Visiting Stephanie Schlatter in her home studio in Grand Rapids on a gray winter afternoon was seeing her in her element, but also not.
Her true element is among the elements.
As a plein-air painter, the bulk of Schlatter’s oil paintings are produced outside.
“I have a cottage in Northern Michigan, in Leelanau, and that’s where 95% of my work is done,” she said.
Schlatter is best known for her colorful landscape paintings that reflect Lake Michigan, M-22, Sleeping Bear Dunes, wineries and many Pike-region destinations.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Schlatter had always dabbled in the arts, “but it never occurred to me that it was a career path,” she explained. “So, I went into hair, and I did hair for 16 years.”
When she was 27, Schlatter went back to school to study photography. “That first year, I had a great photography teacher who said you should go take an art class to learn about composition … and I never went back. I took every class the community college had to offer.”
Between ages 27 and 35, Schlatter “was radicalized into a full-blown artist” and has been doing it professionally, full-time, since then. She’s now 48 years old.
The joy of color
One of the first things you’ll notice with Schlatter’s paintings is her use of bright — or as she calls them “yummy” — colors. Schlatter is a colorist, and she attributes this expertise to her experience doing hair.
“You have to understand the color wheel to do [hair] color,” she said. “It’s ingrained. I don’t have to think about color, how to make something brighter or how to dull it down. It comes very naturally to me from those years of doing hair.”
One September, she was seeing all green, so she made a painting without green. On our dreary winter afternoon, she pointed at the landscape in the distance and called out the lavender and rust; I guess it wasn’t all grey.
She had a “grey period” and turned away from color for a while, but it didn’t last.
“It’s not natural for me,” she said. “Why all the bright? Simply, I’m drawn to pretty colors. Magenta is my favorite color. It just makes me happy.”
Michigan as muse
The landscapes of Michigan, and specifically Leelanau, are the subjects of most of Schlatter’s paintings. Schlatter is an avid traveler, and she said this experience is intrinsically connected with her art. However, her heart remains with Leelanau. She calls it a “love affair.”
“I have traveled around the world many times,” she said, “and I don’t think there are any places more beautiful than Leelanau. There are other places as beautiful. But it has that sense to it, that you are somewhere.”
Schlatter explained her reputation is connected to Leelanau, and people are drawn to her work because they love the area.
“If I’m at a gallery opening or a meet-and-greet,” she said, “we all have one thing in common: We all love Leelanau. And that’s never failed me. We share that love.”
Her cottage is on Little Traverse Lake, where she spends her summers. She can head out her door, walk through the woods and be on Lake Michigan within 20 minutes. Or she can hop in her car and be there in two minutes.
“I do both,” she said. Leelanau is an “endless source of inspiration.”
“I never have to look for it,” she said. “The most searching I have to do is figuring out what the weather is doing today and where’s the best place I can paint to work with what’s happening.”
True to nature
Schlatter’s setup involves a hiking backpack, a tripod, brushes, and a limited palette of tube oil paints that she keeps in a well-loved makeup bag. She either paints on flat canvas, using an ingenious panel holder that can hold two canvases at once or, if she’s able to park her car close to where she’s painting, on wood. She keeps her gear in the back of her car at all times.
“In the summer, I wake up at 6 a.m. and get out and paint until the light gets too bright,” Schlatter said, “then come home for a nap and run. I head back out at 5 p.m. to get better light.”
Because she spends so much time painting outside, Schlatter knows where the shade will be in June versus August depending on the location and time of day.
“Painting outside is a journey,” she said. “It’s really frustrating in the beginning, and for years I fought doing it because I’d go outside and the wind would blow my canvases and my paint would dry up. I thought it was hell.”
But then she committed to learning more about it. Schlatter took a plein air class and learned about its roots in the impressionist movement. The invention of tube paint was the impetus for plein air painting; it gave artists the chance to get out of their studios. Plus, because they were no longer tasked with recording history and events, artists wanted to go outside and paint nature.
“It’s had a resurgence recently because of the lifestyle,” Schlatter explained. “You have this big, beautiful world in front of you and you have to figure out where to begin.”
She said it took her a couple of years of practice to get comfortable with plein air painting.
“I remember asking other artists if it was frustrating, and they all said, ‘Yeah, but it’s worth it because of the lifestyle.’ Now, I’m making my art on top of a dune, and it’s gorgeous.”
Schlatter works full-time throughout the year. During the cooler months, she paints in her studio. These paintings tend to be on a larger scale — after all, painting outdoors isn’t conducive to big canvases — and more abstract. Schlatter will still work from a photo, or she’ll use one of her plein air paintings to inspire something that’s more freeform or in a different color palette.
Schlatter is most plugged into the art community in Northern Michigan and gets together regularly with other plein air painters.
“I love being with other artists. Even if we don’t have much in common besides art, we have so much to talk about just around art,” she said. “We help each other. It’s a very supportive, lovely community.”
Beyond that, Schlatter has found community on Instagram, whether it’s art friends or her own followers.
“I love my community [on Instagram] so much,” she said. “They’re a huge part of my ‘why.’ But I’m not dependent on their approval. You have to be true to your gut and your own vision.”
Schlatter believes her art is meant to be seen and that it’s a key part of the process. It begins as an interaction between her and the canvas, but then the visual goes out into the world.
At that point, “I don’t have control of it anymore,” she said. “It becomes about the viewer and the work of art. At shows, people will say, ‘That reminds me of blah blah blah,’ and that might be different from what I intended as an artist, and that doesn’t bother me in the least.
“I think it’s an extremely important part of the process, that you see the art. I think it makes the world a better place.”
Schlatter cares about politics and global issues. She spent a decade bringing art into early education schools in Ethiopia.
“I’ve always cared about the less fortunate, and I’ve always wanted the world to be fair,” she said. “When I look out there, I see an unjust world and a cruel world, at times. I made a very conscious decision to make my art different from that.”
She paints an idealized world, letting her art be her art, on its own terms.
“This has been a rough time,” Schlatter said. “And we need to keep making art. We need the joy. We need it to be a force for good. I’ve often said, the darker the world feels, the brighter my art gets.”
As Schlatter said in an Instagram caption, “I believe people who bring art into their everyday life are happier and look a little closer at the world around them.”
She explained people will frequently say they always thought of shadows as merely black until they look at her paintings.
“Art makes you notice those things. It helps you see better, but it also brings an element of happiness into your home. People do that with flowers. Gardens. Have you ever been unhappy walking through a garden? Me either. We bring these things into our lives to make us happier because they’re beautiful.”
“It’s part of why I became an artist,” she said. “Art stops me in my tracks and makes me smile.”
Schlatter’s art is available for purchase through her website, as well as several Pike-region locations:
Article written by Sarah Aldrich