Monday, June 14, 2010

Shelley Gilchrist: Artist Interview —
Flow and Control Show

Copper Falls, 2010
 43" x 16" x 1-1/4"
encaustic on panel

Lynette (LH): Please share with us a bit about yourself, your background and your art.
Shelley Gilchrist: When I was first aware of creative stirrings, I was in my mid-thirties, starting my family and finishing law school – so this was either a reactive step or an evolutionary one.  Whether it was the right move for the wrong reason or for the right reason is anyone’s call.  I had always looked at art seriously in museums and spent long evenings with art books, but there is such a chasm between looking and making.  As my children grew, I began to find pockets of time to take classes, first in La Jolla and then in Chicago.  Eventually I felt I was missing some serious arrows in my quiver and made the commitment to a second bachelor’s degree program in order to get the foundation, studio critiques and art history classes that seemed necessary to fill in the blanks.  This was really a commitment on the part of my family, too, and I’m very grateful to have that kind of support.  I was chiefly an oil painter when I finished school in 2000, making representational work in the feminist narrative.

Cascade Range, 2010
28" x 34" x 3/4"
encaustic on 5 panels

Among the women artists I admired 10 years ago were Eva Hesse, Anne Truitt, Elizabeth Murray and Lee Bontecou.  It’s hard to believe only one is alive now.  Their art forms are so distinct from each other that these artists would never be categorized together, but I thought one thing they shared is that they had “broken out” in some way, or broken through in terms of their ideas of what their art could be.  While I continued to paint narratively, I gradually started to follow some of my own impulses, and used differently shaped grounds instead of rectangular canvases.  In 2003 I happened to take an encaustic workshop at Oxbow; it’s a serious summer school in Michigan run by the School of the Art Institute, but to an artist, it’s summer camp! 

Exploring the inherent visual and tactile properties of wax took my interest away from external subject matter.  Like many artists who discover wax, I wanted to see what I could make it do – it was a fresh paradox:  to make new work in this very old medium that seemed to have limitless possibilities.  For awhile I tried every technique I could learn, as many of us do.  Focussing on the process led me from image-based work into abstraction.  When I got a scroll saw, I was able to create pieces with curved, shaped grounds and wax “molten” surfaces that are formally consistent.  This work loosely references landscapes and is a 2-D/3-D hybrid.  The first time I showed one of these pieces was at the 2008 conference, and Joanne Mattera chose it for an award, so I felt emboldened to enter it into other shows, both painting and sculpture.

While my art-making has been freed-up, so to speak, it has also been slowed down.  I’m always solving fabrication problems and learning woodworking skills, and a piece has to be well-resolved before I pick up a brush, since substrate and surface are so interdependent.  There’s no forgiveness:   if I change my mind about the ground while working on the surface, I have to start the piece again.  These days I often exhibit with two sculpture groups, 3-D-12 and Chicago Sculpture International.

LH: How many of these conferences have you attended?
Shelley: This is my 3rd conference. About 6 months after I attended my first (2008), I started FusedChicago, since the Midwest seemed to lack representation at the conference and I wondered where the encaustic artists in my area were hiding out.  (I only knew of three!)  Now we have about 35 active members, mostly in the Chicago and the ‘burbs, and a few more far-flung (Kansas, Ohio).  We’ve had two members’ exhibits so far, plus a gallery visit, a studio visit, and a monoprint workshop.  So you could say the atmosphere of the conference came home with me, but I think it’s a terrific weekend to return to here at Montserrat:  a chance to meet friends and colleagues and pick up new tips, see new tools and colors, and get refreshed on the techniques I haven’t used in awhile. 

LH: Did you create work especially for the Flow and Control Show?
Shelley: The two pieces that are in the Flow and Control exhibit are sculptural paintings that I happened to be making in the early spring – they are right smack in the stream of my current work:  I have made some installation landscape pieces (on multiple shaped panels), and this winter I also distilled a little more, using single panels. It’s amazing how difficult I am finding it to work reductively.  Who knew?  The good artists make it look so easy!  My hope for a piece like Copper Falls is that viewers find it to be not as much a painting as a presence in the room, exerting quiet energy.  (The actual Copper Falls is well worth the trip to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan – beautiful copper water.)

Shelley Gilchrist in her studio

LH: Where is do you work?
Woodworking I do in the basement or garage. My studio, the wax zone, is over the garage, and that’s pretty much wood-dust-free. I have had a studio at home only for four years.  It’s convenient, rent-free, and I never have a reason not to work, which is a mixed blessing.  Making art is what I do full-time, and it’s an isolating practice, so I definitely have to make an effort to get out and see people.  As well as FusedChicago, I am an organizer of a Chicago area networking group called the Artists’ Breakfast Group – we meet weekly over breakfast, with occasional dinners throughout the year, and we have annual Caffeine exhibits.  It’s loose and friendly; if you’re an artist, you can just pull up a chair and join the conversation -  Midwestern in the best sense!

My website is (soon to be an independent site; right now it’s linked directly to my gallery on a group site).  I contribute to our FusedChicago blog and I write the Artists’ Breakfast Group blog

Thank you Shelley!

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