Amidst a wilderness of animals and spirits of the wild, I met with artist Shannon Bueker. In fact, we were not out in the wilds of Chatham County, but in her home studio, densely-packed with her lush paintings of animals and people in their element and on the move. Almost indistinguishable at times, the forms are at once substantial and fleeting—a quality of layered subtleties which Shannon has cultivated through over 20 years of painting.
“Growing up I drew all the time, and in all my books.” She revealed the wild spark of creativity in her heart from the moment she filled in her Dr. Seuss book and noticed how untame hers was compared to her sister’s. “I got embarrassed about it…it was one of those Dr. Seuss books—My Book About Me—and you’re supposed to draw in it…draw your hair and different things about you. There are blanks spaces for it, but I drew all over that thing. And then my sister’s was all neat and tidy. So I felt really embarrassed because mine looked really…crazy.” But, owning that, “I said, ‘well, it’s mine—I know that now!”
She has celebrated the wild through work that is infused with keen observation and love of the animal and natural world, influenced by her early days spent in the disparate worlds of Texas and Hawaii. She has continued to explore that love in Chatham County and has been sharing it here for many years. Her paintings are currently on view at NC Crafts Gallery through May 30th, “50 5x7s–Shannon Bueker pays tribute to Alex O’Connor.”
“The Art Pod” & “The Art Pit”
“Downstairs is the basement gallery, where the finished work is. The upstairs, we affectionately call the ‘Art Pod’—it’s 5 years old now. Downstairs is where I was working when we first came here 20 years ago…This is the ‘Art Pod’ and that’s the ‘Art Pit’—though I call it the ‘gallery’ generally in literature”, she says with a chuckle. Shannon also sculpts, bringing her animals into life in 3-D. Several creations bask in the open air in her sculpting area on the back porch of her home.
“I was pretty sure I was going to be an artist as a kid and I have a BFA in Studio Art, but my dad kept waiting for me to do something practical. I worked in other areas, including as an editor.” And yet she felt a great tension and pull. “I would come home in the afternoon, walk the dogs and try to make art and then try to find that rhythm…and it was difficult. And I would paint on the weekends, but I was still trying to fit that mold of how to be an artist. It took me a long time to find my rhythm—and that 5 hours straight and other methods people suggest are not my rhythm. So that was a learning experience too. It’s something I thought was a problem with me—but then I discovered that—‘no—this is something different’. It was a bit of a luxury to be able to find that.”
“Chatham Artists Guild is 25 this year, and I think I’ve been on 23 of 25 of the studio tours…I have people come in here and ask, ‘what do you do—do you work all the time?’
Indeed, the ‘Art Pit’ houses quite a bevy of paintings large and small that chart the evolution of her style and her devotion to animals, from birds to foxes—but even, albeit rarer, the sometimes scorned possums and vultures. Shannon celebrates these wild ones in their motion. Rather than trying to capture them and define them she shares the fleetingness and emphemerality of the essence of life. Her work is filled with color and motion drawing from rich influences from Franz Marc to Toulouse-Lautrec, and indeed the works don’t stand still and seem to have a life of their own.
“I like to work on several pieces at once. I never get stalled in here—there’s always something to work on. There are different kinds of work…there’s creative work and there’s production work. I’ve found that morning energy is that creative energy, you know—shut the door, turn off the phone and get in here and fling some paint…and then that calmer quieter energy is touching more the afternoon—painting some edges, solving some of the visual puzzles. I set up puzzles with a bit of chaos and then it’s ‘how do I work this out?’
For a long time, Fridays have been designated sacred studio days and Tuesdays. “I don’t fill it up with anything else. And then there are pockets that show up, when I have some unexpected time and the studio is right here—so I go to the studio and look at stuff and see what jumps out at me—that’s where problem-solving shows up.”
True Seeing: Human Eye Vs. Machine
“The phone is both goodness and darkness,” Shannon says, “I draw all the time, and now the phone and the sketch pad are always in my purse. The darkness of the phone is—‘oh—I’ll take a picture of that versus sketch it’, but then the good thing is I can look at a painting in this new way so quickly.
“We were in Scotland last year, and I took my phone and my sketchbook, and I have tons of pictures. I appreciate photography, but I’m cagey about using photography as a reference versus sketches—because you lose something. Often, I can tell when a painting has been worked totally from a photograph—it has a very different feel. Very contained and flat.”
Exploring the possibilities of what technology offers is a process of exploration of what truly expresses her intention and style—which is guided by the impulse to truly see the essence and spirit of her subjects…She finds, “with pet portraits I’ve pretty much always said I need to meet the animal and do sketches from life because, in the past I had done some pet portraits straight from photographs and then I met the animal later and realized ‘wow—that’s not who I painted.’”
