Artist Snapshot: Wendy Shalen

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

Wendy Shalen interview
A studio moment with Wendy Shalen and Jasper, 2020

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
After spending my junior year in Paris, graduating from college and moving to New York City, I taught French and art history at a private school and went to the League, studying with Daniel Greene in his late afternoon class and afternoons with Robert Beverly Hale. At the National Academy of Design, I studied with Harvey Dinnerstein, then privately with Burt Silverman. I was twenty-five and determined to learn to draw and paint to experience the techniques I had seen in Paris and in my college art history classes. In the city, while teaching junior and senior high school students at the Birch Wathen School, I created a humanities class where students could learn the history of art and civilization by simulating ancient, medieval, and modern painting techniques and creating personal versions of the ancient techniques. I did not really “decide to become an artist,” but making art was what I loved to do continually, along with communicating this love for art history and art-making to students. Much later, after years of drawing, painting, and teaching the methods I was learning, my avocation became more of a vocation.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I assume that my father and mother were thrilled, though we didn’t really discuss it. They were very enthusiastic about my studying at the League and teaching art history and studio art. My father was a Sunday painter, who studied with Anthony Toney and Arnold Hoffman, a contemporary of Raphael Soyer, and my mother, an interior designer, studied art history with a Barnes Foundation scholar while taking me, for years, to visit the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

Who are your favorite artists?
The Achilles Painter, a Greek vase painter from the fifth century BC, Vincent van Gogh, John Singer Sargent, Käthe Kollwitz, Ingres, Gericault, David Levine, Burt Silverman, and Harvey Dinnerstein.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
William Kentridge. I am fascinated by his politically-charged, animated charcoal drawings and illustrations drawn over pages in antique books.

Art book you cannot live without?
A difficult question as there are so many! For anatomical studies I refer to Cyclopedia Anatomicae by Gyorgy Fehér and András Szunyoghy; Louise Gordon’s books: How to Draw the Human Head: Techniques and Anatomy, The Figure in Action, How to Draw the Human Figure; for inspiration and to experience an artist’s thoughts in their own words: Van Gogh on Art and Artists: Letters to Emile Bernard and The Letters of Vincent van Gogh; Richard Kendall’s series, Cézanne by Himself, Degas by Himself, Monet by Himself, Gauguin by Himself, are wonderful to read. Also, Pontormo: Drawings by Jacopo Carucci Pontormo (author) and Salvatore S. Nigro (editor).

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Honesty, hard work, independence, a willingness to risk and try new techniques, to go out on a limb to challenge oneself and experiment to create fresh, spontaneous work, to be generous and share techniques and concepts with other artists and students. The ability to translate the turbulent events of our time into simple powerful artwork that moves viewers to feel and think.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, and I try to draw in it daily, lately from Zoom sketch sessions with models broadcast from L’Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Montparnasse, Paris.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The Morgan Library, the Wallace Collection in London, the Metropolitan, the new Prado, and, in Paris, L’Orangerie, Musée Carnavalet and Musée National Eugène Delacroix.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collectionworks by major masters from the Renaissance to the modern era, including Mantegna, Rubens, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Piranesi, Watteau, Fragonard, Goya, Ingres, Turner, Daumier, Redon, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and Pollock. Eugene V. Thaw donated these phenomenal master drawings to the Morgan, and this was an exhibition of 150 out of the 400 works on paper which Thaw donated to the Morgan.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
Always an art instructor, but perhaps a gardener or landscape designer as cultivating my garden is my greatest pleasure aside from making art.

How did your early artistic cohort influence your development?
While studying with Harvey Dinnerstein at the National Academy, Jerry Weiss and Nomi Silverman were classmates. I admired Jerry’s intuitive ability to create large-scale figurative oils and Nomi’s independent and raw, politically-charged work. I realized then that oil paints seemed both too toxic and opaque for my sensibilities. Today, the urgent need to create artwork that responds to our difficult times is always present, and then I feel I must put aside the peaceful landscapes or figure drawings I am creating and try to capture my reactions powerfully yet simply.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I would love to draw loose gesture drawings as did the Italian Renaissance artists and also wish I had taken a complete écorché sculpture class, with cadaver drawing included, and studied perspective more thoroughly.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
In college as a Greek and Roman art history major, I wrote a thesis on Greek fifth century BC white-ground lekythos by the Achilles Painter. I still adore those, and his fluid use of an exquisite brown clay slip contour line for the profiles of the figures. I also wrote a thesis on the Villa dei Misteri fresco in Pompei and find the use of brilliant color and the complicated Dionysiac ritual wall paintings remarkable and fascinating.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
I am calmed by the beauty of light in nature while walking and gardening, by being on the water sailing while viewing complicated water reflections in the ocean, and am always trying to figure out how to paint them. But mostly watching my grandchildren on FaceTime!

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, mostly Richie Havens and Bob Dylan, and sometimes when Zoom drawing in Paris, I listen to some French singers like Françoise Hardy and Edith Piaf.

What is the last gallery you visited?
I was so lucky to travel with the Met to Egypt and Petra, Jordan, in December and January and became engrossed with their history and artifacts. On our return we toured the Egyptian galleries in the Met, revisiting the ancient culture with new insight and fascination.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
There are many, but three remarkable women sculptors come to mind: Camille Claudel, Malvina Hoffman, and Käthe Kollwitz (as a sculptor). These three talented women must have had enormous ambition to work tirelessly in a field dominated by men and to succeed in creating emotionally powerful, unforgettable artwork.

What art materials can you not live without?
A bamboo reed pen and brown ink and my Waterman cartridge pen, on toned and traditional white watercolor paper. Silver, gold or metal point stylus and metal point paper.

Do you paint every day? 
I try to work from life and observation daily, drawing and painting landscapes or figures in pen and ink and watercolor. I use these as inspiration and sketches to create works in pigmented handmade paper and, recently, in powdered glass frit, which I kiln fuse.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Perhaps a month while daily framing my artwork for a solo exhibition in Chelsea.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I go for a walk around the lake by our house and am transformed by the color and intensity of the light, by the wind and reflections on the water. If the weather is stormy, I draw in my studio—eyes or small self-portraits—or I visit the collection database of the Metropolitan Museum and explore and sometimes copy their master drawings and prints.

What are the questions that drive your work?
How can I muster all of my visual, technical, and emotional energies into reacting spontaneously, yet somewhat accurately, to honestly transpose my feelings for a subject?

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Similar to my reply to what quality I admire most: Honesty, hard work, independence, a willingness to risk and try new techniques, to go out on a limb to challenge oneself and experiment to create fresh, spontaneous work, to be generous and share techniques and concepts with other artists and students. The ability to translate the turbulent events of our time into simple powerful work.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I continue to strive for a way to make my body of work more cohesive without sacrificing my ability to work in multiple media and techniques.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I am amazed that I can draw from a model posing in Paris via Zoom and am able to capture the pose, mood, and moving spirit of a model thousands of miles away.

WENDY SHALEN will teach “Life Drawing with Self-Portraiture & Portfolio Development” as an online three-day-a-week class, part of the Art Students League’s 2020 summer session that begins July 7.


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