Midwesterner Susan P. Puelz has spent her entire career painting her local landscape. An adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska, Puelz has shown her work at several museums, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Here, she explains why the prairies of Nebraska and the Midwest are unlike anyplace else in the country, and how to appreciate the beauty of the Great Plains.
“My paintings have tons of layers in them. I’ll do a layer of watercolor, then a layer of pastel, then a layer of watercolor, and so on. And of course the watercolor is flowing, so what happens when you put the watercolor down is that it melts the pastel to create another dimension. I stand to paint—I never sit down—and spread my work over two five-foot tables, so I’ve got a lot to work on. It’s a physical process and an intuitive one. Whenever I start painting, I never know how it’s going to end. These paintings are subconscious. People see in my paintings what they want to see. No one can identify where they are, really. I could do a picture of Colorado, and people may think it’s someplace else.
Prairie Phonics came from a series of paintings that involved barns. I got into the mood to paint barns, so I did a lot of them. In Nebraska, barns often create the space between ground and sky. I’ve never looked at the sky to paint it—the inspiration comes as I’m working—but the barn shape was something that I knew. This is what it looked like coming in from the interstate in Lincoln, Nebraska. There’s the state capitol and some of the tall buildings in the background. You get the old and new, the country and the city.
I haven’t traveled much, but sometime in the late 1970s my family and I traveled to California. We took a trip from San Diego to Sacramento. I kept thinking, ‘My god, they talk about Nebraska being so ugly but this is ugly.’ And the opposite, when we drove back to Nebraska, we passed through Colorado and it’s barren. Really, the skies in Nebraska are gorgeous. The fields—especially a year like this—are beautiful. Right now, the alfalfa fields turn a bright red because the plants have purple flowers that can look gold or red depending on the sky. There’s a lot to be inspired by.”