A Home-Grown, Home-Again Artist
Story by Mike Whye
The bare branch of a tree in early spring grows longer each time Andrew Peters draws an oil paint-tipped brush across the canvas. Between strokes in his home studio north of Council Bluffs, he returns his brush to a second easel to which is clamped a white dry-erase board laden with spatters, streaks, and globs of oil paints. The vertical palette — positioned ergonomically with the same visual sight line as his canvas — provides Peters ready access to clean and blended hues.
Round hay bales on a harvested field glow brighter in the summer light delivered by his skilled hand. Another touch of white adds more frost to the shaggy dark brown flank of a calf standing in trampled snow, its warm breath clouding the winter air.
Peters’ paintings range from small works — like the 9x12-inch Suffolk Shadows that sold for $2,600 — to large ones — such as the 48x64-inch Seasonal Pursuit, a painting of dwindling spring snows hiding in the shallows of a farm lane that sold for $23,000. His work has drawn the attention of many enthusiasts of American West art, in which Peters has specialized for years. In March at the annual fine art exhibition at C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, he lectured on the works of Swiss-born artist Karl Bodmer, who documented landscapes and residents of the Great Plains in the 1830s. This summer Peters’ work will be shown at the invitation-only Prix de West, held at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. For the eighth time, one of his paintings was selected for the annual Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. His work is part of permanent museum collections in several states.
Peters started drawing at the age of 5 in Council Bluffs. “I was doing birds, always birds,” he recalls in his studio and showroom just steps from his house. His wirehaired pointer, Phoebe, rests nearby.
“Dad would bring home ducks from hunting, and I’d study them,” he says. “And he would bring home prints of birds made by John Jay Audubon. I looked at those prints and processed how Audubon went from the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional.”
Soon Peters was accompanying his father and brothers on hunting trips and camping with the Boy Scouts, earning the top rank of Eagle. He took art classes at Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum and studied the still life, landscape, and figure works of past and contemporary artists. He was mentored by Fran Day, who studied under Augustus Dunbier, an early-20th-century landscape impressionist. Yet art remained a minor when Peters studied wildlife biology at Iowa State University. “I didn’t think I could be an artist as a profession.”
Within three weeks of graduation, however, his watercolor of ascending buffleheads became the 1979 Iowa Duck Stamp (right). That launched the 22-year-old’s career as an artist. In 1982 Peters went to Africa, spending a year painting and drawing wildlife and making a series of portraits of indigenous people in 14 countries. He next traveled in Peru for six months, then spent time in Romania, Spain, France, Ireland, Morocco, and Italy. When he returned to the United States, he headed west. “I thought the most exotic destination in the U.S. was Santa Fe [New Mexico],” he explains. “I spent 10 years there. I loved it for its landscapes and the quality of light, which is good for landscapes.”
After showing in regional contests, Peters began entering works in national competitions. He made a traveling home and studio out of an RV he named Nomad and hit the road, covering 16,000 miles in the span of only a few months. When roads ended, he locked up Nomad, gathered his art materials and camping gear in a backpack, and ventured by foot into wilderness areas, much as his inspirations Audubon and Bodmer had. Back inside the RV, he framed his paintings, built their shipping crates, and mailed them off to representing galleries.
An accomplished plein air artist, Peters continues to paint outdoors on location. He’ll also make quick drawings or take photos of scenes to paint later. At his Iowa home he’s created a pond, wetland, and prairie to attract wildlife he can study.
His return to his native state five years ago was propelled by a strong attachment to the land here plus the large, close-knit family in which he was raised. “Having an established reputation on the [fine art] market allows me to work anywhere I choose to live, and this is where I’m from,” he explains, noting that other artists have made similar returns home. “My family and friends are here, with fabulous upland bird hunting that’s better than anywhere else.”
The Midwest holds many icons, says Peters, and his current work reflects a heartland theme, incorporating wildlife and livestock, big skies, and seasonal colors. “I am concentrating on trying to find compelling paintings in the landscapes here. And they’re out there.”
Mike Whye is a writer and photographer in Council Bluffs. Photos courtesy of the artist.