Beauty of the Flint Hills by Newton Artist Observed at Arrowhead Stadium
Sharon Hunt Munson, daughter of the Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, is the director and developer of a new art program at Arrowhead Stadium. On July 1, 2012, Sharon Hunt Munson’s staff sent letters to art gallery owners in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Arkansas in search of artists for Arrowhead Stadium’s new art collection. Out of 270 artists’ submissions, the Hunt family originally accepted 11. Only two artists were asked to submit more than one art piece. The Hunt family asked Phil Epp for three. “I was concerned if I would be selected,” says Epp. The three painted panels Epp submitted to the Kansas City Chiefs represented a mid-day prairie shower of layered blue and gray acrylics. For the commissioned painting his medium was acrylic on board. A movement of clouds and wind roll across the canvases, depicting a perfect contrast between rural and urban weather. Epp brings a still time lapse of the prairie into an urban environment with his painting. Other paintings will be viewed by many people and hopefully the viewers will be inspired said Epp during a filming of the Chiefs Kingdom documentary in 2013. Epp went through many phases of his art career before having his work selected for Arrowhead Stadiums new art collection.
Phil Epp was born Aug. 28th, 1946 in Henderson, Nebraska, to Isaac and Rose Epp. The Epps lived in a Dutch-German Mennonite farming community. Pacifism is one of the foundational elements of the Mennonite faith. They believe that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means. They also embrace communities outside the church and believe that all communities should live in harmony with one another. Peace, tranquility, and open spaces are amalgams found in Epp's landscape paintings. Epp captures the Mennonite community by painting peaceful, vast open spaces.
Jodain Massad is the director of production for the Kansas City Chiefs and was in charge of managing and directing film footage of Epps’ art commission for the Chiefs Kingdom documentary. The Chiefs were looking for regional artists and wanted people that focused on regional landscapes and cultural significance. Epps’ work was some of the most visually appealing, says Massad. Epp wanted to introduce a place through his painting that people had not seen before. Many of Epp’s paintings, including the three panels that hang at Arrowhead Stadium, are of the Great Plains, specifically the Kansas Flint Hills. His style stems from a love for the Great Plains, where he was born and has spent most of his life. He also draws inspiration from the Flint Hills. Epp wants to show these Western vistas in a different manner by focusing on weather themes, not just bulls and spurs. The Kansas City Chiefs art committee did not want exact football images. They wanted artwork that revealed the natural beauty of the Midwestern region. The Great Plains, rivers, mountains, Ozark hills and trees, prairies, and open skies. Many hired artists chose to incorporate the Chiefs colors, red, gold and white, into their commissioned art pieces but Epp did not. He used gray and blue.
The project was about the Chiefs spirit and Midwestern roots. “The Kansas City Chiefs have 80,000 fans,” says Jodain Massad, “and I wanted to know how the artists were interpreting the opportunity.
Epp took the opportunity with the Chiefs seriously. Six feet tall and 39 feet wide, the project was the largest painting project he had been commissioned for. Epp believes that a sports stadium is an unusual but effective place to see his work displayed. “It is cool to see the expanse of space in the stadium since my paintings sort of deal with space, it’s a visual inspiration,” Epp said in a 2013 interview with KCPT. Many of the selected artists had a history that tied them to the Chiefs whether they had parents who brought them to the game or rode horses on the property before the stadium was built or, in Epp’s case, just a Kansas City Chiefs football fan.
Mr. Epp created something he loved and artwork that was open for interpretation by the public. “I feel I can step into them and become part of it,” says Epp during the filming of the Chiefs Kingdom documentary in 2013. When the Hunt family and the Kansas City Chiefs issued a call for artists to initiate the Kansas City Chiefs Art Program, they said it was to celebrate the Chiefs 50th year in Kansas City.
“We are really endeavoring to build a very fine art collection here that is completely regional in character,” says Sharon Hunt. Viewers that watch the Chiefs Kingdom documentary, directed and produced by Jodain Massad, will see Epp sitting in his art studio, working on the three paneled triptych painting, as the credits roll up the screen. Massad wanted the image of Epp to be the last image that resonated with the viewer. In upcoming years, the Hunt family plans to continue growing their art collection. Arrowhead Stadium has miles of open space and empty walls for future art to hang.
“Painting and being an artist is a long way from where my family was as farmers,” says Epp. “My responsibility is to carry on some of the values I learned. In a sense, the open spaces of the Midwest and the plains are in my roots.” Epp has two or three favorite paintings he created. One shows a boxcar at night and the other one portrays a tent. Both are single, solitary objects sitting in the center of a vast, open space. Epp believes a tent is a perfect subject for a painting because it always anticipates an event. The viewer can decide for himself or herself what the event is. And it covers you from the elements to serve a practical purpose. The boxcar symbolizes the train that went through his family’s pasture and the train tracks. His parents would talk about the bums that rode the train and how they would stop and ask for food. Epp stated, “I remember those tracks.” The tracks led to exciting places. Boxcars were often for housing like early mobile homes. Having all these functions, they are symbolic of an entity surrounded by unfamiliarity. It is an empty tent and it did everything that I wanted a painting to do, he says. Epp thinks a good painting allows the viewer some integrity, where it doesn’t tell them what to see. Everything is open for interpretation.
