Feet on the ground; head in the sky and the horizon in between
Whitefish artist Shawna Moore shows new work at Gallatin River Gallery
By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Whitefish artist Shawna Moore’s paintings are distinctly abstract, yet reassuringly familiar and recognizable in some elemental way. Often composed of two blocks of color split by a single line, they illustrate how a simple allusion to the horizon is enough to render a work a landscape, and for the viewer to orient him or herself within the piece—and the world at large.
“It’s a reference point,” said Moore, who frequently distills her compositions into top and bottom, earth and sky. “It’s placing yourself in time and place. But as an artist, to say ‘the top is blue and the bottom is yellow and it’s a landscape’ … that’s pretty radical. It’s taken me years to give myself permission to say that and do that.”
Moore’s work has been compared to that of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and while Moore rattles off a litany of ways their work is different, from a squinty distance the comparison resonates. But unlike the cold geometric aesthetic conveyed by some abstract art, Moore’s exudes a tactile warmth from the rich depths of her beeswax-based medium.
“It’s kind of like skin,” Moore said about working in encaustic. “It’s made out of plants and the efforts of an insect—it’s flowers basically. It’s a little more alive, a little more like us.”
In a new solo exhibition called “Borderlines” that opens at Gallatin River Gallery on June 13, Moore will be showing new encaustic paintings as well as a selection of monoprints that came out of a recent residency at Atelier 6000 in the artist’s home town of Bend, Oregon.
Based on a series of travel sketches—gouache and watercolor renderings of the Costa Rica sea, sky and beach where Moore spends a few months out of the year—Moore worked with master printmakers to create bold, blocky prints of overlapping forms until the possibilities of color combinations were nearly exhausted. More than any of her other work, the prints stir up thoughts of Piet Mondrian, and harken back to her architectural studies at the University of Oregon.
Although Moore’s mother was an art teacher and she remembers a childhood steeped in art, Moore said she didn’t get the sense that being an artist was a viable profession—so she chose something close, architecture, which allowed her to take art classes in UO’s closely aligned fine art program.
Moore dropped out of the five-year architecture program in her last term.
“I mutinied,” said Moore, who returned to Bend and spent the next 10 years working odd jobs while consistently taking painting classes.
In 2003, she and her husband, a logger, and their 2-year-old daughter moved to New Mexico for his job, and lived on a remote pueblo outside of Santa Fe.
“I was stuck at home,” Moore said. “It sounds horrible but it was really the best thing that happened to me. I thought, ‘if I can’t do this here, it will never happen.’”
Santa Fe was experiencing a boom in its art-centric economy and Moore received a creative encouragement she hadn’t found in Oregon. She also took her first encaustic class, a relatively novel medium at the time.
“It’s taken me all that time between then and now to get to the point that I’m really good at it,” Moore said.
Today, Moore finds her daily horizon on Whitefish Lake and has a warehouse studio in town with a roll up garage door—“every artist’s dream,” she says.
Rooted in a formal painterly education, with an architect’s eye for structure, Moore plays with the technical aspects of composition—foreground, background and mid-ground, borders and framing—but the overall effect, especially in her encaustic works, is sublime.
All of her work is landscape referenced, some linked to a specific place before she begins; others revealing the connection only after she begins to lay down pigment.
“Sometimes I put it into a painting and sometimes it comes out of the painting,” Moore said. In the last five years, her process has increasingly developed into a dialogue with the piece.
“It’s this language of color and form,” she said. “It’s a deeply held understanding I’ve had for a long time. It picks up everything I am and returns it back to me … you invest so much of yourself into something, it almost starts becoming you.”
Moore enjoyed temporarily switching gears to print-making and the reciprocal work that came out of the residency—some of the new encaustic pieces she will be showing at Gallatin River Gallery were inspired by the smaller prints she made in Oregon. Print-making allowed for a little more chaos and clutter in the frame—a sense of overlapping windows and doorways—than working in wax, she said. But Moore is always drawn back to expressing complexity as simply as possible.
“I like to think things can be distilled into a very simple truth,” Moore said. “A single line or the sky and ground. I really have a desire for things to be simple—maybe I can’t have that in my life, but in my art I can. It’s just the sky; it’s just the ground; it’s just a painting, colors.”
“Borderlines” opens at Gallatin River Gallery in Big Sky Town Center on Tuesday, June 13, and runs through July 29. Visit gallatinrivergallery.com or shawnamoore.com for more information.