At age 26, Mari Kloeppel lay in an open field dying. As her body slowly broke beneath a 1,000 pound horse, she prayed – her body of artwork was not yet complete. The horse involved in the accident helped to save her life, but the experience left her temporarily blind. Then, Mari made a pact with God: “Give me my sight and I promise I’ll be a great painter.” God worked his magic and since then Mari’s been working hers – turning the horse that nearly killed her into her favorite subject in life and art.
His name: Cobahsaan, or Cobie for short. Their journey together began six years before the accident when Mari was asked to train the well-bred Arab. Cobie’s owner was Pete Harman. Harman ran a diner in Salt Lake City and one day stumbled across a modest restaurateur named Colonel Sanders. The chance meeting led to Kentucky Fried Chicken and turned both men’s bank accounts extra crispy. In addition to KFC, Harman owned a big ranch in Morgan Hill. Mari was in charge of breaking the toughest yearlings at his stable. From the start Cobie was a tough ride. “He was hell on Earth.”
“I remember my first day at the ranch,” Mari says. “I was 20. It was pouring rain. I had my Wellington boots on. Cobie had only worked with a halter a couple times. I put one on him. He jerked the ropes because he wasn’t trained or anything. I fell backwards into the mud on my rear end and the boots stayed just exactly where they were in the mud. There I am in my stocking feet but I held on.” Both horse and human were fearless as they got to know each other. When Cobie turned three it was time to saddle up. That quickly turned into a give-and-take relationship. Basically, Mari would climb aboard and give Cobie a quick pep talk, then he’d promptly take her and buck her on her ass. “No one has ever ridden this horse without being thrown off. He really likes to have the upper hand. He tests people and yet he doesn’t want to hurt you. He’s never kicked, never bitten. He’s a very intelligent horse and he demands to be in a partnership with the rider.”
Mari says if you show Cobie respect, it will be mutual. Once you gain his trust, he’ll do anything you ask. “After you get over the initial craziness, he’s a beautiful dressage horse. If you’re on the same plain, he’s a wonderful ride. He’s just like air.” For the next several years the two developed a very strong bond as they raced up and down the hills at the ranch. But if Mari ever showed up on edge, Cobie would give it right back by promptly dumping her. It was always done to gain respect, never to hurt. And up until 26 years of age, Mari had never been seriously injured. That was about to change.
Everything seemed normal that day. Mari hopped on Cobie, gave him a couple love pats and they were off. All that was in front of them was miles of open terrain. For them, it was playtime. Neither of them saw the hole that eventually brought them down. Cobie simply tripped and did a huge somersault. He landed on top of Mari – both were unconscious. “Poor guy,” Mari says. “I thought Cobie was dead. I was face first in the dirt with a thousand pound animal on my back. All my ribs were breaking one by one and I couldn’t breath, my lungs were collapsing. I don’t know how long we laid there. Then I wiggled my fingers and that just made him wakeup. Thank God!”
Cobie had just gotten the wind knocked out of him. He got up and stood over Mari heartbroken. She vaguely remembers staring at his hooves. Finally, she muttered the word “help.” With that, Cobie was off. When he showed up at the stables without Mari it was clear something was wrong. Another trainer climbed on Cobie’s back and they raced back to her side. The clock was ticking.
Mari came to but was in bad shape. They took her to the local hospital where she was promptly rushed to San Jose Medical Center. Her lungs collapsed in the ambulance. Doctors saved her life, but recovery would be an uphill battle. She developed migraines from the injuries and surgeons used drugs that accidentally left Mari temporarily blind. She spent a week laid up in the hospital, unable to see but during this time she had an epiphany. She told God she would give up everything else (she was preparing to become a vet student at the time) and become a full-time artist if He would let her see again.
Eventually, her vision came back and she began to see art and life in a whole new light. Of course, Mari didn’t become a world class painter overnight; instead the development of her trademark style would be an evolutionary process. She was born with the ability to draw and a deep love for animals. But perfecting a balance between the two took time.
Today, Mari Kloeppel has a lot of love in her life. She loves her job – full-time painter, loves her husband – the man who swept her off her feet in one weekend, and loves her passions – rescuing sick animals and protecting the environment. At 44-years old, she’s succeeding on all levels like never before. The age thing, by the way, is for reference only; it certainly does not define her. She’s a beautiful woman with long, flowing brown hair and an inviting smile who’s got a lot more to give this world.
