Skintrack Sketches: Painter Rachel Pohl talks balancing reality and the conceptual in the mountains

In the backcountry world, photographs often steal the limelight when it comes to artistic representations of winter. So, in an attempt to broaden our creative horizons, we’re speaking this fall with artists working in a wide spectrum of mediums about how they integrate their love for mountains into their art.

Rachel Pohl in her element. [Photo] Mike Schirf

First up is painter Rachel Pohl of Bozeman, Montana. The 25 year old grew up in Gallatin County and finds inspiration in her surrounding mountains both in summer and winter. We caught up with Pohl to learn more about her paintings and what motivates her to keep at her easel day in and day out. Here is what she had to say.

Bridger Gully

BCM: How did you get your start in painting?

Rachel Pohl: So I started painting when I was really little. My parents would get me art supplies. When I was around four years old, my first really creative piece was when I painted a penguin—my favorite animal—in a field of wildflowers. Every inch of the paper was colored. I was thorough.

I’ve always been into creating these fanciful landscapes, so I think that’s a cute example of young Rachel as an artist. But I started painting with acrylics in early high school when I inherited a paint set from my grandfather who passed away. They made me think of him, but I also wanted to utilize the paints and paint things that he couldn’t anymore.

I got really into bright colors because I grew up in Bozeman, Montana, and there were a lot of beautiful things around me all the time, from the vibrantly green early summers to the autumn leaves and then the winter, of course—my favorite season.

I have always been a skier and a painter, and I don’t even know if those were ever choices in my life. They just make up who I am. They might have come about because of a couple coincidental circumstances, or maybe I just knew myself from a young age.

Lone Peak Moon.

BCM: You mention how skiing and art have always been a part of your life. How would you say your love of backcountry influences your art and, conversely, how your art influences your perspective on the backcountry?

RP: I think I see things in a unique way that’s often hard to communicate to people except through my artwork. When I’m out ski touring, I don’t just have the excitement of summiting—I also want to get to the top because I know that, on the other side, there is an incredible view that’s going to inspire me to paint.

As I’m looking at the landscape, my brain—even without trying—tries to figure out how to paint a scene and how I would mix the colors. I also distill details down into brush strokes. When I’m going out in the backcountry, it is only partially about the skiing and more about the holistic experience. I have been skiing since the age of two, and skiing is awesome, but what inspires me now is that intellectual, analytical and spiritual way I can interact with my environment.

My goal with my paintings is always to inspire other people to get out and love nature. One of my mantras is, “Going outside makes us better people.” Obviously not everyone is going to go outside and see things like I do, but maybe I can show them my unique lens and encourage them to reassess what they think they know about their natural surroundings. I want to convey that being outside doesn’t have to be competitive, it doesn’t have to be about vertical feet skied or how steep things are. I want things to be meaningful on a deeper level.

American Fork Twins.

BCM: You have a cool balance of natural realism and an element that’s more conceptual. What inspires this blend?

I think what inspires that is that my paintings are a manifestation of all of the parts of me. There are parts of me that are optimistic, whimsical and spiritual. And then a part of me really loves order, being in control of time and how we spend time—being intentional. To live well, I think I have to have both. If I am too much in one world or the other, I don’t experience the true fullness of life.

The Tusk

BCM: Do the sundogs in your paintings represent anything?

RP: I started to paint those the day after my dog died a few years ago. We were skiing at Bridger Bowl, and I was super wrecked—it was my golden retriever who we had had for 13 years, and she was everyone’s best friend. So it was sad for me, and I was skiing with puffy eyes, crying all day. I was so bummed, but we kept seeing the most amazing sundogs all day, and around the sun there were four arcing rainbows.

I am not a religious person, but I am definitely spiritual, and I had the feeling that something crazy was happening and I needed to represent that. I like them because they represent the air and also something that can’t quite be described. I want them to signify something that isn’t quite real but is there if you believe in it.

Arrowhead

BCM: What inspires your colors?

RP: Color means so much to me. I use color to try and convey the way I see, but more than that, colors have archetypal significance that surpass cultures and span all of these walks of life. A bright yellow is very optimistic, whereas pale yellow can mean darker things but can also convey calm and quiet. If you have a pale yellow on snow, if it’s that end of the day, waning light, it can be sad.

On the other end of the spectrum, bright reds excite us. I did a painting once where the main color was red—which is different for me—and I chose that color because the painting was of a couloir and the conditions weren’t great that day. So it shows the danger from a precarious perch, and you can tell my vantage point is from the edge of a cliff.

Alpenglow

BCM: You do a lot of collaborations with different brands. What’s that motivated by?

RP: Paintings on a wall aren’t for everyone, and a lot of people who are inspired by my work might not even have walls to put things on. I used to have folks say, “Oh, I would totally buy that, but I live in a camper,” or a truck or whatever. So I think it’s cool to provide ways for folks to be able to bring my art with them everywhere.

I have stickers, I have facemasks, I have wallets, I have things that reflect who I am and what my community is like. I try to provide things that are less expensive. You can put a sticker on your helmet or skis or computer and bring it with you everywhere. I want to appeal to my audience and make my work more affordable. Appreciation of artwork should not be based on how much money you have.

Slushmans Spindrift

BCM: What is your process for painting these places?

RP: It varies. My favorite process is to bring a panel and my micro paints into these places and paint wherever I am. That’s the pinnacle of fun. But that’s not always possible, so I’ll bring my little watercolor kit. I don’t really go on a bike ride or hike without it. Even if I don’t always break them out, it is a rule that if I’m outside I should have my paints close by.

The most common thing I’ll do is go somewhere, be really inspired, take it to heart, figure out how it makes me feel and then return to my studio with photos and start creating based on those images. People ask me a lot if I paint from memory, and I just think, “I can’t even remember what day of the week it is, and I certainly can’t paint from memory.”

Every once in a while, I will paint a landscape where I haven’t been, and that’s mostly on commission. But my general rule is that I paint places I’ve been because I want to have an emotional relationship with a place.

Z Tree

To learn more about Rachel Pohl and her artwork, visit rachelpohlart.com.

Comments

  1. I love these paintings! So colourful and detailed, Rachel has a interesting and unique style – she’s going places for sure!

  2. WHOA!!! No words. Love these so much. Just had to add that I first saw Rachel in the National Park Adventure film — I’d just had my 5th leg surgery and it was so inspiring to see it, and her work just took my breath away. I’ve since started to recover and am getting back into hiking, and taking my sketchbook along for the adventures. Can’t wait to get up in the mountains!

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