Doing anything at all for 365 days straight is difficult. Ask anyone who has ever successfully completed a New Years Resolution. Throw in the need for input from other people to complete the tasks – and artists at that – and you have an impressive endeavor. Shelley Whiting is succeeding beautifully at just this.
When Shelley approached me to be an artist for her ‘Arizona Artist a Day’ blog, I was thrilled. Thrilled that such a blog exists and that I’d be apart of it. However, once I received the questions – I was truly impressed with the level of care in which Shelley put in her interview. This was not just a fast copy/paste job. Shelley had researched my work, art history, and biography to come up with amazing and thoughtful questions. This care shows through in each and every terrific interview she’s done with all kinds of Arizona Artists.
I thought it high time to return the favor. I asked Shelley if I could interview HER (maybe even stealing a question or two from her roster) and she obliged. See her full interview below along with a fascinating sample of her portfolio.
Arizona Artist: Shelley Whiting Interview
You grew up among a family of artists and writers that also have strong religious roots in the Mormon faith. You mention this as an element in your most recent exhibit at Burton Barr – “Before Time”. In what other ways has this part of your life affected the way you work and your subject matter?
My late mom was a Mormon history buff who spent ten years writing a book. She would take trips to BYU to research for her book. She had articles in LDS magazines. I was proud of her writing. I wasn’t a big Mormon back then. Thought it kind of boring. Now I realize the connections to Mormonism were some of the most fascinating things about my mom.
There are three creative people in my family of 6 siblings: myself – an artist, my twin sister – a writer, and my brother – a muralist. The three of us are the ones that are active in the church. I think spirituality makes you vulnerable and that vulnerability connects you to an imaginative side. You find your faith and enlightenment in something that isn’t tangible.
The religious part of my painting started on a whim. LDS paintings are typically very conservative, i.e. a semi-naturalistic picture of Jesus with a light behind him. I grew up with that all my life. My art has always been more outsider or abstract, and my style not for everyone. So, the idea of actually doing LDS art as part of my career was never seen to me as a possibility. My brother who went to RISD talked about a Mormon classmate named Jeff Larsen. He said Jeff did a performance piece where he dressed up in a yeti outfit on stage and recited the LDS children’s song “Once there was a snowman.” I was impressed that he didn’t let conservative artistic traditions hold him back from how he chose to express his faith. So, I began to think about how to paint spirit babies. I did some paintings of some old men as spirit babies in pajamas. I thought of spirit babies as old men full of wisdom. It was fun and goofy. My brother called me and encouraged it, saying “That’s definitely not the usual LDS art.” I wouldn’t say I’m a Jack Mormon. But I was never the Molly Mormon go-to girl. I was not happy-go-lucky, nor ready to be a missionary.
You are posting about an Arizona artist every single day for 365 days. What has that process been like for you? What have you learned from the interviews you’ve had with these artists?
I have a friend Ione Lewis who started a Central Arts District Blog. I was hanging out with her while she was writing up her blog, and was inspired through her to do a blog myself.I had been going to First Fridays for a year and the same ten artists were rotating in the same five galleries. I thought “There have got to be more Arizona artists out there.” I thought about the 365-day format because it’s a large number but on a daily basis easy to absorb. I did a lot of research. I looked up all I could about vendor artists and artists who stand outside Revolver Records. I researched different scenes like Yuma and Tucson. Also different types such as glass and ceramic artists. Looked up graduate students. I emailed a million artists on Facebook asking them if they wanted to be on my blog. I really love helping out emerging artists the most, but also enjoy including seasoned artists.
I feel that I’m more aware of the Arizona art scene in general. I realize the artists are showing everywhere now. I also try to make it to shows by the artists on the blog. It’s nice to meet them in person.
The photography scene is the most provocative and some of the most cutting-edge stuff on my blog.
If all of your artistic dreams were realized – what would that look like? You mentioned you’d like to do installation art. Do you have a concept in mind for what that would look like?
I would love the opportunity to work bigger, I stopped doing large works because of storage problems years ago.
It’s funny I started a painting series a month ago. When I started I decided to do it as an installation series. I didn’t listen. seventy five percent into the series I realized that my intuition was right.
I have this I idea of canvas cut outs of these tall pleurant figures around a room with thousands of little paintings in the middle of the room.
At ASU Sandy Winters came to visit. I looked at her installation work and it was very amazing. Would love to do something larger than life.
You mention you spend five to six days a week at Warehouse 1005, an art studio and gallery in the Phoenix art district. What has that experience been like?