Mari and her husband, Klaus, live in Elkhorn, less than a mile from the slough. Their property is surrounded by trees and brush. It’s hilly, steep in parts. Much of their land has that “untouched” feel; they’re proud to have Mother Nature as their exterior decorator. However, there is one must-see outdoor amenity – an often-used hot tub perched high on a cliff above their house. It’s a moderate climb up 72 hand-laid stone stairs. The views are worth the ascension. Looking down past the property, you can see the slough. At night in the country, the dark canvas of the sky is splattered with the neon lights of the moon and stars. Of course, they share their dips with coyotes, raccoons and opossums that call the area home.
The couple has laid out a welcome mat for the animals – all animals. They’re everywhere and have free reign of the place. Mari is like the Pied Piper. Countless chickens, roosters, house cats and two rescue dogs fight for her attention. One of the dogs survived the flood in 1993. The other, Blue, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, was just skin and bones, beaten and dumped near the slough when Mari found him at death’s doorstep. After careful nurturing and some steep vet bills, Blue has made a full recovery. At one year he’s got his full coat back and his weight, but walks with a noticeable limp. It doesn’t hurt him anymore. In fact, considering all he’s gone through, Blue is a dog who wears his smile in his eyes. If you look at him closely, you can see that he’s happy now. In the last several years, the Kloeppels have rescued and rehabilitated 18 dogs and found them new homes.
The Kloeppel’s compassion for animals is endless. They are not activists, but crusaders for wildlife and the environment. Klaus and Mari started “Friends, Artists and Neighbors of Elkhorn Slough” to obtain better protection for the area’s watershed. The Kloeppels are also very involved in the painfully overdue general plan process in Monterey County and advocates for smart growth. Their quest is for a balance between affordable housing and the protection of the Central Coast’s rich farmland and natural treasures.
Mari and Klaus also have two horses, one of them being a crippled quarter horse named Willie. “We call him ‘The Big Cow’ because he stands around a lot, but he can move faster from a standstill than anything I’ve ever seen.” The other – a familiar but somewhat older white gelding named Cobie – roams freely on acres of lush pasture. After the accident, it took Mari and Cobie a while to feel each other out. “It was sad. But I loved that horse and he loved me. After all we’d been through, I knew we’d be together forever.” And nearly two decades since the accident, they’re still growing together.
Across the path from Cobie’s stable is Mari’s art studio. Inside, in a gold frame propped up on the floor, is a painting she did of Cobie and his dad, Barbaados, a prize-winning Polish horse. The painting shows them grazing – Barbaados keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings as Cobie’s tail swishes while he eats. The oil-on-linen piece is six feet tall. It is not a picture of two animals; it is a portrait of a family – a father and son that Mari knows like the back of her hand.
Barbaados and Cobahsaan took the better part of a year to paint. It is a stunning example in Kloeppel’s portfolio of animal portraits. All of them are outwardly real but rooted in abstraction. Kloeppel’s unequivocal knowledge of the animals’ character and focus on the abstract elements of form are the keys to her talent and what bring her paintings to life. Most of her art features solitary figures surrounded by black or neutral backgrounds. It allows the viewer to focus on the careful detailing in each painting.
The first wholly realistic painting Mari did was of Cobie. It’s a head and shoulder shot of the gelding from left to right. Again, the background is black. You can feel the tenderness in each brushstroke. Individual hairs on Cobie can be seen by the naked eye; put a magnifying glass up to the canvas and a whole new world of intricacy is opened up. Subtle variations of color and depth are hidden gems locked in the layers of paint.
Kloeppel’s paintings are also anatomically correct. She studies anatomy books, learning how animal bodies fit together. She knows what each bone’s shape, size and density looks like before recreating them. In her never-ending quest to maintain accuracy, Mari even depicts spots and imperfections. She believes that while some animals may be beautiful on the outside, their true identities are locked in their souls. That’s why she won’t paint any animal unless she can connect with it.
A perfect example: Tulip – the adorable bunny next door. Mari’s neighbor owned it and, boy, you want to talk about personality? “To him, you know, he was the man about town. The Italian Stallion,” Mari says. When Hugh Hefner linked Playboy with the bunny, this is exactly what he was talking about. You see that purple and gold ball in the background of the painting? That was his wife. The ball, for lack of a better phrase, was Tulip’s “real, real close friend.” They got real friendly about 100 times a day and he was extremely proud of himself for that. The bell behind the bunny’s tail was his dinner bell – another important time in Tulip’s life.
