Northern Michigan artist Kaye Krapohl taps into the potency of North and channels it into powerful and provocative landscape paintings. You can see examples of Krapohl’s mural work on permanent display in Traverse City—at the Bijou by the Bay and the City Opera House. She begins with a canvas painted red and ends with brooding, evocative, and beautiful images of our realm.
Studio Photos by Todd Zawistowski & Art Photos by David Speckman
Kaye Krapohl and I first meet at her downtown Traverse City home in late July. I’m armed with my laptop and a list of questions, ready to conduct a pointed interview. “Where did you grow up?” I ask, wanting to start simple—but the answer she gives is anything but. Krapohl rattles off Ann Arbor, Nebraska, Uruguay, Wisconsin and then back to Michigan—Jackson and finally Napoleon—and starts connecting the dots and throwing in tangents along the way. After hearing a few of these tales, I quickly abandon questions 2 through 30, realizing that I’ll hear a better story if I just let Krapohl talk. Two hours later, I had a story and then some.
“I was not a normal kid,” says Krapohl as she talks about her early love of art. “In third grade, we didn’t have an art class so I convinced Mrs. Lathrop to let me teach one.” And in high school, Krapohl’s favorite place to hang out was the teachers lounge. Napoleon High School did offer art, but Krapohl opted to take weekend classes instead. “I have a twin sister and three older siblings,” says Krapohl. “Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but my parents still managed to pay for my art classes.”
By the time she finished 10th grade, Krapohl had enrolled in art courses at University of Michigan in an effort to learn more. When she graduated from high school in 1982, Krapohl had won many awards for her work, including a National Scholastic Award for Achievement in Art, a Hallmark National Goal Medal and first place in Seventeen Magazine’s Art Contest. “And yet I got a C in watercolor at U of M,” Krapohl laughs. “Go figure.”
Krapohl leaves the table to get a drink, and I sneak a peek inside her studio, a sunroom of sorts off the front of her house. A drop cloth is permanently taped to the floor, and the counters are stacked with sketches, numerous tubes of paint and a dried up painter’s palette. Three easels are arranged in the middle of the room, propping up paintings in various stages of progress. All three landscapes share similar components: A mix of water, sky and clouds. But these aren’t your typical beachside settings with bright skies and warm sunny shores. Krapohl’s interpretations are dramatic, powerful and complicated. She starts to explain.
“I don’t think of my paintings as decorative,” says Krapohl. “They’re dark, moody, bold and in your face.” She goes on to say that she studied printmaking at U of M and that those courses really instilled a strong awareness of composition, mood, light and space for her. “My work touches people at a real primal level,” Krapohl says. “They buy one of my paintings because they connect with the mood and environment I’ve created. They see, smell and taste the crispness of winter, the heat of summer, the wetness of spring and the muskiness of fall.”
Something else happened to Krapohl in college that also made a big impact on her artistic pursuits. “I discovered sports at U of M—and that I was pretty good at them,” says Krapohl. “I started swimming and biking and joined the Triathlon Club. We won the Triathlon Federation National Intercollegiate Championship for women in 1986.” Eventually, the artist became a category-two bike racer and a Michigan cycle-cross champion in the late ’80s. “I always felt like sports saved my life,” Krapohl says. “It takes a lot for me to get into Lycra, and sports really brought me out of my shell.” But it was biking in particular, and that connection with nature, that really influenced her art. “When I’m biking, I’m like a dog with my head out the window. There is nothing separating me from nature,” says Krapohl. “Biking galvanizes me. It fills me up. Biking fills my senses to the brim, and then I let that experience out on the canvas.”
In 1986, after graduating from U of M with her BFA, the now avid cycler headed to Europe with no particular agenda, except to see—and sketch—the world. “I missed my graduation ceremony and instead flew to Europe that day,” Krapohl says. “I just landed in Heathrow, put my bike together and took off riding from there.” She tells stories of sleeping in fields, losing belongings and etching drawings on pieces of roofing copper as she cycled through England, Ireland and France.
When she returned to the states, she continued to compete in bike races throughout the Midwest until her future husband landed a job in Traverse City, and she followed him to Northern Michigan. “When I moved up here in 1990, it was easy to fall in with a bunch of cyclers who transitioned to cross-country skiing in the winter,” Krapohl says. “The two sports are very complementary in terms of muscle movement.” And skiing also re-created that same “one with nature” experience the artist feels when she’s on a bike. For Krapohl, it became another outlet for her artistic energy. “Both of these activities are such a great way to connect to nature in a primitive way,” says Krapohl. “You just move through the atmosphere a lot faster. It’s a visceral experience.”
Still seated at her dining room table, I ask her one final question for the night, about her jaunts through nature and how she re-creates those larger-than-life landscapes when she returns home. She reminds me of those etchings she made while traveling in Europe and then points out all of the small paintings and sketches scattered throughout her studio. “I call these my little gems,” Krapohl discloses. But they’re really beautiful snapshots of a moment in time. “I sketch or paint these smaller ones on the spot, and then use them as inspiration to create larger pieces later.”
A few weeks pass before Krapohl and I can connect again. We’re back at her house. Tonight, I’ll watch her work on one of those larger landscapes she’s known for—a massive 48-by-60-inch canvas creation. “I’m limited in the size of painting I can do,” laughs Krapohl. “I can’t fit anything bigger than this in my car.” In fact, this canvas won’t even fit on the floor of her studio, so she opts to work in the living room and brings in a recycled yogurt tub filled with a combination of water and red paint.
Krapohl explains that she starts all of her paintings with an acrylic red base. “Red is the color of blood, life,” she says. “I never paint with black. It’s the absence of color.” But she does work with many different types of paint—acrylic, oil and watercolor—depending on where she’s painting and what she’s painting on. For this piece, she works the red around the canvas in a circular pattern, stopping every once in a while to position her box fan on the fresh paint. “When I do a composition, I go around in a circle,” explains the artist. “I never want to ‘leave’ the space. I want to make sure it all connects.”