Epp, whose primary medium is acrylic on board, understands the chemical and intrinsic elements of the paint and how to apply it for an aesthetically pleasing effect. Acrylics are as easily movable, similar to watercolor. They are less toxic than oils, dry quickly, and clean up easily. Acrylics can be used on almost any painting surface making them perfect for artists that love to layer. Using acrylics, an artist must work quickly because of how fast the paint dries. Many times, Epp takes his art through different phases with the multiple layers. From beginning to end, his canvases are transformed. Many landscape painters opt to use oils instead of acrylics because they prefer to take their time working on a painting considering the oil doesn’t dry quickly. Oil paintings can take up to two weeks to dry after the application is complete. Acrylic solvents are water based and oil solvents are from turpentine. Epp prefers acrylics so he can layer his paint and finish the painting with speed and accuracy. He enjoys creating new realities within his paintings.
It is fun to step into a new reality that you kind of create says Epp. His paintings mirror a celebration of open sky and landscape, with a suggestion of human activity. His goal is to unite the viewer in the remoteness, but not command response. Epp integrates universal symbols into his landscape paintings. His triptych work for the chiefs is a perfect representation of a universally relatable art piece. An audience, from any demographic, can look at the paintings and interpret what they want. “I do not title paintings because I feel like that tells the reader what to see and I do not want to tell the reader what to see,” he says. “In a way, that is what I was trying to do with the Chiefs piece. I left it open for interpretation.”
Epp loves getting lost in vastness of the Flint Hills near Cassoday, Kansas. The Kansas Flint Hills, named for the flint rock that envelopes the slopes, have blends of prairie grass including bluestem, goose grass, and foxtail. Wildflowers such as collision, hollyhock, and dayflowers sit in rows along the dirt paths. Wild mustangs roam the prairie with redtail foxes trailing the horses’ hooves. Buffalo wander in tranquil herds. He says, “when I get in a hurry to head home, I remind myself that I’d rather be out here instead, so I stay a little longer.”
Epps' art studio is located on his property in Newton, Kansas, home to he and his wife Karen. From the art studio, one can see a handcrafted wooden fence corralling two elegant quarter horses named Watson and Ruby. One thousand pounds each, Watson and Ruby are subjects for many of the Epp paintings. “I have always owned horses,” he says, “my father raised them on our farm in Nebraska and I helped out.” A white cowboy hat and horse harness hang from a wall hook near Epp’s plastic covered art easel. Old drawings of rodeos, mustangs, and farm life rest on shelves above his work area. Epp finds a certain sense of peace and tranquility with horses.
Sometimes Epp travels for inspiration. In September 2009, Epp was selected as a U.S. cultural ambassador to Kazakhstan with the Department of States Art in Embassies program. He spent 10 days traveling through the Kazakhstan countryside capturing photos of the horse farming culture and Western vistas for inspiration. Epp knew six months in advance that he would be traveling to Kazakhstan. “I was at a place in my art career where I needed to be knocked off center,” Epp shares.
The Kazakhstani culture was familiar to Epp. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country by land area and the ninth largest country in the world. The terrain of Kazakhstan consists of flatlands, steppe, taiga, rock canyons, hills, deltas, snow-capped mountains, and deserts, perfect for what Epp loves to capture in a painting, and with 17 million people, Kazakhstan has the 62nd largest population in the world. However, because of the massive land space, there is much rural countryside to see. The mix of landscapes and terrains in Kazakhstan is due to the country being situated in the innermost part of the Eurasian continent. The country has plenty bright lilies covering the green rolling hills and full white clouds fill the brilliant blue skies.
In recent years, Epp has made a change. The trip to Kazakhstan changed his perspective. He found an authenticity in Kazakhstan. “There was no superficial sophistication,” he says. Coming back, he was inspired to do fewer paintings and create more interesting paintings for his own enjoyment. “What you saw was real,” he says. “Back here, it is a little harder to sort that out.” Epp was not as excited about theme-art after his trip to Kazakhstan. “I am not as enamored with the American art scene as I used to be,” he says. Epp believes that his trip to Kazakhstan helped his success, including attaining the Chiefs art commission.
“You don't want a painting hanging up you are not pleased with,” he says. Epp completes his paintings and sells them with no regrets. His triptych painting for the Chiefs was no exception. “I would not do anything different for that, as I thought cloud formations were enough,” he says. Cloud formations and prairie showers are not the only symbols Epp uses but these weather representations certainly attract the buyers. Epp does not desire to please the art world as much as he did in his early career. He knows what the consumer wants and produces art that will sell. Weather is relatable to art collectors on every level but also to Epp himself.
Epp achieves the result he wants through tedious hours in the art studio. The end result of a painting, hanging on a gallery wall or in a sports stadium, has gone through many stages. What a public audience sees is the last stage of a painting. Epp enjoys the many layers of his work. He is a man of different layers too. No one would guess that such a distinguished and polished artist started his life with Mennonite farmers in rural Nebraska. The Chiefs project is an example of how a once small town farm-boy can share his talent with thousands of people. Every Sunday, as fans walk down the massive corridors at Arrowhead club, Phil Epp paintings of the mid-day prairie shower and billowing white clouds can be admired. “You have to readjust to different stages of life,” he says, “and I am at a place where I feel I have all the information I need to precede.”