Then there’s Cheruka – the raven with attitude up the wazoo. She also has a great sense of humor, using her aggressiveness to taunt people and then sort of laugh about the whole thing. But there was nothing funny about how she ended up at the Coyote Point Wild Animal Museum in San Mateo. “She was dumped in a Hefty bag on the front steps, unconscious. They barely pulled her through. Someone likely pulled her out of a nest and tried to raise her and she got sick, so they dumped it.”
It’s illegal to own ravens which, by the way, are the smartest of all bird species. Parrot owners fight that claim. Nonetheless, Cheruka had a long road to recovery and is now outliving other birds brought into the shelter. Animal biologists are studying her for research. They’ve got Cheruka opening boxes, playing pattern games and finding things they’ve buried. The reason Mari became interested in the bird was because of the way the raven made her grandfather’s eyes light up. He used to sit in a chair and watch Cheruka. It was actually more of a staring contest because she was just as interested in him. He recently passed away at the age of 100. Mari painted the bird looking down at grandpa for the last time.
Several years ago, Mari met a rescued peregrine falcon named Oghab at the same Bay Area museum. It’s a place she visits often because of their amazing work in rehabilitating critically injured animals. The falcon was raised in captivity as a sport bird. The museum bought it for research. It’s now nine-years old and has given animal biologists critical data to help rescue others. Oghab acts important because he knows his role is important. “He can fly, but he doesn’t like to,” Mari says. “He really loves sitting on that hand.” That’s what inspired Mari to paint her latest subject. It’s on the easel in her studio. One hundred layers of paint into the piece it looks like a finished work to most. But, like the Forrest Gump of art, she paints and paints and paints until one day, several months later, she stops.
Above the work in progress taped to the wall are several charcoal drawings of the falcon. The first is a rough sketch and then there are more detailed versions of the bird’s anatomy moving counter-clockwise along the wall. Kloeppel is in such hot demand that the final chalk drawing has already sold for $2,000 – so she’s got a photograph of it tacked to the wall. This careful process begins in the field. Kloeppel has trained her eye to watch fast animal movement and then burn those images into her brain. She’s constantly looking for the pose that best suits the animal’s personality.
She brings out the oil only after the sketches and anatomical study have been completed. Mari starts by working with bright, transparent under paintings. Her canvas is stretched, portrait linen pre-primed with lead. It’s expensive and is only made on an island off of France. Old masters like Johannes Vermeer used the same canvas. Like Vermeer, the true painter of light, Kloeppel’s work glows. She attributes the luminosity to the lead-based linen and her manipulation of the paint. It takes hundreds of layers before she gets the flesh and veins to look the way she wants. Then, Mari spends months using a fine brush made of one to 10 hairs, adding hundreds more layers to get the hair, whiskers and texture to look so real.
In order to figure out how Mari Kloeppel got to this level, we need to peel back her artistic layers. Her love affair with nature dates back to as early as she can remember. She was born in south San Jose which, back then, was very rural and surrounded by apricot orchards. But in the late 1960’s development in San Jose took off. So the family retreated to a 40 acre plot between Aromas and San Juan Bautista.
Mari’s mother raised her and her brother and sister Lutheran. They went to church and Sunday school. But Mari’s spirituality was more than that. “My way of worshiping was going out into the hills and being with animals and nature. It’s the whole thing. It’s the balance of where we fit in to the whole picture. And that involves animals and dirt and us. I don’t consider myself separate from all that.” When Mari was six, she had a pony and a cart. She made up her own adventures as she rode through the countryside alone with nature. Mari always brought along a picnic lunch and her sketchbook. Even back then she could draw anything. It was a gift she shared with her mother, an art teacher, and grandmother, a landscape painter. Her other shared familial trait: fearlessness.
“I had my great grandma in the cart one day. She was 100 years old – and it flipped over because she kept yelling, ‘Faster! Faster!’ She lived but she flew in the air right over me. The pony just kind of looked at us and waited. My great grandma just laughed. She thought it was hysterical. She lived to 102.” Mari is who she is and comes by it honestly. Her family didn’t have much money but they’ve always supported her art. When she was 10, they paid for lessons from a woman named Nan Pipestem. Nan gave Mari a good foundation with oil paint but became more of an influence because of her work with animals. Pipestem started the San Benito County Wildlife SPCA and Mari quickly became her dedicated helper. “In many cases I’d bring her injured and sick animals, help them get better and then help Nan release them into the wild,” Mari says.
