Natural elements: Phyllis Koch-Sheras taps into the unconscious

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Phyllis Koch-Sheras’ watercolors often feature the sun’s cycle and bright colorful landscapes such as “Tiptoe Through Tulips.” Photo courtesy of the artist. Phyllis Koch-Sheras’ watercolors often feature the sun’s cycle and bright colorful landscapes such as “Tiptoe Through Tulips.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

One of my paintings is on the cover of American Psychologist this month, and it shows a man looking out over a field and into the mountains. My feeling was he is in harmony with nature, and if you can just be with him, you can feel that same peace and bliss from the painting,” said painter, singer, writer and clinical psychologist Phyllis Koch-Sheras. “Art is like a Rorschach that way.”

Koch-Sheras, who grew up in Chicago, has been making art in Charlottesville since she moved here in 1974. After years working primarily with acrylics, she switched to watercolor after enrolling her children in watercolor lessons with Lee Alter and signing up for classes herself. During one of Alter’s student exhibitions at The Omni hotel, The Daily Progress published a glowing review of her work “Peacock in Paradise.”

“That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, I can keep doing this,’” Koch-Sheras said. “I took lessons with Jeannine Regan at McGuffey Art Center and just started churning out the paintings. She encouraged me to frame and exhibit them, and one thing led to another. I was an associate member of BozART [Gallery] before it closed and would exhibit there as well.”

Today, her paintings can be found all around Charlottesville, including the current works on display at Arden Place and The Women’s Initiative.

Koch-Sheras’ many creative talents surfaced when she was just a child. “My mother was an opera singer, and she wanted me to concentrate more on the singing. I was blessed with perfect pitch and a voice that was pleasant, and she wanted me to be performing and outgoing, so she stopped the painting lessons and started me in opera lessons. I was singing with the Lyric Opera of Chicago when I was 9 years old.”

At the University of Michigan, Koch-Sheras focused on music and English, receiving a masters in creative writing. “I didn’t pick up my paints again until I got my graduate degree in psychology [from the University of Texas],” she said. “Especially while I was working on my dissertation, which is a pretty anxiety-producing process, I found painting to be a wonderful outlet.”

After living for a few years in Palo Alto, California, she and her now-husband, another psychologist with whom she has authored several books, moved to Charlottesville for jobs at UVA. Her clinical work inspires her art (and vice versa). “Water is in a lot of my paintings. I do a lot of dream interpretation and dream work, and I’ve also painted things from my dreams, which allows me to really connect with that part of my unconscious.”

She said she prefers a Jungian approach to the analysis of her artwork as well as her dreams. “When I work with people, I have them go into whatever they associate with that [subject in a dream] and recognize what that part of them is all about. The associations I have with certain elements are just like my associations with paintings—they don’t necessarily have to mean one thing.”

The majority of her watercolors feature nature and landscapes, and she’s drawn to the beauty of sunrises and sunsets. “There’s such a wonderful energy in these beginnings and endings,” she said. “The sunset especially is a kind of emotional process, a completion of one phase of the day, letting go and moving into the next phase.”

In her 25-year practice of Bon Buddhism, Koch-Sheras said she’s discovered that “the process of non-attachment and the connection of light of day is really what life is all about.” And, she added, “There’s something healing in being able [to use art] to be a part of that process.”

See Phyllis Koch-Sheras’ paintings at the Arden Place Clubhouse through December 31.