William Shattuck's works conjure epiphanies
Published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on March 28, 2008
It's easy to be dazzled by your first glance at William Shattuck's artwork. He paints lush landscape views of open sky over tranquil marshland, wrapped in fog and an air of mystery. He also draws precise pencil renderings of fragile natural objects such as eggs or shells. While these works can be appreciated as exquisitely crafted examples of technical mastery, the South Dartmouth artist isn't interested in quick impressions. "When you stop and slow down, you are caught by a shape or form," he explains. "You begin to see more and more."
It is this deeper level of contemplation that Mr. Shattuck hopes to encourage in the viewer. He wants us to linger over his images, to savor the gradually modulated tones and delicately edged forms. Only by this slow and sensitive approach can we awaken to a true awareness of nature's majesty.
In his charcoal drawing "Bounty," for example, Mr. Shattuck depicts a pitcher with a gracefully curving spout and handle, juxtaposed with a profile pose of his wife during pregnancy. In comparing the pale skin of her rounded belly with the white porcelain of the voluptuous pitcher, the artist invites us to join his delight in the regal forms of the natural world.
Mr. Shattuck has experienced this sense of wonder at his surroundings since he was a child. Born in 1950, he grew up in Westchester County and spent many hours exploring nearby Manhattan. Art thrilled him as a youth. He enjoyed the city's magnificent museums, as well as the chance to literally "brush up against art on the street," in the form of public artworks by such sculptors as Henry Moore or Louise Nevelson. "I absorbed everybody and everything," Mr. Shattuck remembers.
He was particularly taken by the works of Ralph Albert Blakelock, George Inness and Albert Pinkham Ryder — all landscape painters who were "feeling the dynamics of nature." In response, he drew and drew, hour after hour.
As an undergraduate at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, Mr. Shattuck majored in literature, a choice based on his interest in storytelling. He also signed up for studio art courses, which he enjoyed but didn't take seriously until one particular semester. His painting professor was a stern, formal gentleman who wore a suit and tie to class every day. While Mr. Shattuck didn't consider himself a dedicated art student, he didn't think he was performing badly in the class. So he was stunned when he looked at his grade report at the end of the semester and found that he had received an F in painting. He rushed into the professor's office to find out why. "You are the only one in this class who has a gift, and you're wasting it," his teacher told him. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Mr. Shattuck says, for now he realized the importance of commitment to the creative process.
Upon graduation, Mr. Shattuck took a job on the copy desk at the New York Daily News. He also enrolled in classes at the Art Students League and the School for Visual Arts. His newsroom position and his art studies gave him a fresh perspective on his ambitions as a visual artist. Mr. Shattuck realized he could combine his love of compelling narrative with his love for art-making by doing commercial illustration, a field in which images convey precise messages just like words do. After four years at the newspaper, he went to work for an advertising firm. He also made freelance editorial illustrations for such publications as the Village Voice and Scholastic Magazine.
In 1980, Mr. Shattuck and his wife, Dorothy, known as Dedee, left New York City and moved to South Dartmouth, where she had grown up. The couple figured they would stay just long enough to make up their minds on where in the world to settle down and start a family. After a time, they realized they loved the SouthCoast and so decided to stay here to raise their two sons, Ben and Will.
Mr. Shattuck felt his sensibilities as an artist were awakened by the unique beauty of the landscape in this area. The expansive skies and rambling riverscapes provided a rich source for narrating with paint. He could conjure moods or evoke emotions by choosing from a variety of lighting conditions and weather patterns: sunrise, sunset, daylight or light obscured by fog or clouds.
In his oil painting titled "Fading Light," for example, a quiet dim is settling over the dense marsh growth. The vast horizon is colored by the golden glow of twilight, edged in vibrant orange. These warm hues are reflected in the pools of water that dot the expanse of cool grass, creating a lush pattern that answers the opulence of the open sky. The quality of light in this painting brings a sense of hope and peace as it extends over the landscape.
Mr. Shattuck paints on intimate-sized wood panels as small as 5 by 6 inches, as well as grander surfaces measuring 36 by 48 inches. He begins each painting with a detailed sketch — "a skeleton to work from" — then lays basic tones onto the panel before finally applying multiple layers of color. His drawings are also the result of a meticulous process. The basic design is worked out in detail on tracing paper before being transferred to the final surface. Then the artist uses soft charcoal pencils to build up layers of value, a procedure that can take months.
As light is the storyteller in Mr. Shattuck's paintings, so it is in his drawings. At first the charcoal rendering titled "Epiphany Waits For Thee" looks like a straightforward depiction of an ornate 19th-century chair with velvet cushions, carved arms and undulating legs. But a deeper inspection offers a more profound interpretation.
When he first viewed the chair at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum in New Bedford, Mr. Shattuck was impressed by the powerful sunlight streaming through the windows, brushing the chair's back and arms, and landing in a brilliant pool at its feet. This strong illumination reminded him of the dramatic impact found in a moment of inspiration. The artist writes of his idea behind this work, "These glimmers of knowing, of sudden clarity, wait quietly for us. They are the epiphanies of the everyday nature of human experience."
Mr. Shattuck has found the perfect channel for that gift his college professor saw in him. He uses it to craft images that remind us to recognize these epiphanies and rejoice in them. "My work is a celebration," the artist says.
Mr. Shattuck's work is owned by the Boston Public Library's Print and Drawing Collection, and by the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln. He is currently represented by the Harrison Gallery in Williamstown (www.theharrisongallery.com).
The artist will display a new series of drawings of birds in a two-person exhibit with his son, Ben, also an artist who is currently studying at Cornell University. The show opens May 9 at the gallery 5 Traverse, located at 5 Traverse St. in Providence. The gallery is open noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday or by appointment. For more information, call (401) 278-4968 or visit www.5traverse.com.