In high school, Mari continued to rescue animals but stopped painting. She’d been a loner much of her life and now at Hollister High, the only school in the county at the time, there were kids everywhere. Mari didn’t always make the right choices. But she says, “Art saved my butt.” With painting on the backburner, she took up three-dimensional art from her mentor, Sylvia Rios. Kloeppel made beautiful cast jewelry, pottery and ceramic jewelry boxes. “I carved into the wet ceramic so it looked like they were made out of stone or wood. I added animal details or Zodiac details.” And Mari started selling them, too. Her first jewelry box sold for $100 when she was just 14 – and that was in the 1970’s. In her junior year, she won the distinguished Bank of America award for art. That got her out of the partying funk and helped her really focus on art. “It woke me up. I learned to take myself seriously as an artist from that point on.” That same year she was driving along Highway 101, taking a cat she’d rescued to its new owner, when she had her first brush with death. The cat got out of the box in the backseat. Mari reached back for the cat and lost control of the car. Her Honda did two full flips down a hill. “It was basically a pancake. I was bleeding, looking around for the cat, hoping it was alright. Then I saw it peeking out of the window, looking at me like, ‘What the heck?’”
The cat ended up living a great life and Mari graduated high school with honors. Before enrolling at San Jose State University, Mari took five months off to travel in Europe. It was just she and her bicycle cruising around the continent where the masters were born. “I went to all the museums and was inspired by Botticelli, Da Vinci – the Italian Renaissance blew me away. The German abstract expressionists were amazing. Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Kandinski, and August Macke, those were my heroes. Looking at Van Gogh’s work and all the masters’… it was being able to stand in front of a painting that was done so long ago and yet the painting was as alive as the day it was created. It was speaking to me in 1980-something and telling a story fresh and new just like it did 400-500 years ago. It was a timeless message.” One she took to heart when she came back to the states. Mari took the job with Pete Harman, the KFC guy, breaking horses at his ranch. She used that money to pay her way through college at San Jose State. Mari is also an excellent carpenter. She built herself a cabin on her parent’s property. She built it on top of a steep hill, rigging up a complicated horse and pulley system to get the heavy beams in place. The cabin was perfect. No rent and all the privacy in the world to paint and think.
Kloeppel’s art teachers encouraged her to emulate the very colorful, passionate, bold expressionistic brush strokes of Franz Marc and the Blue Rider Group. “Quite frankly it was the style of the time. I tried to do the careful renderings of animals that I loved to do, and my teachers accused me of being a librarian. They grabbed my hand, literally, put a big ol’ crayon in it and would go… left, right, left, right real fast and would say ‘THAT’S ART.’ I do not regret it because they taught me out of what I would have done naturally and showed me the bigger picture of art… the emotion, passion, compositional elements and looking at the abstract in a picture – that is what I think gives my realism now its strength,” she says.
You can see some of Marc’s techniques in Kloeppel’s early work. While Franz’s paintings were social critiques on the problems of World War I, Mari tackled her own personal problems of becoming a young woman. “I’d paint things that related to me figuring out who I was. It was kind of scary out there. What’s this world all about? Where do I fit in?” As she expressed herself on canvas, others expressed themselves with their wallets. Mari sold everything she painted. San Jose State’s art program had an exchange program with Sheffield Polytechnic University in England. Mari took full advantage, finishing up her final semester across the pond. That’s where she fell in love with the work of British Romantic artist George Stubbs, who is best known for his painting of horses. She also saw her first bull terrier in England and began painting the dog very abstractly. “A lot of those terrier paintings reflected what I was going through at the time – a lot of them were scary, you could see the teeth.”
With a degree in her back pocket, Mari moved back to California to be with the man she’d missed so much – Cobie. As they rode around the countryside, Mari considered being a vet. She even took math and science courses to prepare for vet school. But then the accident happened and she made the pact with God to be a full-time painter. And why not? Her stuff had always sold. At 29, she was accepted to the graduate program at the Oakland College of Arts and Crafts. But before classes began, she met the second man in her life.
Klaus Kloeppel lived in Germany and worked for IBM. He was in Silicon Valley on business when he stopped by Harman’s ranch. Mari was on crutches after another training horse had trampled her legs. But, gimpy or not, Klaus instantly fell in love with her. “We got together on Friday night,” Mari said. “By Saturday morning we were already planning the rest of our lives.” So instead of studying in Oakland, Mari packed up her things and moved to Mainz, Germany with Klaus. The two got married and Mrs. Kloeppel learned German. After she became fluent, she got accepted to the challenging grad program at Gutenberg University. “Germans have a very different approach to critique, discussion and thinking about art. They really push you hard conceptually.” Mari’s teachers also embraced her desires to get back to realism. That’s when the switch gradually began. Her pieces were selling for $2,000 a pop. Back then she was doing her paintings quickly, giving herself a time limit of one hour, five hours, or one day. A lot more change was in store.
