“There’s an old adage,” smiles celebrated Montana impressionist, Thomas English. “It says it takes two people to paint a painting: One to do the painting and one to say stop.” Shirle Wempner, another acclaimed Montana impressionist, laughs and talks about her process and how she knows when she’s done. “As I paint, the idea of where I want it to go evolves, which is fun for me. When I get to that point where I think I am done, I will have Tom come in to take a look. He’s so good with anatomy and can bring me back down to center with simple adjustments.” It’s Thomas’ turn to laugh. “I’ll say, ‘if you just put one adjustment there, Shirle, just one.’ Three hours later I come back to find she’s repainted the whole thing.” Quietly and confidently they both affirm that there will always be adjustments, but there is a level of maturity that comes with painting over a long period of time to know when to stop.
The drive to their home and studios is quintessentially Montana: a pass through a small hometown off the interstate with shops, galleries, rodeo grounds, and a well-known bakery, then a quick bridge over the Yellowstone, one right turn, and finally a slow drive headed to where the pavement gives way to gravel and the views seem to go on forever. At the end of the drive, along a narrow driveway that opens up to the creek beyond, is a welcoming home that offers friendly smiles, humor, encouragement, quiet inspiration, plenty of wildlife, and one English Bulldog named after famed California Impressionist, Edgar Payne. On a sunny afternoon, in the midst of each preparing for upcoming shows, Thomas and Shirle open up their home and share their thoughts on hard work and service, supporting each other and other artists, and their involvement with Warriors & Quiet Waters.
WQW: Both of you have been described as great supporters of other artists, “walking the walk,” so to speak, of the artist’s spirit. And your home is filled with not only your work but also many pieces from fellow artists. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Thomas: We collect from people we want to encourage. We have pieces from young friends who are getting started and pieces we bought online from artists who I enjoy looking at their work. We have a piece from a young man who is in the Montana Painters Alliance [which Thomas is a founding member].
WQW: What was it that drew you to each other’s art?
Shirle: As an impressionist artist, I like the suggestive. I do appreciate landscape art, but up until meeting Tom and really looking at his work, most of the work was too detailed to me. I saw his work and really enjoyed it. One of the first landscape paintings I bought was one of his. I had mentors, not in the strict sense, but Jack Hines and Jessica Zemsky, they encouraged me and helped me with what I wanted to do. And Tom became one of my mentors as well. Before we began dating, I took some workshops from him and he is a tremendous teacher.
WQW: So how would you describe the artist’s spirit or an artistic outlook on life?
Shirle: There are so many ways to take this question, but one thing that comes to mind is when I began plein air painting – and Tom introduced me to that – I see things very differently now. Whenever we go anywhere, it’s a comment or thought on whether something I see would make a great painting. I grew up on a ranch and so I grew up outside with a relationship with the land. However, when I started to look at it as a painting, it developed into a different and deeper relationship with the land. That’s hugely important to me.
Thomas: An anecdote from Winslow Homer, sums it up for me. He was asked to go on a trip and wondered if there was anything there to paint. The person said no, to which Homer replied, “Well, then why would I want to go?” Everything to me is a painting. It’s all fodder for the canvas.
WQW: It sounds like a dedication to your skill and talent? Can you tell us about a typical day?
Thomas: I was a single father raising my kids – getting them up, feeding them, getting them off to school. Once they were at school, I would go to the studio and work all day. Then they would come home and it was time to start the evening routine. I was extremely dedicated – to them and to my schedule. I think self-discipline is the word I am looking for because really painting is a discipline. If you go out and get in front of your easel and decide you’re going to do something – even if you don’t feel like it – you pick up the brush and go to work. Although (smiling) with my chronological years and the wisdom I’ve acquired, I make my way down to the studio a bit slower and not as often as I would have once done. But I’m never in a hurry.
Shirle: You pick it up when you enjoy it and approach it without thinking of it as work so much as joy. That is reflected in your work. For me, I think you do have to have the discipline but also, what has happened to me, if I don’t think I’m feeling it, but I get out there and start painting, I believe it will come. However, if it doesn’t and I try to keep going, I become frustrated and question myself. That is when I know I need to step away.
Thomas: But you still go to the studio and work.
Shirle: Yes, especially when I am in a zone.
WQW: Speaking of zone, do you think there are similarities between an artist and an angler or painting and fly-fishing?
Thomas: For me, the connection is the environment, the place, the setting, and the peacefulness. Rivers and streams have multiple personalities and I like to paint those peaceful settings. I love being there and I love that circumstance and connection to those peaceful places.
Shirle: Because of the different things we paint, I don’t necessarily have that kind of connection, but I do know that when I am sitting at the creek there is a certain zone I get in. I can imagine that when you’re fly fishing it’s this rhythm and kind of meditation. When I am in the zone painting something and trying to create, I start to bring in colors to create a mood… it’s that meditation or kind of dance with the painting itself. It’s a completely different activity, fishing and painting, but it’s the engagement of what we’re all doing that I imagine to be the same.
WQW: How did you hear about Warriors & Quiet Waters?
Thomas: This is the interesting part of the story and I’m glad we made it here. I have a veteran’s counselor who had mentioned this program to me, Warriors & Quiet Waters. She felt that I was eligible to be involved in some way, but I don’t do many things like that. I am kind of reticent as far as my veteran exposure. It’s just who I am. Vietnam Veterans have a unique place in history. What we came home to made it really difficult to talk. It didn’t take a whole lot of not being accepted to make you want to find your spot and stay there.
WQW: What made you decide to help out with the Warrior Taste Fest?
Thomas: We had not heard of the auction and fundraiser until just recently when we were asked if we would participate. It is a no-brainer and we are more than happy to do it. It is a tremendous opportunity to help make a difference.
This blog was written by Marianne Gilman, a WQW Volunteer. Thomas English and Shirle Wempner are 2021 artist participants for Warrior Taste Fest's quick-finish live auction pieces. Buy your tickets to Warrior Taste Fest now (while they last) and have the opportunity to bid on their finished pieces to take home.