Evolution, Flow, & Communion with Nature
“I have friends who are artists and we meet regularly, but we’re not united in a style of working. My artist friends and I, we don’t really paint the same at all or use the same medium, and some even say ‘meh—I don’t even want to make art anymore’ and they just stop. There is this flow, and things change. And I’ve found my drawings and sculpture—they totally inform each other….There are some that are artists in the winter and gardeners in the spring. That I totally get now too, and I can appreciate dropping one medium and picking up another.”
“There are artists that get obsessed with whatever it is that they can’t put down. Obsession can be a good thing. Whatever it is, I hope it’s an alive obsession and not simply something that sells well. Years ago, we were in Hawaii and there was an artist who painted all these sea turtles, and they were all over the gallery, and I thought—‘well I really hope this person likes painting sea turtles’, because they were selling and probably in a way that person could stop painting them. But I really hope it made them happy.”
Through the years, she’d sometimes been told that if she wanted to be in the art world, she needed to paint fewer animals, but Shannon has seen that shift over the years as there is more recognition and interest in animals as subjects worthy of discovery and an opening diversity of subjects overall. She appreciates life drawing with animals because they are unhidden and their essence is revealed so clearly in their physicality. “I love animals, and I guess it took me a long time to say—yes, this is what I’m going to paint, and even more time to get to us and them where there are people relating to the animals.” And indeed, her human subjects are painted fluidly and fleetingly, in a sense equalizing them with the animals as she reveals a communion—a shared nature between them—a potential she continues to explore.
From the Artist
Lastest work: The latest line of inquiry has been animals crossing the road. I was coming home late one night and my headlights were hitting these shapes and they had just crossed the road. I think about it all the time. It’s a big source of stress—we totally interrupt their paths…so ‘how do they cross the road?’
Latest routine: A common routine for me now is, I’ll work on a piece for a while and then I might totally put it away. It might be a long time, before I take it back out. Sometimes it’s even a couple years, and then I take it out and I’ll see ‘Oh—I know what it needs!’
Animals I’m currently painting: Robins are becoming year-round birds, but generally show up in February. Then I was sketching, when you see bunches of them in fields and short grasses. I love the way they run around and then sit up straight and then they run—they dart. They don’t hop, they run…and they listen—because they can hear worms. I started painting them by April.
Memorable quote from a teacher: ‘Keep your sketch-book pages warm’
Where I find inspiration in Chatham County: It’s a keeping my eyes open kind of thing. If you’re out there—out in the open—you’ll see something. It’s pretty often I’ll make notes in my sketchbook when I’m out walking or driving. Some things just kind of filter their way into my work gradually. It can surprise me.
Other mediums I’m working with: Watercolors. I feel like watercolors are the teacher. It teaches me to ask, ‘what is the least possible needed’. It asks you to work minimally. Because I work so wet, there’s always a limit. I always have to put it aside at some point and work on something else.
What span of time does the ‘Art Pit’ contain:
The whole span of time!…Well, we moved here in February 1993, and there are works here from throughout the years.
Most unusual painting in ‘The Pit’ Gallery: The vultures. A lot of people would ask, ‘why would you want to paint a vulture? It’s kind of gross, but they have this really important job to do and thank goodness they do it. I hear from people, ‘why would you paint possums, but it’s the same thing—they’re odd, they’re interesting, they’re pre-historic, they’re survivors—they’re just about unchanged over time. They’re survivors—I’m drawn to that too—despite our impingement, they’ve survived.
What I’m exploring in my art: Emotion, and there are experiential paintings—moments. I am saying these are all beautiful things and sentient things and we should pay attention—that comes up a lot. Some things just come out of my head, but chances are everything that shows up—at some point I saw it.
Some of my influences: Franz Marc, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mexican muralists – Sequeiros and Orozco…Dr. Seuss and Disney are huge influence too. I’ve also been noticing how Hawaiian culture—the mythology and animism—the sense that you’re all part of this thing and how could you imagine yourself as separate—that has become part of my work as well. Some of my childhood books were the Hawaiian legends when I lived there from when I was six to eleven years old. So there’s definitely a sense of magic—and that it’s there all the time.
Favorite places in Chatham County: I love crossing the river every day. We can go down the end of the road and cross through the neighbors’ field and to the river. And crossing over Jordan Lake—that’s pretty amazing. And there are always interesting birds.
In 10 years I’ll be: A lot happens over time. I’ll be figuring whatever shows up is fine. I’d be happy not to be having drama though.
Notes to self: ‘Trust your drawings.’ Sometimes I’ve done lots of drawings and then looked at a photograph and got thrown off. Then I’ve looked back at the drawing and said, ‘No, you’ve got that—that’s right.”
You can see Shannon’s paintings currently at: NC Crafts Gallery through May 30th, “50 5x7s–Shannon Bueker pays tribute to Alex O’Connor.” Shannon’s work is also on view at the The Joyful Jewel, in downtown Pittsboro.
Shannon’s website: www.notnowkato.com