Kathleen Shaver

Artist Q&A with Kathleen Shaver

Kathleen Shaver is an abstract painter who studied at Moore College of Art & Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) with teachers and mentors including Bill Richards, Chuck Fahlen, and Thomas Chimes. Her work has been included in a major survey of contemporary Philadelphia artists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in exhibits at PAFA, Woodmere Art Museum, the James A. Michener Art Museum, The State Museum of Pennsylvania, the Attleboro Arts Museum and Moore. In addition to the Rodger LaPelle Galleries and 3rd Street Gallery in Philadelphia, Shaver has exhibited in galleries located in Delaware, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C. and Texas. Her work is included in both private and corporate collections.

“Just Human”, oil on canvas, 56 x 48 in | 142 x 122 cm, 2021

Who is your favorite artist of all time?

That’s a tough question because time is speeding along and nothing remains the same. I remember seeing paintings by Goya and Velasquez in a book as a kid. I grew up loving the magic of Walt Disney movies. As an art student, Jasper Johns had a huge impact on me as did Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, George Segal, Marisol, Jim Dine, Joseph Cornell, and Lucas Samaras. The first time I saw works of Van Gogh in the flesh I was blown away by the physical presence of his paint. Today, I’d walk a mile to see work by Angel Ortiz, Rachel Jones, Rita Ackermann, or Daniel Crews Chubb.  I feel that Willem de Kooning is in my bones so he must be my favorite.

How did you become a professional artist?

By overcoming a deep conflict. I started out in art college after high school. After figuring out I did not want to study commercial art and that I loved painting and sculpting, I had a crisis of confidence. I didn’t know any painters and all my instructors were men (even though I attended a women’s college). I was quickly getting into debt and not thrilled about the idea of being a waitress the rest of my life. I quit art college and enrolled in nursing school. As a nurse, I could do something to benefit others and pay my rent. Once I started working as an RN, I went back to art college part-time and eventually graduated with a BFA in painting. I few years later, a gallerist saw a painting of mine in an exhibit. The painting had won an award. He called me several times encouraging me to bring my work to his gallery, but I put him off because I felt I didn’t have enough to show him. The gallerist was persistent and eventually I brought three pieces to the gallery. He sold the works in just a few weeks. After that, I started painting full time. However, it was many years before I could feel that it wasn’t selfish to devote myself to my painting.

What are the influences and inspirations in your work?

Two important events have influenced my recent work. First, I moved from Philadelphia to the Hudson Valley where I live in a stone cottage surrounded by mountains, forests, fields, and streams. Second, the coronavirus pandemic happened. Like many people, I think about life and death and the importance of breathing a lot more than I used to.  My current paintings, drawings, and sculptures focus on an embodied experience of the world. I am interested in the sensory perceptions of our lived bodies, unmediated by reflective thought, and how these perceptions can reveal to us a kind of primordial awareness, an attunement with the natural world that is characterized by wonder and discovery.  Robert Pogue Harrison’s writings about forests, gardens, and graves have inspired me deeply. Recently, I have been interested in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his ideas about perception and painting.

Kathleen Shaver, portrait by George Amrom.

How is your work different than everything else out there?

There is such a diversity of art happening on an international scale, it’s hard to say how my work is different from everything else. However, my “Small Paintings” and my “Rubbed Drawings” are unique.  

While working on large canvases, I always have multiple small paintings going on at the same time. I attach pieces of Evolon paper or prepared watercolor paper to boards that I can easily move around the studio. I work on these pieces quickly, allowing for surprises, and tend to produce a lot of them. To me, these small paintings are unique events that always reveal something unexpected. I try to bring the same approach to the large canvases.

I also produce drawings by placing vellum or Evolon paper over my dried oil paintings and rubbing the surface with compressed charcoal. It’s exciting to see what sort of marks the texture of the paint will produce on the paper. Sometimes I will tone or mark the paper first with random daubs of paint. Although similar to traditional stone rubbings, my “Rubbed Drawings” are a very tactile translation of my earlier painted work and each one is unique.

When is a piece finished for you?

When I sense the presence of a truth. What becomes manifest in the paint is new, not explainable, but real. It’s a feeling that the work already existed somewhere and only needed to be realized. For me, the process of realizing the work always entails a lot of struggle, complexity, and contradiction. 

What’s different about your current body of work?

My work prior to moving to the Hudson Valley was purely abstract and did not involve making three-dimensional forms. However, my recent paintings and sculptures have begun to show figurative references and related interests. There is often a central upright form with branching arms, legs and feet, or sprouting roots. Flower and leaf forms as well as references to hands, fingers, animal-like paws, or tails appear. Phallic protuberances and invaginations evoke couplings or intersections There is a dynamic of contrasting textures, shapes and references inviting a sense of metamorphosis or transformative play, one grounded in a sensuous, embodied experience.

“Manes”, plaster, plaster gauze, wood, wire, and bronze metallic paint with patina,
14 x 7 x 12 in | 36 x 17 x 29 cm, 2021

What would you like collectors and curators to know about your work?

I suppose an artist always want a collector or curator to be excited by and attracted to my work. I don’t really have a style or special technique. I hope my work communicates searching, a record of serious investigation marked by wonder and discovery. 

Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?

I have never had a lot of self-confidence or self-assurance. The gallerist who took me on early in my career helped to build my resume, sold many of my paintings and drawings, and introduced me to other artists. He helped to boost my confidence and always encouraged me. That was a gift for which I am deeply grateful. As a student, I dreamed of exhibiting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When my work was included in a major survey of Philadelphia artists at the PMA, I felt it was more about luck than anything else. I knew terrific artists whose work had not been chosen. That experience and numerous rejections have taught me that there are many contingencies that can determine whether an artist’s work is selected for exhibition and none of them may be related to the actual merit of the work. Meeting collectors has had an important impact on me. Knowing that someone wants to live with your art, that they find a reason to keep looking at it and thinking about it, is pretty amazing.

What’s coming up for you?

I have just joined the artists represented by Art Now Media on Artsy.net and am looking forward to the opportunity to be included in upcoming exhibitions and artist features. Additionally, I am polishing up a proposal for an exhibition highlighting the connections between my recent paintings and sculptures.

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?

Learn to write, especially about yourself and your work. Develop good photography skills. If you can’t take good images of your art, you’re going to be handicapped or wind up paying someone else a lot of money. Make connections. Get out there. Stop thinking about what you’re going to create and do the actual creating. It doesn’t happen in your mind, it happens in the studio and yes, it means you’re going to make some bad art along the way. If you don’t do well with financial insecurity, give some serious thought as to what profession will allow you the income and time to create art. Pay attention to what inspires you, what mystifies you.

Who are some of your favorite under appreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?

Perle Fine and Mary Abbott were two very talented abstract expressionists who didn’t get the attention they deserved.  Although she gets plenty of attention, I don’t think Mary Cassatt is appreciated for the maverick she was. Coming from a well-to-do American family and a stuffy Victorian era upbringing, it was pretty gutsy to commit herself to painting in the bohemian atmosphere of Paris. The power of her painting, it’s modernist approach to composition, color, and gestural brushwork is often overlooked because of the sweet subject matter. I think Degas looks sort of wimpy next to Cassatt. Just imagine what she might have painted had she not felt compelled to stick with socially acceptable subject matter for a woman painter of her time.

“Ecosystem”, oil on canvas, 72 x 54 in | 183 x 137 in, 2021

To learn more about Kathleen and her work, please visit www.KathleenShaver.com.