Artist based in Kent, Ohio
Shawn Powell, Portrait of the artist.
Tell us about yourself, what's your background?
I’m from a small rural town just southwest of St. Louis, Missouri. After attending the Kansas City Art Institute for my BFA in painting and art history, I went to Hunter College to study painting for my MFA. I lived in New York for about 15 years before relocating to Kent, Ohio.
It's hard to pinpoint a precise moment when I knew I wanted to be an artist. It just happened gradually over time. Although, I do remember an impactful trip to the St. Louis Art Museum while in community college, which was my first trip to an art museum when I was about 18 or 19 years old. I think that moment was pivotal, and even though I wouldn’t go to art school until several years later, I think my experience with the works on view that day, seeing the possibilities, really solidified a desire to study art in some capacity. I was lucky enough to have a lot of great teachers and mentors along the way that helped me build confidence and fed my curiosity, which cultivated my interest in becoming an artist.
Blanket, Crutch, Roller Blade, Paper Airplane, Corndog, and Lipstick, 2022
acrylic on canvas, 75 x 50 inches. Photo: Field Studio Photography
"I’m influenced by cinema, and I utilize a top-town cinematic viewpoint in most of my paintings, looking at scenes of leisure from a hovering perspective."
What are you currently working on and where did the inspiration for it come from?
My work usually begins with a setting or a place. For the past year, the works have been centered around a grassy park. Before that, my paintings used the beach as a setting. I’m influenced by cinema, and I utilize a top-town cinematic viewpoint in most of my paintings, looking at scenes of leisure from a hovering perspective. The large rectangular paintings act as still lifes of enigmatic items, such as a lone rollerblade or flute, carefully positioned on a field of hand-painted grass. The arrangement of objects is intended to be wry and witty. I’m starting a new set of paintings that will continue with this approach and setting, and I am also interested in exploring varying places where labor and leisure collide.
Bike, Backpack, Lollipop, flute, partial denture, and shuttlecock, 2022 acrylic on canvas, 50 x 75 inches. Photo: Field Studio Photography.
I often use shaped canvases as well, which can be seen in the parasol and hula hoop works. These circular paintings embrace the strictures of reductive abstraction, while simultaneously poking fun as representational trompe l’oeil images.
I work in projects. Recently, I finished a set of flag-shaped paintings that I began at an artist residency last summer. The residency was called nido, the Italian word for nest, so I created about twenty works shaped like boat flags that were related to reductive abstract painters that I have an interest in. I was thinking about what my studio “nest” would look like in relation to abstract artists I feel I have a kinship with, and also liked how abstract paintings and boat flags each have their own set of codes.
Parasol (red and green,), 2022, acrylic on canvas, 40-inch diameter. Photo: Tim Safranek.
Innovation does not only happen in the field of technology — it occurs everyday in a creative practice. What do you do for inspiration?
I spend a lot of time going to exhibitions and museums. I like visiting other artist’s studios or conducting virtual visits. It’s always great to hear an old friend talk about their work or my work. I also curate exhibitions from time to time and my wife and I have an exhibition space in our backyard called Gazebo Gallery that developed during the pandemic. Lately, I’ve been attending artist residencies as well, which is a great way to meet a new cohort of artists with varying approaches to art making. It’s important to participate in my artistic community and continue to challenge my visual knowledge to stay inspired. I also watch a lot of films and look at architecture and design.
Hula Hoop (yellow and magenta), 2022, acrylic on shaped canvas, 36-inch diameter. Photo: Field Studio Photography.
I think it’s important to stay open to inspiration that takes my work to unexpected places. For example, this past summer during a Poor Farm residency called Living in the Play in Monte Castello di Vibio, Italy, I became fascinated with the resiliency of weeds growing out of the medieval architecture. This inspired me to create some site-specific wall works. These hand-cut and hand-painted three-dimensional cutouts of paper were arranged to mimic the various plants throughout the village. The works were then installed directly into the cervices of the rock wall in the residency gallery space. I came to the residency expecting to make my usual work, but allowed myself to explore this other avenue.
Describe your practice and process. Where do ideas start for you? In the studio or being in the world?
Mostly from being in the world, I would say. I keep a list of ideas in a sketchbook, usually based on something I’ve observed. Sometimes the ideas come from a sentence in a book I’ve read, from something I’ve seen or heard in a movie, from a painting in a museum, or something I’ve noticed while walking from place to place. I try to observe the mundane and how simple gestures, objects, perspectives, and compositions can carry content. Ideas come to me in the studio too, while working on a painting and things need to shift or change.
