Recently I was sitting along the shoreline of the Ocean of the Streams of Story, the place where all the stories that have ever been told and many that are still in the process of being invented are found. I was watching the different currents weaving in and out of one another, marveling at its complexity when I was startled out of my quiet by the voice of a mourning dove.
He landed next to me, weary and fatigued and sat for a few long moments before turning to me and saying, “I have wandered the breadth of the entire world and this I know: when the earth is trod our feet are wounded by the harshness of the land.”
His words pierced me as I stared, perplexed, at him. I didn’t know who this bird was or where he had been, only that he wore the look of great victory, the kind that comes as a result of great pain. I sat silent and waited as I sensed the bird had more to say.
“I am a nest builder,” He explained.
Ignorantly, I asked, “Yes, but isn’t that what all birds do? You build nests, right?”
The bird looked saddened, took a deep breath and began to explain, “You are all so full of longing, full of prayers and hopes. These prayers are placed hanging in our trees for a span of four seasons. In the spring, after the long winter, the prayers are frail and fragile. They have been weathered by the winter wind, and all that remains are tiny strands of wordless prayer, seemingly useless.”
Still confused and not quite understanding what was happening, I asked, “what does that have to do with your nests and how you build them?”
Again, the dove sighed, “These prayers, not the fat unseasoned prayers, whose words have wrestled with the wind are the ones I choose for the building of my nests…nests lined with wordless prayers.”
He stood up shook off his feathers as if about to leave.
Anxiously, I asked, “but, why? Why do you do this?”
He replied, “So that you will know what is seen has been made from things that are not seen.” And he flew away.
As an artist, I am profoundly interested in stories…our stories, yours and mine. I am drawn to places within stories where duality exists, where one phenomenon, principle or truth intersects with its opposite and the way stories seek to reconcile such things. My work – my own life, to be honest – is incredibly vested in these places of paradox and unanswered questions, the places of chaos as well as silence. There are places where opposites meet, where they intersect, where they rub against one another and create something new and worthy of consideration.
These paintings are less a linear, coherent story and more fragments of story that at first might seem disconnected. There are intentional silences within the work, hoping to mirror my own personal experience with stories. I draw upon elements of American Indian thought and imagery, cartography, Trickster and personal mythology as I seek to engage my own stories and the way they serve me.
The summer of 2013 I invited my son and ten of his pals into the studio to make some art. Each child brought with them an object of interest or importance. We spent two weeks creating drawings and images based on their objects while weaving together a story that is truly delightful. Once the kiddos left, I got to work turning their drawings into object-paintings. I worked hard to preserve the purity of their drawings by adding my technical ability, but little else.
I love working with children because they encapsulate all that I hope to be as an artist: intuitive, deliberate and fearless. When I first began working with my son, Samuel, I was struck with how effortless the creative process was for him. The work I did this summer with Samuel and his buddies continues to challenge and instruct me.
A little about our story: This is the story of the bordering towns Legonia and Giraffilla as told by one 5 year old, six 6 year olds, one 7 year old, two 10 year olds and one much older human. We have 104 years combined storytelling experience, which is probably why our story is so epic.
Legonia is a peaceful town made up of all manner of Lego-creations. Giraffilla is inhabited by giraffes, elephants, owls, and penguins. You know how animals can be: rowdy, curious, always playing pranks whether they know it or not. The Legonians were sick and tired of the pranks and decided to even the playing field. The Legonians captured the penguins, owls, giraffes and elephants and turned them into balloon animals. In a day’s time, the animals were fragile and things became worrisome. With no real plan to turn the balloons back to real animals, they sought help. Lucky for everyone the popcorn warriors and baseball bat propelled paper airplanes came to the rescue. There’s more to the story, but you’ll have to ask one of the artists.
I’m attracted to the idea that trickster narratives appear where mythic thought seeks to mediate opposites...there is a category of mythic narrative, a category of art, that occupies the field between polarities and by that articulates them, simultaneouslymarking and bridging their differences.
– Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World
We are all collectors of stories and the stories we collect shape the people that we are. This series of paintings represents my coming to terms with that identity, with the threshold at which we make decisions—as artists, as creators, as individuals, as viewers, as people—and how we move from one point in-between to another.
As an artist, I am drawn to places within our stories where duality exists, where one phenomenon, principle or truth intersects with its opposite. My work—my own life, to be honest— is incredibly vested in the relationship between the external and internal. These two things seem to be opposites, but there are places where they intersect, where they meet, where they rub against one another and create something worthy of consideration.
And so I ask: what happens in that intersection? How do these two opposites create something new? How do they relate in the place where they cross over? The goal of this series is to answer these questions, or at least to wrestle with them in some form at even the risk of finding no answer at all. Is our value at stake? Our identity? How do we define those things? How do those definitions change?
This series is not about birds, or merit badges, or The Boy Scouts of America, or some metanarrative where birds or merit badges are a metaphor for people and our daily strife toward a definable identity. This series, these layers, these multiple mediums are a challenge, an invitation to consider paradox, unanswered questions, accidents, truths, paradigms—mine and yours. This work is just as much about me as it is about the viewer, our shared social experience, our shared histories, our mythologies, where we intersected, where we will intersect, and the trickster that waits for us in the in-between.
Maybe the trickster is not obvious in this work—there is no Wyle E. Coyote, no Hermes—but he is there, if only covered by layers of paint, if only to show me the role of the artist. That, in part, it is my job to stand between two opposing things and mediate, to give people secrets they already have. Maybe this series is nothing more than to show me that as an artist I must become the crossroads. From acrylic on canvas and oils to the smooth cuts of a scroll saw and actual merit badges procured through online auctions (and at least 327 gallons of coffee), Meritocracy presents the intersections of my external reality and my internal monologue; it represents me at the crossroads, me as the crossroads, and invites the viewer to stand with me, with the birds, with the merit badges in human form—and consider our world.
Bedtime Stories Revisited
Last winter school was called off because of snow. I remember Samuel and I rolled out some drawing paper on the dining room table and pulled out every drawing utensil we could find. We both got to work drawing. Samuel was working on some hybrid-dinosaur creature that was half fact, half fiction. I was drawing a female Tsintaosaurus, something you only know of if you have a 5 year-old boy living in your house. We took a break to investigate each other’s work and Samuel got upset. I remember he took a marker and put a big X through his drawing. He told me that he couldn’t draw as well as I could and that his drawing was bad. It was the first time I remember observing him experience self-criticism and I remember feeling a pang of sadness and wanting him to know just how perfect his drawing was.
I love watching Samuel draw. He works deliberately, without hesitation. That kind of intuition and confidence is hard to come by as an artist. I’ve learned a lot about my artistic practice from working along side Samuel. He reminds me to trust myself.
Much of my personal work investigates story. I’m interested in the power our stories have to give us direction and meaning and to help us make sense of the world. I find it exciting and terribly frightening to think that Samuel will take the stories I give him and will learn to make something of this world. I hope, I pray that the stories I give him are true and good and worth holding onto. But I want Samuel to know that his stories will and are shaping me as well.
These are some of the things I was thinking about when I was working on these paintings. When you ask Samuel what he was thinking, he seems confused by the question... “When I made the Pterodactyl I wasn’t really thinking about much. I was just wanting to draw a dinosaur and I like these drawings a lot. I love what you did with my drawings too, mom, especially the color. I love the color.”
Samuel and Erin Shaw
Claim the Sky
8 Simultaneous Stories
8 simultaneous stories to be read simultaneously is a collaborative installation with Dallas based photographer, Diane Durant.