She just moved here from Los Angeles, but don’t be fooled by her former area code: Artist Rachel Stiff is an artist born and raised in wide-open spaces. She grew up in Grass Range, Montana, where “there were more cows than people.” Her undergraduate and master’s degrees are from Universities of Montana and Arizona, respectively. Hers was a 10-month sojourn in L.A. before the call of open spaces beckoned once more.
“The earlier the cooler,” we agreed, settling on a 9 a.m. visit to her studio garage space located at her home near Red Rock Canyon. The floor was tiled wall to wall with paint-smirched cardboard, and a large pile of paint tubes massed in the center. The mild-ish, heated-pool warmth of a Vegas summer morning filled the space as we chatted on a paisley couch facing a trio of Stiff’s paintings.
How are you holding up in the heat?
I have no AC. The heat in the studio is definitely a factor right now. It slows down progress some, but mostly I just push through. I still drink hot tea instead of cold drinks. I sort of like the mild suffering, but it can get a bit draining.
What brought you to Las Vegas in the first place?
I sort of missed open space, and [my romantic partner] was here. Vegas seems like it’s a good place to work and a good place to get outside.
You enjoy rock climbing. And your painting “Long Distance” reminds me of nature, with its hazy pink and neon orange mist sliding past jutting gray angular shapes. Do outdoor activities get into your paintings?
For sure. The sort of problem solving that you have to do in rock climbing, I just take it into all aspects of life. Like, “How am I going to get out of this one? I don’t want to fall. I’m scared.” I have to work through being scared; it’s just like life.
As a newcomer, what are your impressions of the Las Vegas art scene?
Las Vegas is not to be overlooked for having a good art scene. What I have discovered in the short months of living here is that there are many dedicated artists with good support from quality galleries. When I first got here, Mark Brandvik was having his show [Volume Control] at Vast, and it was really cool for me. Before moving, I attended some UNLV MFA shows as well. What I found there represented a very solid art department. It just shows that Las Vegas art is strong and is building momentum.
Do any of the paintings you’ve done since moving to Las Vegas show your shift from L.A. to Nevada?
The one Shannon [McMackin] has at Vast is the first painting that I made here. But also, this one is the follow-up to that. [She points to a painting hanging across from us containing a brooding blue and brown sky with bits of pale yellow cloud hanging over ranges of red and purple. It brings to mind recent Nevada summer storms.]
What feature of the Nevada landscape has stood out most to you?
It’s been a lot about what the sky is doing for me here. It’s so huge! Also, just the way the city sprawls and how you can travel across the landscape so quickly. In L.A., you were always stopped; there was always some complication. Here, it’s just space and speed and sky. So that’s really coming into the paintings. It’s like velocity. Wooosh! But also how many different manipulations of the landscapes there are between here and Henderson. Green patches of manicured neighborhoods and then you’ll drive to where the desert is just being itself, then to areas of construction.
Your thoughts of speed echo in the pale spills of paint traveling like pink and blue milk across the surface of your painting “So You Take Another Drag,” which is on display at Vast.
The landscape here is definitely creeping into my work. No matter where I live that happens, but the contrast between living in the middle of L.A. and feeling [trapped] and being here and feeling like, “I can go 5 miles that way and no one’s there, it’s just me,’ that kind of stuff makes an impact on the way I’m painting and the way I can stay on my own channel for days if I don’t leave the house. Being here, I’ve sort of realized I’m a landscape painter, although abstract. I’ve really just owned that. I’m a landscape painter … now everything’s got gravity.
How do you view the constructed landscapes of the Strip?
From outside town, I see Las Vegas as a tiny set made of human things. Bright lights, the observation wheel and the Stratosphere all seem like figurines set against the vast desert. It sometimes feels so fictional, almost like a fantastical city. … Most of all, I love the idea of man-made glitz delicately resting in the palm of a giant desert.