(left) Blank Flag Project canvases. (right) Works in progress and umbrells/parasol sketches.
How do you make your work, does it start with a sketch?
I start out with very simple compositional sketches that allows me to figure out how to organize a canvas. I’ll then make a more complicated sketch if needed, but often draw directly on the canvas. For the shaped works, since they are composed with patterns, I’ll make more detailed sketches to work from. The materials and surfaces are super important too. I’m very particular about preparing my canvases, priming them, taping them off, the scale and ratio of the canvas, and designing the shapes and proportions for the shaped works.
Color is an important component for my work, so I spend a lot of time figuring out color relationships and mixing color. The subtlety of color is essential to my paintings. I’ll take visual cues on color from clothing, advertisements, designs, film, and old paintings. I have a lot of Color-aid paper in the studio, too, and will arrange them and make color swatches until I feel I have the right combination. Color is powerful conduit for mood and atmosphere.
Sketchbook image, research on Carmen Herrera for Flag Project.
I first started working with an above view perspective when I was at the Kansas City Art Institute. I was working from photographs of things that I had found interesting, which, as a bit of a shoegazer, always seemed to be on the ground. I think a level of close inspection from above started there, but probably even earlier. I also have a love for cinema and really pay attention to camera angles and editing, so that has played a large role in how I look at paintings. I like to think about what is happening outside of the frame of the canvas as much as what might be happening inside, which is certainly inherent in cinema, and I like the directness of a flattened perspective.
As for the shaped works, this probably goes back to my job as a commercial painter. When I was in undergrad, I worked for a company that painted theme park rides, props, haunted houses, etc. I learned a lot from that job, and it finds its way into the work often. I’m always balancing my “high” art training and my “low” art background, and I think my approach to painting is derived from a reconciliation with coming to art first through comic books, magic the gathering cards, popular culture, and commercial painting, and then later being highly influenced by cinema, contemporary art, and theory. That’s probably why I approach much of my work as a middle-ground between non-referential abstraction and representation as an attempt to bring these two spaces together.
Do you have your own studio ritual? What does that look like for you?
My habits have changed through the years. I used to work long hours well into the night, but lately I’ve developed a more standard 9-5 work schedule in the studio, unless I have a major deadline. I’m not one for taking too many breaks when I get into painting, so I just have a short break for lunch. I make several paintings at once, so the studio will be filled with a lot of canvases in various stages of completion.
Music is very important in the studio. I have a record player there, so sometimes I listen to vinyl, which I like because it forces me to stop and step back every time I need to turn the record. Otherwise, I’ll just have my headphones on. There’s a great radio station online called NTS, so I’ll tune into that sometimes. I like Veronica Vasicka’s Minimal Wave sessions. I have my own playlists comprised of music that I would play at a spot called Café Dancer in New York along with artists Carlos Rigau and Peter Demos. It mostly consists of bands like Chris and Cosey, Sisters of Mercy, Soft Cell, Eleven Pond, stuff like that. But I like anything from Tom Waits to Mazzy Star to Orville Peck to bands like Vacation. I have a collection of Jolene covers too.
(left) Parasol work on paper, in progress, Alfed/Düsseldorf Artist Residency, 2023. (right) Studio image of Data, my favorite 24th century painter.
Who are your biggest influences?
This list is always shifting, but currently I’ve been looking at the work of Konrad Klapheck, Nathalie du Pasquier, Roger Brown, and Fernand Léger. I like the quirkiness of their work. Olivier Mosset is an important artist for me, especially his shaped works and monochrome works that have representational titles. Jonathan Lasker and Carmen Herrera, too. The Sur Moderno show at MoMA a few years back had a lot of great work in it that has stuck with me.
Studio image of parasol works on paper. 2023.
Are there books or films that are an important source of inspiration?
I’m really into the written work of anthropologist Michael Taussig, and I like Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings as well. Italo Calvino, too. For film, I have a lot of favorites. A few of the directors I particularly love are Jacques Tati, Pedro Alomodóvar, Carlos Reygadas, David Lynch, and Roy Andersson.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
When I was working in an artist’s studio in New York as their part-time assistant, we were talking about the complicated nature of the art world, and I was expressing my frustration with an early lack of success. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like, “Are you a short-game artist or a long-game artist? I didn’t have my first two-person show until I was 42. I think you’re a long-game artist.” That’s always stuck with me.
What is the best advice you would give to other artists?
Be a long-game artist.