harken back to a sense of who we are as a nation that feels clear and straightforward.
“When I drive out West, and that horizon opens up, I feel such a sense of homecoming,” she says. “That vastness – it’s wild and beautiful.” That’s what she’s aiming to capture in her paintings, she says – in the movement and gesture, the play of line and color against the vista.
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You can see Kate Hartfiel’s work during Art-A-Whirl, May 19-21, by visiting her in the Casket Arts Building (Studio 212). Find more about the artist online at www.katehartfiel.com.
Susannah Schouweiler is a critic and arts writer, and Editor of Mn Artists.