Arts May 13, 2015

Artist Profiles

Laura McPhee, Gabe Embler & Kathryn Stats
Exploring the Mystery of Place
Laura McPhee’s Inspiring Photography


In 2003, Laura McPhee was invited to spend a year as an artist-in-residence in the Sawtooth Valley. Having grown up on the East Coast, McPhee didn’t know what Idaho was like, and considered not accepting the residency because she wasn’t sure what exactly she would do here. The terms of her residency didn’t require she make pictures, and she was intimidated by the prospect, given the photographic accomplishments of her 19th-century counterparts. Nonetheless, she decided to come for a couple of weeks to check it out. Then she returned, again and again. The Sawtooth Valley so captured her imagination that she spent five years exploring the region for her inspiring photographic series: “River of No Return.”

Part of what captivated McPhee’s imagination was her personal connection to this place. Her grandmother lived out West, the daughter of an itinerant schoolteacher who taught in mining towns. Her photography, interestingly, and her methodology, capture something of this particular historical moment—the early 1900s—and the legacy that period left on the way we live in and experience this place today. 

McPhee’s images, like that of a settler’s cabin at the edge of a new subdivision, or a cyanide evaporation pool in a now defunct silver and gold mine, tend to depict places throughout the Sawtooth Valley that feel heavy with the weight of history. And despite being mostly of landscapes, her images never lack a human presence, whether the depressions fishermen’s footsteps have left in the tall grass or the remains of an abandoned elk carcass. We think of nature as this thing outside of culture, but McPhee’s photographs speak to the way we construct our idea of nature through culture, a reflection of human values, choices and judgments.

“Corner of the Drawing Room, Bose House, Howrah” by Laura McPhee

With her photography, McPhee told me that she is “trying to make sense of the puzzle of what a particular place means and how we live it.” In the mixed land use environment of the Sawtooth Valley, this is a fairly complex endeavor, with issues like endangered sockeye, the reintroduction of wolves, mineral mining, and population loss. 

Her method, like her subject matter, is also evocative of an earlier time—McPhee shoots with a large-format Deardorff camera, a very basic idea of what a camera is.

“You set up the tripod, put this big mahogany box on it, then get under a dark cloth,” McPhee explained. This somewhat antiquated tool not only provides her images with a clarity and sharpness that is unrivaled, but also changes her relationship to her subject. “It’s really slow,” McPhee said. “You have to take your time. There’s no hit-and-run aspect to it.”

For each photograph, McPhee slides an 8-by-10 negative sheet into the camera and gets under the dark cloth to focus. She steps back outside of the cloth, talks to her subject, then, when she’s ready to take a photograph, she asks people not to move for about a quarter to half a second, pulls out the dark slide and takes the picture. This process adds a formality to the relationship with her subjects that most photographers don’t have. “We approach cameras with this automatic grin, then it’s over really quickly,” McPhee explained. “This challenges that experience.”

McPhee likes to get to know a place and its people as deeply as possible before documenting it. Her most recent photographic book, “The Home and the World,” was born out of her 17-year relationship with the city of Kolkata. The photographs in the series similarly seek to understand how cultures are woven together with place. She examines the public and private spaces of the city, engaging its architecture and people from her unique point of view. The collection is a beautiful and nostalgic meditation on a visually stunning place. “The Home and the World” will be on display at the Gail Severn Gallery in August 2015. 



The Art of Balance

Carving Time with Sculptor Gabe Embler



If you’ve ever gone hiking in the Pioneer Mountains and been met on the trail by an intricate mandala of stones and dried leaves, or perhaps you’ve caught sight of a cairn of man-sized rocks balanced impossibly in the rushing waters of the Big Wood River, chances are Gabe Embler was there.

Embler, a local sculptor, mason, and mountain man, is the Banksy of balanced stone installations. An artist whose currency is earth and ephemera, Embler has been leaving his mark in stone and sand for nearly a decade. But his path to artistry—from the woods of Washington to the craggy peaks of the German Alps, from bartending and restaurant management to guiding mountain tours in Europe—has been shaped by a greater connective tissue: a longtime love of rocks and a life spent in the outdoors. 
Untitled winter sculpture by Gabe Embler.

An autodidact who learned to read at the age of 2, Embler was raised in Chelan, Washington, by his single mother and spent his childhood on the banks of Lake Chelan and in the woods outside the city limits. From his earliest years, he honed his senses in the wild and taught himself what it means to truly pay attention—not just to see the little things but to hear them, smell them, reach out and touch them. 

In college, Embler worked two night jobs to put himself through school. But after an unsatisfying first semester spent fulfilling core requirements and rehashing the texts he had read for pleasure as a boy, Embler quit his jobs, withdrew the $500 in his savings account, and, with the funds intended for spring tuition, bought a one-way ticket to Munich.

For three years he hiked and traveled through Europe, eventually landing a gig with the Armed Forces Recreation Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, teaching snowboarding and managing a small bar. He returned stateside in 1997, and, after hitchhiking across the United States, moved to Ketchum the following year to work for a custom tile and masonry outfit constructing granite countertops and setting intricate mosaics in local homes and businesses.

Short on cash at Christmas in 2004, Embler fashioned a series of jewelry boxes and bookends from granite scraps in his workshop and gave them as gifts to family and friends. From necessity sprang inspiration; Embler realized he could channel his gift for masonry into something more creative. It was then that the artist truly began to crystallize.  

