The tourist route between Calgary, Drumheller and Jasper is well worn. But how many visitors opt to drive through Alberta’s prairie landscape?
Sadly, not many, said Central Alberta artist Betty Schnell.
“I tell them, ‘You missed a whole world ,’” added Schnell, who spent 40 years proving through her artworks of undulating fields and changeable skies that the Prairies are anything but boring.
Schnell’s diverse landscapes can be seen in the Tranquility exhibit at the white gallery, connected to Sunworks on Ross Street.
Viewers will see Rumsey’s blue flax fields, as well as the startling yellow canola crops near Red Deer. Schnell has captured the purplish shadows cast by a copse of poplars and the reddish reflections of a sunset on Prairie grasses.
“Living in these beautiful surroundings, I developed a sense of wonder at the vast spaces, beautiful skies and living landscapes that have become the themes for my paintings,” writes Schnell in her artist statement for the show. “Capturing the beauty of nature… is my ultimate goal.”
The 77-year-old is a plein air painter. This means she regularly hops in her van and drives to find rural views that strike her artistic fancy. Many settings for her paintings are along Hwy 9, around Hanna, where weathered old barns and wind-whipped grain elevators can still be found.
“I travel around and up and down the side roads,” she said, until a certain quality of light captures her eye.
Then Schnell will often paint from her van, using the steering wheel as an easel for her canvas, while looking out the open window. She said this approach works with the changeable Alberta weather, allowing her to paint quickly, on site, instead of from photos in a studio.
“I love the old buildings and the friendly people. And it’s a quiet area to paint in.”
On the odd day, she might get two paintings done, but it depends on her energy level. “People tell me, ‘What a nice, relaxing things to do,’ But I don’t find it relaxing. I find that painting takes a lot of energy. It wears me right out!”
Schnell paints instinctively in a variety of styles, from impressionistic to abstract. “I never think about how I’m going to paint something… I just do whatever comes.”
Her large work Tranquility, for instance, was accomplished with loose horizontal stripes of paint that from a distance, resemble the point where land meets sky.
Cloudburst, which shows an explosion of clouds near Hanna, is slightly less minimalist, while House at Rowley, is a more detailed depiction of an old house that was once ordered from an Eaton catalogue.
Schnell, who raised seven children, has no idea how she ever imagined she would have time to start painting. “Why did I even think of it? Why did that even enter my head?”
Yet she began looking with longing at a starter painters’ kit in the Eaton catalogue when her children were still young. “It was $9.99 and I used to wonder if there would be enough money left over … but there never was.”
When her children got older and Schnell’s family moved to Spruce View from an isolated Brooks-area camp for the Hudson Bay Oil and Gas Company (for which her husband worked), she finally began making art. Schnell credits the Spruce View “ladies painting group” for helping her get started in 1976.
“Thank god for the ladies of Spruce View! I credit them with my life!”
When her earliest depictions of spruce trees looked like upside-down ice-cream cones, a group member offered this diplomatic advice: “She said, ‘Betty, when you go home tonight, have a look at the spruce trees.’ That was all she said,” recalled Schnell with a laugh — and all that needed to be said.
These supportive women have all passed away now, and that’s a shame, said Schnell. “Wouldn’t they have loved to come to this gallery” and see her artistic progress.
Schnell, who has studied at many Series summer art programs at Red Deer College over the years, teaches plein air painting, and has exhibited across Alberta — including at Drumheller’s Ateliero Verda gallery and the Leighton Art Centre on the outskirts of Calgary.
Her paintings are in many corporate and private collections as far as Germany and Brazil.
The Tranquility exhibit runs until Oct. 29.