A Surreal Spin on An Abundant Sparrow

In "Spotted Towhee" artist Phyllis Shafer depicts a widespread bird of the West in a rapidly changing landscape.
A whimsical, surreal oil painting of a towhee perched on a branch in a snowy, mountainous landscape with a bright blue sky filled with swirling clouds.
Painting: Phyllis Shafer

As a young art student, Phyllis Shafer had been told that painting outdoors, or en plein air, wasn’t for real artists; only hobbyists set up an easel pondside on a Sunday afternoon. So she stayed inside for years, first in New York City and then in California’s Bay Area, conjuring fantasy landscapes—until a show by a group of plein air artists inspired her to begin capturing real habitats outside. She’d then return to the studio to add her characteristic whimsy. “I’d just rather start my paintings from life than from a photograph,” Shafer says. It’s how she cultivates her passion for ecosystems and wildlife: “Loving and engaging in nature is the first step toward stewardship."

It proved trickier to capture the fine details of flitting birds. Some of Shafer’s earliest avian paintings were of Tree Swallows. The birds swooped around a cottonwood she captured in person, but she didn’t try to incorporate the birds while outside. At home she looked up pictures of the acrobatic birds with iridescent blue feathers and inserted them into the piece after the fact—and larger than life. The approach worked, but it wasn’t ideal.

After she moved to Lake Tahoe, Shafer made a discovery that opened new possibilities: She found a treasure trove of taxidermic native birds at the Galena Creek Visitor Center, in a park on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Having her subject in hand allowed her to study it far more carefully than she ever could in the field or by looking at a photo. “A taxidermied bird has the dimension; it has all the detail, and really rich coloration,” she says.

For her oil-on-canvas portrait of the Spotted Towhee, Shafer first painted the large sparrow, common on the Sierra’s slopes, working from a specimen at the visitor center. The realism of the bird is thrown into sharp contrast by the fish-eye lens perspective and the exaggerated clouds bubbling and bobbing in the background. “If there’s a spectrum with total realism at one end and total abstraction at the other, I’m looking for the sweet spot between the two,” she says. “If my paintings get too realistic, I’m like, ‘There’s a million artists who have done this, and I don’t want to be part of that.’” 

When heavy snow last winter disrupted her plan to return to the visitor center to complete the piece, Shafer worked instead from earlier photos she’d taken to faithfully reproduce the iconic ridgeline in the background. With Sierra snowpack predicted to decrease by as much as 45 percent by mid-century due to climate change, Shafer’s painting may soon become a record of the way things were.