In 1990, the Kloeppels got some bad news. Mari’s dad had cancer. They moved back to California and bought the property in Elkhorn. Klaus took a job with Seagate and Mari was reunited with Cobie. Mari’s dad lived another six years. While family life was great, Mari was becoming more and more disappointed with her work even though they were selling out at galleries in South Carolina, Palo Alto and Morgan Hill. Although the squishy feel, color and light of Santa Fe Longhorn have some characteristics of California great Wayne Thiebaud, it was a style that Kloeppel knew did not embody her true expression. “The market was dictating my expression and my galleries did not want to change my niche. However, I knew there was more.”
So after 30 years of painting and studying, Mari Kloeppel went into hiding. Well it was more like hibernation. She took time off from selling, focusing only on her art. Mari painted in her studio and showed no one her work. “I didn’t want to hear any good or bad comments. It was only going to go down the same drain. I only wanted to hear my own critique of my own work. I wanted to develop an important body of work for me.” What Kloeppel was able to do during her time off was some soul searching. She’d learned the visual language of art by studying the classics. Through decades of practice and research, Mari felt she finally understood what makes the masters timeless. Now it was time for Kloeppel to make her own dialog work. She wanted potential buyers to see the character and identity of each living or once-living animal.
Mari’s art was getting bigger, layered and more in-depth. She took private lessons from Watsonville artist Tobin Keller. Keller taught her control with oil and how to add realistic detail and a high level of resolution to her art. Mari’s development also took place in the field where she studied her animals. Among her other rendezvous: frequent trips to Carmel to see what other artists were doing. She fell in love with the Winfield gallery and often asked very artistically smart questions to the gallery’s owner. Well, Chris Winfield is a pretty intelligent guy and could see right through her. After several Judas-type denials, she finally admitted she was an artist and Chris convinced her to bring in her work.
“Mari has the ability to will paintings into existence,” Winfield says. He saw something in her work that sets her apart from most Carmel artists. “Others try but their paintings are lifeless. Mari is able to take her incredible technical ability and then cross that line where she’s able to literally breathe life into a painting.”
“When I was younger,” Mari says, “I used bold colors and gestural paint strokes to create images of passion and movement and sometimes angst. Now I find that I want my art to reach people in a way that is quiet and contemplative. For instance, I love the subtle earthy colors and reality of the hair and fur. Muscles covering bone in my animal subject matter. I like to slow down and be able to capture the inherent personality traits of a quiet moment in their lives. Drama and action have been replaced with a desire to capture a moment of repose and reflection – a pause to contemplate a perhaps deeper meaning of an aspect of life.”
The best example of her transformation to realism is Las Lomas 2005. It’s a painting of her favorite steer – one she’d painted abstractly countless times before. This time, she set out to get rid of the squish and add the real. The longhorn was the only castrated bull on the whole ranch near her home and the only one that let her get close. Mari spent months climbing the fence to study him trying to avoid his buddies. “I grew up with steers. They are such massive beasts. I love their slow way of thinking and expression, which is dangerously deceptive because they’re thinking it through before they charge you.” It took more than a thousand layers of paint, hours of anatomical and field research and months of painting to convey that sedentary but ignitable trait. Fortunately, we get to view the dichotomy without the real danger.
Today, an original Mari Kloeppel sells for tens of thousands of dollars a pop. But, there’s one major problem: there isn’t much of it out there. Because it takes her so long to paint and because of the popularity of her art, it’s very rare to see Kloeppel hanging in the Winfield Gallery. “Yeah, I wait a lot,” Winfield says. “I just want to sit on her and force her to paint.” That’s an important point as Kloeppel moves forward with her career. There are several goals she and Winfield have set. First of all is easing up on some of her environmental and political commitments. That would give her more time to execute in the studio. With a larger body of work, the second goal is to get her a museum show. Right now, her pieces are selling before they’re finished, either by commissions or waiting lists. But Kloeppel was able to collect many of her most important pieces for her first exhibition at The Crocker Museum in Sacramento in March 0f 2009.
Sadly, Cobie, the animal closest to Mari’s heart, did not make it to see the show; he died during the winter of 2008. But Mari was able to complete a near, life-sized version of him as an ultimate tribute to her lifelong best friend. Together, they enjoyed an incredible journey that Mari now continues without him. Mari’s already made good on her pact with God. And God willing, there are no limits to how far her career can go.
Written by: Ben Bamsey