Clarissa Shanahan

Q&A with Clarissa Shanahan & Gallery Director Laura Moriarty

LM: Could you tell us a little about your background?

CS: Well, my background has been in the decorative arts - I began my career by studying at all the studios that I could find in NY.

I got a scholarship to study at the Isabel O'Neal Studio for the Art of the Painted Finish, where I also student taught gilding and gold leaf [another love of mine]. It was there that I really found a love of materials and learned that the more you understand your materials, the more freedom you have.

More studios and private clients later, I had a business as a decorative artist. This led to scenic shop work, which led me to join the United Scenic Artists union. From there I was fortunate enough to land on a crew that I just loved and clicked with, and stayed on from film to film for a number of years.

Eventually I became a little restless to continue my education, so I came to Philadelphia to get my BFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and UPenn. It was during this time that I began working in encaustic and eventually I began teaching, which I still do - at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, as well as at the Nichols Berg Gallery & Art Studio. 

LM: What was it like to create the paintings of Lee Krasner for the film, Pollock?

CS: Great, liberating. I didn't know all that much about Lee Krasner, or her work, so it was a process of learning on the spot. Her work is so expressive and has so much movement. At the time, the work that I did on my own was controlled, with tiny brushwork, so I found that learning from her had a tremendous impact on my way of working. I was very fortunate to be on that job, and to have been given that task - I've reproduced paintings of many different artists, in many different styles, but doing the Krasner paintings was by far the most exciting. 

As a scenic artist, you need to be sort of an artistic chameleon, in that you are always executing someone else's vision.  It’s also relatively easy to have the task of creating something that already exists - it becomes a purely technical exercise, which in itself is an education unlike any other. But I have to say; it's a lot less confronting than staring down a blank canvas of my own!

LM: What is the inspiration for your current series?

CS: Well, it's an old crumbling abandoned asylum that I was rather fixated on. I grew up in Long Island, and there was a place called Pilgrim State Asylum that you could just see from the highway. It was a spooky old Victorian set of buildings that seemed to always have a black cloud hanging over them regardless of the weather anywhere else! That place really, really piqued my imagination. Years later, I looked for images of Pilgrim State and came across a site [www.opacity.com] that had the most amazing galleries of decaying buildings - and I just saw this whole quiet world of the process of nature that's happening all around us. You can look at a decaying site and see both what it is and what it was at the same time. 

I love how manmade things decay, how nature reclaims them. Maybe it's from years and years of aging scenery on film sets, I don't know, but I've always preferred surfaces that show the character of age and history. Since I was so fixated with these environments, I wanted to reproduce them in wax. I've done images of abandoned asylums, churchyards, hospital rooms, and abandoned amusement parks. 

LM: The scenes you depict feel a little forbidding or haunted to me; would you say that was an accurate reading?

CS: Absolutely! I must have a fifteen-year-old Goth girl inside me:) I've been surprised to hear what people have read into what my paintings 'mean'. I want to keep a certain amount of ambiguity in the images. It's really not my business what someone takes from my work or my images. Hopefully, the images leave some kind of impression. If they do, it's the personal experience of the viewer. I might have something in mind when I make it, it has a meaning to me, but I wouldn't presume to tell someone else what it should mean to them. 

That said, I have had people say that my work looks melancholy, haunted, lonely, sad, spirited - all kinds of things. I wouldn't disagree. I had a friend comment that the most compelling thing about them is the absence of people, so that perhaps each painting was a ghost story. And I really liked that! as an aside, I have an idea for a series of 'spectre' paintings - you know, like those turn of the century sepia photos that had ambiguous shadowy images in them? I guess you can say I have a love of the unseen. or maybe behind the scenes?

LM: You seem to be using wax as a filter through which to capture decay, abandonment, and surrender to nature. Could you tell us a little bit about how you choose the materials and processes you work with?

CS: I like the idea of using an organic material to depict a manmade structure returning to nature. Wax, to me, has such a built in atmosphere. When I first started learning how to work in encaustic, I was less concerned with color as I was with how to enshroud other images as if they were wrapped in fog, or encased in ice, a chrysalis state. It's the milky fog that I so love about using wax, so I use that to help create the atmosphere that I'm going for. To me, it makes every image a little dreamier, so I tend to work in lots of very transparent and translucent layers, with very desaturated colors - for two reasons; one is to mimic the colors of decay, and also because I'm heavily influenced by early photography and I love the look of hand-tinted and sepia photos from a century ago.


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