Warehouse 1005 is an art therapy studio. I have bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. I have been going to Art Awakenings and the Warehouse for five to six years. My self-confidence has increased and the diagnoses define me less. For years I felt like I always had this load on me and it would never go away. When I entered the program I started painting about my mental illness. I never liked painting about the darker side of me. Also, I never liked being too introspective in my work. I don’t think I was excited about revealing the unglamorous sides of me. But when I did a feeling definitely showed up in my work that hadn’t before. All the pain made my work richer. I still paint about the topics but less obviously. Confronting those arenas of my life made me more self-accepting and overall a more well-rounded person.
How long have you been showing your artwork in Arizona? What was your first show here?
I’ve been showing my art in Arizona since I was 19. My first show was in The Paper Heart which was a great place for emerging artists in Phoenix at the time. I showed for two to three years. I really wasn’t prepared for all the hard work that I would have to do to get my work out there. I was naïve thinking things were going to happen to me really fast.
I stopped showing my art for five years because my thoughts were too fast and I couldn’t concentrate. I was later put on the right medications again and my focus was back. The experience has taught me never to take my art for granted.
What impression do you want the viewer to have from your artwork? What do you want others to remember from your work?
With the current work I’m doing I’m hoping have a connection to spirituality and to a perspective that is uniquely my own. One viewer at the show said “I didn’t even read your artist statement but I knew it was spiritual.” I know my LDS perspective might weird some people out. One person even said “Don’t give me no Book of Mormon.” That is far from the point. I am actually conflicted about my spirituality. I would even admit I don’t fully have a testimony yet. So my artwork is me trying to question and still connect to the spiritual on some level.
What social causes do you advocate? What do you have passionate opinions about?
I’m not extremely political. Feminist, but not an extreme. I do try to keep my positions on issues moderate, despite having an extremely conservative upbringing. I am that way. My mom was extremely black-and-white in her way of thinking. She would say “It’s bad. It’s a sin. Case closed.” Though I do tend to have mostly Christian friends, I recognize there is value outside of that bubble. Some artistic people aren’t Christian and have intellectually sound opinions.
What art genres categorize your work?
Probably outsider art. I’ve had my art called that negatively. In art school I found it insulting. Now I realize the best artists are from that genre. I remember seeing the art of Adolf Wolfli when I was 20. I was a pop artist at the time so my work was far from that at the time. But I saw an artist who created his own cosmology and artistic language. You know there is a hidden artistic language in his work. He has layers of musical notes and swirls. Yet it doesn’t matter because its intensity and different cosmology draw the viewer in.
What is your artistic process? How do you start a piece and how do you finish it? What is your studio like?
Each series lends its own kind of figures. I have questions like: “How do I dress them?”, “What art period do they come from?”, and “What do their anatomies look like?” I generally use a reference. For the “Before Time” series I printed pictures of Renaissance sculptures. I sketch but generally distort the figure in some way. A lot of this is because I started out studying caricatures when I was seventeen. I don’t see things realistically. They always come out looking cartoony and unreal. Once I have the figures sketched out I imagine some sort of backdrop. With the “Before Time” series I thought of some Roman buildings and some open organic form in the background.
I start a figure in terms of layers. I look at the sketch and paint the shape of the body and the face. With the hundred figure project, it was 100 or so of these types of figures lined up. With a close up of a face, it’s the shape of a head. I layer first in black, then blue, then red. The layering makes it more sculptural and gives it some history. I then do some line marking. I scribble some dark red, dark yellow blacks, yellow blacks and some neon dark reds. I then proceed to do the eyes. The eyes are really important as they show the soul of the figures. I do the mouth and the lips. After the eyes and the lips I call it a day and then do the flesh tone the next day. It’s not usually obvious but I do add neon pink and neon red in my colors. It helps brighten the skin tones. I usually do most of the blending of the skin tones with big brushes but usually my fingers. With the Before Time series I did hundred so of the figures. One painting took me a month. Very detailed work. Every figure had their own personality and soul. I finished the painting think almost of a spaceship on top. One person even commented “Beam me up.”
What’s your current studio practice? What is your studio like? How often do you do art in a week?
I paint right now upstairs at Warehouse 1005. I rent a little space. I no longer do art therapy there. I graduated from the program. It’s affordable. The table I paint on is full of paint. So is the floor. I paint five to six days a week I usually start painting at 10 am and go home around 2 pm. I think that’s as far as my attention span can go.
The night time, in general, is when my creative juices start working. Between twelve am to three am I usually binge on some TV show and sketch all night.
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