Since then, Embler has grown into an accomplished and celebrated sculptor. With no classical training, the rite of repetition and daily practice has been his education. “The only way you learn is by making mistakes,” he said. Attack the hardline of a slab of quartz with too much force or haste and it will crumble. Spend hours locating the balance points between two boulders and a heavy rain will topple them. “All the things out of your control—the wind, a bird, the trembling of the earth—can mess with you. Tear it down, break it apart. Are you willing to try again? Fail again? Fail better?”

An accomplished photographer, student of the Japanese Samurai tradition, polyglot, ordained minister, and (yes) certified midwife, Embler is as metamorphic as his medium. With granite, jasper, shale, and lava he has played with form and function—from his practical and usable vessels to the private pieces and public installations he has been commissioned to create. And though Embler has garnered attention in recent years for his stone balances, balancing is a study he began exploring as an instrument of meditation and comprises a mere fraction of his work. “Balancing is just a device. It’s about the bigger picture. How do the random, disparate parts of your life balance themselves? Even for a little while? No one’s balanced forever.”

In a year when the Theory of Relativity celebrates its centennial, we are reminded of a universal truth: energy can neither be created nor destroyed. This is the root of Embler’s ethos. “I don’t quarry, I use what’s given. It’s what Michelangelo said of (his sculpture) ‘David’: I didn’t make any of this, I just carved away what shouldn’t be there.”

With the memory of rock and the forgiveness of water, Embler approaches his sculpture and balancing as a practice in letting go. “The shape I give a rock is just a snapshot in time. Think of the resiliency of grass: it’s quick to bend but it’s hard to break. That’s what I aim for in my life, my work. That kind of elasticity.” 



What Is the Why?

On Location with Kathryn Stats


“Capitol Reef” by Kathyrn Stats.

Kathryn Stats is not a plein air painter. 

Native to Idaho and raised in the sweeping countryside of central Utah, Stats first discovered her fascination with painting in her high school art class when the instructor presented the concept of linear perspective. Something about it itched like a small bug bite. And so she scratched.

After high school, Stats spent a nomadic young adult life traveling the expanses of the American West, drifting from the red rocks in Colorado to the mesas of Arizona. “Everything I saw, I loved,” she recalls. “It made me alive.”

Shortly after marrying, her husband’s work took them to Brazil. While living in Rio, Stats bought a starter oil set and began copying images from postcards—scenes of Copacabana, of Tijuca Forest, of the bustling life that permeated the streets of the crowded city. As she practiced, her agility with the brush and her eye for color grew. But so did the itch.

When Stats and her husband returned to Utah the following year, she began to study the classics. Inspired by the impressionist work of Emile Gruppé and John F. Carlson, Stats set to distilling what her taste and sensibility as a painter was. She followed what spoke to her but with a self-aware and discerning eye.

“So often, people see something they love and they want to capture it—on canvas, on film. But ask them why, and they have no idea. Why does the sunlight filtered through the trees like that speak to you in the way it does? What compels you about the way dust is kicked up by the wind? You see something you love, you have to find out why. You may never find an answer—or it may change with time—but you can never stop asking. You can never settle.”

In her decades of ongoing study since, Stats has never settled. A prolific, award-winning artist recognized internationally for her dexterity with color, her play with light and her gift for perspective, Stats’ work—which ranges from rural landscapes to seaside cliffs, floral still lifes to the quaint unmapped villages along the Mediterranean—possesses a lyricism and rhythm that is uniquely hers. Artists’ blogs and online reviews, collectors and colleagues unequivocally praise her impressionistic eye and the efficacy of her brushstroke. But Stats will be the first to argue her success is a function of practice and repetition, not of raw, God-given talent.

“I don’t believe in talent. I believe in brain structure and how you learn. Put in your 10,000 hours and it will come.”

This spring, 12 artists will join Stats in logging more canvas time. From June 8-12, Stats and fellow artist, Kathryn Riedinger, will host a plein air workshop in and around Ketchum. The workshop, intended for intermediate and advanced students with some plein air experience, will focus on transposing shape and color patterns on canvas and address the issue of painting in constantly changing light—by far one of the greatest difficulties in plein air work.

“Water Garden” by Kathyrn Stats.

For Stats, all the frustrations of open-air work—shifting daylight, changing temperature, sudden wind—are recurring and familiar. But what challenges her also brings her back to the canvas again and again. “The learning curve must be a pleasure. And the ability to bounce back is essential. You have to be open, pliable. Quit fighting and be messy. But take your time. Some of my fastest paintings unfurl when I’m deliberate and not rushing. Hurry—slowly.”

The untold hours Kathryn Stats has logged in the outdoors boils down to more than technique and paint on canvas. Here—in the mountains, by the sea, at the desert’s edge—is where she found her voice and learned the art of storytelling. Recalling her father’s unexpected death at the age of 8, Stats spoke of the outdoors as more than just a medium; she spoke of a temple and a home.

“People in grief often say being outdoors is the only respite from that kind of pain. In a way, we’re all healing from something. Just being outside is a regenerative act. So no,” she went on decisively, “I’m not a ‘plein air’ painter. I just believe in being on location. It makes you a better artist.” 

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.