Artist's passion for nature evident in her home, work

Clare Howard

Landscape artist Ann Coulter moved from Peoria more than a decade ago into an 1863 Italianate farmhouse deeply rooted in the Illinois prairie.

The home, its heritage and connection to the land have changed Coulter's work from observed landscapes to embodied landscapes rich with emotion and meaning. Both her work and her home have a palpable Andrew Wyeth reverence for the countryside.

"The longer we've been here, the less inclined we are to change things. We have a growing respect for the house. Things here are not polished and refined and finished. We can see bits and pieces of history," Coulter said, noting that the house is reported to have been on the underground railroad.

Stories she's heard tell of a barn south of Elmwood used to signal runaway slaves with a light in the peak of the roof. A light on meant safe passage, light off meant stay put and don't travel.

"You feel a sense of heritage here," Coulter said. "You feel a sense of place. Connection with people past. I don't need to know who they were, what their names were. We feel a sense of belonging here."

Physically, the house is an imposing, two-story structure just north of Elmwood with sweeping views in all directions. The bricks were made on site, with thick brick walls giving an enduring, timelessness to the structure. The farm was once huge. Now, Coulter and her husband Ken own 3 1/2 acres surrounding the house. A tree-lined creek runs along the road and cuts behind the property.

Windows on the front porch are nearly 10-feet tall with old, rippled glass and interior wooden shudders. Most of the original woodwork is pine because walnut was in demand for the Civil War.

Both the main floor and second floor have 10 1/2 foot ceilings, giving the home a spacious feel, in proportion to the spacious expanse of farmland stretching to the horizons in all directions beyond the property.

In the family room, added in the 1970s, Coulter has a large pastel drawing on paper of the field behind the house.

"Being here has taught me how to see," she said. "It took me a long time to see the Midwest landscape."

She grew up in Joliet and her family vacationed in iconically beautiful spots like the Rocky Mountains, Canadian Rockies, Tetons and Adirondack Mountains.

"It was somehow ingrained in me never to visually appreciate the Midwest landscape," she said. "I didn't appreciate this landscape until I left it."

After earning a bachelor's degree in painting and photography at Illinois State University, she lived in San Diego while earning a master's degree in painting and drawing at San Diego State University.

"In that urban setting, there was no change of seasons. I found my imagery drawn to the ground. I needed that connection," she said.

Referring to the Midwest terrain, she said, "The landscape here is subtle. It's got secrets. You have to be in tune with it. Train your eye. Learn the meaning. Learn what is important and real."

Coulter said the mobility of Americans fosters a lack of connection and respect for the landscape.

"There is a sense of preciousness here that we don't see when we move and flit about. We have no sense of connection and no sense of responsibility to the landscape. We can ignore a place and not contribute to it," she said. "That is troubling to me."

For the past 14 years, Coulter has taught drawing classes at Bradley University. She has a studio in the Murray Building in Peoria as well as a studio in her home.

"I struggled with this studio at home for eight years," she said, standing in the middle of a sparse room off the front foyer that has become both studio and storage. "There are too many distractions for me here."

Whenever the light is right, Coulter heads out into the countryside with her camera.

Some of the trees around her 144-year old house are nearly as old as the structure. Years ago, lightning shot out the top of a maple that now stands truncated and deformed on one side of the house.

"For me, the trees are part of the house. I don't want to cut them down and make them new, polished and perfect. I like the idea that beauty is in the roughness of life. I like to see that, not dismiss it. There is something to be learned by the cycle of life. There is a beauty and grace."

Coulter said in this culture that pushes consumerism and perfect newness, this farmhouse forces her to stop and think about the past and the timeless strength of the landscape and the community of lives once lived in this home.

"There is almost a generosity of the people who lived here (in the past)," she said.

Colors in the surrounding landscape are reflected in the home's interior.

"Black dirt, green, gold, snow, each season has its colors. There is a sense to the palette," she said.

The Italianate style is simple, sturdy and balanced. Some exterior shutters are not over actual windows but were added to create a sense of balance. The rooms were designed around the need to keep warm. Heat was originally provided by seven working fireplaces.

"The house and where the house is has allowed me to see the sky and feel the weather. Watch the clouds and changing light. All these things are undeniable here. They are in your face every day," Coulter said. "Sunset every night is new and amplified. A more personal experience, an intimate experience with the landscape."

Some people have questioned why Coulter spends so much time taking images with the camera and then drawing them. Why not just keep the photograph, people have asked her.

"The time involved in making art is part of experiencing it deeply. We go through the world, and we never see it. We only see the doorknob to open the door," she said.

"The Midwest landscape is subtle and easy to ignore. If you live in the mountains, maybe you notice them every time you look, but here we don't see the environment, we just negotiate it. We gain a lot by noticing. There is such generosity and beauty in the world around us. Noticing it can be very nurturing. What people gain from looking at this landscape is the nurturing side of nature. It helps us feel connected with life more deeply.

"I like the idea of seduction. I want you to linger longer. I want to make these images powerful enough to hold you and not allow you to just walk by . . . seeing but not seeing."

Coulter said her work is translated twice, once from landscape to photograph and then from photograph to drawing.

"My goal is to make the work feel authentic," she said. "That is not felt a lot in contemporary landscape. It is a fiction, not the real thing, but I keep it as close to the original experience as I can."

Her Italianate farmhouse echoes that respect for the real and authentic. Furniture is a combination of family pieces, antiques and Mission-style Crate and Barrel. Curtains in one bathroom are muslin hand-stenciled with a simple pattern in spring-sage green. Views from every room beckon the eye with seasonal expanses of land, crops, trees, sky and light.

The family uses the rear entrance into an old summer kitchen as the main entrance. The original dry sink is still in the room. Coulter said she feels no compulsion to upgrade, renovate, make new or fill the home with the clutter of American consumerism.

Bill Conger, curator of university galleries at Illinois State University, said Coulter's work has a narrative quality in the tradition of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Coulter's work is without pretense, Conger said.

He has shared studio space with Coulter over the years and saw a change in her work when she moved from an urban environment to the country.

"The change had to do with her immersion into the rural landscape. The move freed her, allowed her to go deeper. There is something deep inside these drawings," he said. "She is one of the few artists I know who made that deliberate leap to merge the living environment with the work."

Clare Howard can be reached at 686-3250 or choward@pjstar.com.