As she brushes the canvas, I take in her painting attire—a piece of artwork in and of itself. “I’ve had this apron and my ‘painting’ pants since college,” says Krapohl. “But I’ve had to patch the jeans a few times.” This being a serious understatement, as they are more patches than pants at this point.
While she works, both skiing and cycling creep back into the conversation and she explains that for many years she devoted a lot of time to these particular sports. “My husband and I didn’t have kids and always considered the community to be our family,” Krapohl says. “So I spent a lot of time trying to get more women out there, participating in sports.” In the ’90s and early 2000s, people knew Krapohl as the president of TART and Vasa, a White Pine Stampede winner (multiple times) and a Vasa champion (twice), and the founder of the Women’s Winter Tour—a one-day charitable event that celebrates women, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and chocolate. “I wanted to break barriers and get women out skiing,” Krapohl says. “I wanted to show them how empowering sports could be, no matter your shape or size.”
Today, the now-single artist still organizes the Women’s Winter Tour—in its 18th year. “For a long time, I was known around town as the ‘ski lady,’ ” Krapohl says. “But now I’m taking deliberate steps to be what I’ve always been, an artist.” Over the years, she’s had a variety of other jobs, including stints as an art director at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and a graphic designer at Munson Medical Center.
“I always painted and had shows occasionally, but wasn’t fully focused on my art, until now.” In recent years, she’s created countless landscapes, but her beautiful still-lifes, portraits and murals are often included in her collections.
Recently, Krapohl finished a joint project with Northern Michigan’s renowned landscape photographer, Ken Scott. “Our book, Leelanau: One Shoreline, Two Visions, is being published in May,” says Krapohl. “We spent a year trekking around the Leelanau Peninsula—from Elmwood to Empire—capturing the diversity of the shoreline through photos and paintings. This was an ambitious endeavor that had us sometimes climbing over ice and hiking in some treacherous spots.”
On August 2, 2015, the two peers found themselves in the middle of that powerful and perfect—and instantly legendary—storm that came in across Lake Michigan. “We were on the hunt for some interesting clouds,” Krapohl says. “Because nothing is worse than painting total sunshine.” The duo went to Otter Creek and watched the clouds and the sky grow darker and darker. “We quickly realized that we should get out of there and started to pack up,” says Krapohl. “And then I literally got blown over. I remember thinking, I’ll never ask for interesting clouds again.”
By now, Krapohl has moved her very large canvas to an easel in her studio and is working on re-creating the horizon. “The hardest part is getting the horizon line straight,” she explains as she throws up a ruler and draws a faint pencil line across the canvas. Then she switches to oil paints and begins the long, arduous process with her brush, working in greens, blues and whites. “I’m always tempted to just use a big-ass roller,” she admits. But seeing how deliberately she places color on the canvas, I can’t imagine she’ll ever succumb to that shortcut. She tells me that this particular painting, a representation of the shoreline near Leelanau State Park, will take quite a bit of time to complete. “I’ll get lost in this painting for a couple of days,” she adds. “When I’m done, a part of me will be left on the canvas.”
It’s now fall and Krapohl and I arrange to meet one last time, on a brisk day in early October. We converge at her house again, but this time just long enough for her to gather her supplies, and then we head down to West End Beach. She bikes from her house—her usual routine when she’s going on a painting pilgrimage—and I follow her in my car. “Zipping down here last minute on my bike is part of the fun,” says Krapohl as I park. “I see clouds I like, pack up my paint set and just go.”
We find semi-flat rocks to perch on, and as she’s assembling her palette, I realize that in terms of interviews, this is as informal as it gets. Krapohl’s palette is really a small china plate that she ‘borrowed’ from the U of M cafeteria decades ago. “This plate should have its own passport,” she jokes. “It’s literally gone everywhere with me.”
The artist and I chat as she clamps a small 5-by-7-inch piece of wood to her clipboard and begins mixing paint. It’s 56 degrees on this gray, cloudy day, and the water is a dark, cold green. Krapohl takes a final look at the horizon and then begins dabbing the board with her brush. As she drags the brush across the wood, some of the paint picks back up. “I should have roughed up this board beforehand so the paint had something to grab onto,” she laments. “It would lay down better and stay.” She improvises and uses her fingernail to spread the paint, really bringing out the pattern of the wood.
“Everything I do … art, biking, skiing … reinforces my ties with nature,” says Krapohl as she returns to her palette. “It all overlaps. And my hope is that my paintings remind people of being outdoors and re-create positive memories they had with nature.”
Thirty minutes later, my typing slows as my cold fingers become less nimble. But not Krapohl’s. Layer upon layer, she has masterfully transformed that small piece of wood into the landscape I see before me. I can almost feel the chill of the day coming off her creation. Her waves are cold and compelling, her sky is an ominous blue with patches of light, and her clouds are nothing short of captivating. Krapohl names the piece “Brrr,” signs it, and hands it to me. “This little gem is yours,” she says with a smile. I’m surprised, thankful.
Days later, I’m driving and I’m thinking about Krapohl. I impulsively look up at the sky. It is a sunny day—a strike in Krapohl’s book—but the clouds are amazing. They’re low in the sky, strikingly defined and cast in a multitude of shapes and shades. It’s a sky designed for Kaye Krapohl, for sure, and I can’t help but wonder if she spotted the clouds, too, packed up her supplies and biked down to the beach. I’m willing to bet she did.
Anita K. Henry, a former editor at Modern Bride, is now a senior writer for Munson Healthcare in Traverse City.
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