A friend of mine used to incessantly crack the same joke: I’d ask a question about just about anything– what’s that dirty sock doing on your kitchen table?–and he’d respond, “It’s art, you wouldn’t understand it.” It was funny because it was absurd, but it also got at something very real. Art can be pretty inaccessible and inscrutable for people who exist outside the art world. That’s why artists like Rachel Pohl, a 24-year-old painter out of Bozeman, Montana, are so exciting.
Pohl’s a lifelong mountain-dweller, a passionate and talented skier, mountain biker, climber, and active advocate for playing outside. Her work focuses on wild places–mountains, mostly, but deserts, woodlands, and night skies too–that inspire real, relatable euphoria. And while her super-saturated, psychedelic paintings are certainly a bit surreal, they’re grounded in a passion for the outdoors that anyone who has ever felt awe can understand.
Born and raised in Bozeman, Pohl started painting and drawing at a young age, and studied studio art at Montana State University. A full-time studio artist, she supports herself entirely with her creative work, which takes the form of gallery paintings, prints, t-shirts, hats, buffs, and skis adorned with her mesmerizing scenes, and even a handful of murals. She’s got a robust Instagram following and sells art on her website. We caught up with the young painter to find out more about her creative process, her sources of inspiration, and her plans for the future.
I’ve always been compelled to create artwork. When I was really young I would get computer paper and a mechanical pencil and a clipboard. Those were the sketchbooks I made myself. I would always be drawing on road trips and stuff and finally my parents were like ‘Do you want art supplies?’
When I was in early high school I had a teacher who I had a really good relationship with. Throughout high school I took all the art classes I could and she definitely influenced my decision to do art in college. I told her I was thinking about graphic design because, you know, who’s going to make it as a fine artist? And she said ‘That would be the biggest waste of your talent possible. Don’t do it, you have to be a studio artist, don’t listen to what anyone says. You’ve got this. You have the patience for it, you have the vision for it.’
It’s always been my goal to make it so that just about anyone can afford my work. I work with this brand called Blackstrap, out of Bend OR. I have facemasks on my website for skiing–or flyfishing, or hiking, or wearing as a headband–and they’re 20 bucks. I do murals, which are so fun because we’re always taught ‘Please don’t paint on the walls, don’t draw on the walls, don’t graffiti,’ so it’s really fun to get to interact with such a huge surface.
It’s awesome to paint the places that we all love because I enjoy painting so much but I want it to be more than just that. I don’t want it to just be me like, ‘Oh look how cool I am. I created this really conceptual thing and you might not understand it, you probably won’t, but I understand and therefore I’m better than you.’ That’s not what I want to do at all. I want my work to be accessible, to make people feel happy and make them excited about their lives. That’s always my goal, to make people feel empowered.
I’ve always loved color, I’ve always been really in tune with color and with observing details of the natural world. I’ve also always been really sentimental towards my experiences and so I have this really powerful draw to record my happiest moments. Because I really think that looking at something beautiful can make our day better. So if we’re living in maybe not the most beautiful place and we have this artwork on our wall that reminds us of those places I think that can actually enhance our lives.
I have a few separate processes. If I need to create a specific piece of something, I sketch something in my sketchbook. I typically honestly sketch in pen and just do something really quick. They’re not beautiful, they’re just me getting my compositional ideas down. Then I look at photos; my own photos, and I often Google something like “sunset,” “mountain sunset” if I’m trying to apply colors to a landscape that I saw in a slightly different light. So I use a bunch of different images. Then I sketch in pencil on my panel. I use ampersand panels, which are clayboard. I used to paint on canvas but my work is so detailed that canvas actually disrupts that detail, so I paint on a completely smooth surface. My goal is always to cover the entire panel first, just to get color down. I fine-tune the painting as I go. I usually paint five or six layers, sometimes more.
When I have to paint something in a particular amount of time, my process is similar but a lot more free. I enjoy it a lot more when I can actually go out and paint, or paint as soon as I come back from an excursion. My favorite thing is to be able to bring a panel, hike it into a location, and then just sit down, sketch really quick on the panel, and just go for it. I love the immediacy. I often create way better work that way because I’m just responding to what I see, and if I don’t understand a certain detail I can just set down my work and walk over and take a closer look, which is so cool. I really love being able to interact with the environment instead of just a photo.
I’ve always loved being outside because it makes me feel empowered and it helps me deal with anything in my daily life that’s frustrating. I think we should all really value the power of exercise to heal us and especially exercising in the outdoors. Endorphins are the best drug ever. I’m an ambassador for various brands, and I’ve dabbled in the idea of being a professional athlete, but I’m more interested in being a professional artist because I think that is the way I can make the world a better place. That being said, I love the sports I do. Skiing has always been my favorite, specifically backcountry skiing.
One of my favorite artists is Chili Tom. It’s funny because in high school I started developing my current style, and I had never seen his work. I stumbled across it actually at roger’s pass in the ranger station, and I was like ‘What is this?! Who is this person?” Ever since then, that was probably 4-ish years ago, I’ve been following his work. If you look it up you can definitely see similarities with my own. He’s less concerned with realistic form I would say. The forms are more organic and flowy and the trees are very bubbly but they have their own realism. I would say my work is more focused on having realistic forms but oversaturated colors. Another artist is Jeremy Collins. He does line drawings and watercolor washes and does a lot of graphic, computer-enhanced stuff. I really love his work.
I just try to paint happy. With optimism and with joy, with this ecstatic feeling that what you’re seeing in this painting and what I saw when I viewed it was a feeling, more than just a verisimilitude. I really think it’s awesome that people can paint hyper-realistic things, but for me that just doesn’t resonate quite the same as having the interpretation of the artist imbued in the work. I love picking out colors that you can just barely see in the shadows. The piece that I created for the Visit Montana video, I remember as I was watching the sunrise I looked and I was like ‘The shadows are kind of turquoise! They’re just barely turquoise, but they are.’ So I took that back to my studio and made the shadows turquoise. That deep sense of respect and observation along with optimism is the climate within which I create my work.