For four years I have had the pleasure of directing the Pryor Gallery at Columbia State Community College. Our exhibits change monthly and have covered the range of arts: drawing, painting, sculpture, computer graphics; and crafts: quilting, woodcarving and turning, lead glass, blacksmithing, bookmaking, and more. Sharon Rusch Shaver’s figural oils hung in the gallery for the month of July, 2006 and drew rave revues from our visitors—students and community alike, young and old, monthly regulars and first time adventurers! Sitting in my office, I hear unsolicited comments; and I had never heard so much positive variety. “Wow, this is the best yet,” was the one recurring expression.
Pryor Gallery visitors were seeing figural black and white oils, highlighted in red; some quite complicated so that the red became the spotlight; and some quite minimalist so that the red created an interest. Red focuses the viewer on her proclivity to evoke and even provoke. Many of her subjects are feminine, but occasionally a quite masculine “working man” is envisioned. Juxtaposing several paintings creates a subtle tension—who is looking at whom, and who is causing who to look at whom? The paintings are more than copies from photographs in a photo-like quality; definitely not photo-realism, but realism none the less in a signature style that addresses a situation in a place and in a time while being visualized in a universal language.
Look again at the lady dressed for an evening out but standing before her kitchen sink with a bowl in her hands, a twenties black and white image of a twenty-first century woman doing what women have always done and looking great! It is a strikingly lovely painting also a post-modern take on living. No angst involved, just getting it all done. Likewise, the man on a ladder, painting the front porch…actually this could be Sharon Rusch Shaver’s husband, who is an accomplished wood carver and builder, the other artist in the Shaver household; but it is not. Sharon’s figurals are not specific people, not portrait or photo likenesses, but rather types=everyman. Most women would not mind being her image of woman, and most men would not mind being her image of man! This particular man has reached up to paint a bracket above him so that we see in flesh tones his fit torso. His arm, reflecting the white sun, becomes a vertical element drawing the viewer’s eye from his white illuminated jeans up to the white ceiling, these against gray tones. A carpenter gothic white architectural bracket to the left of his shoulder balances our visual interest. A simple subject, a well-composed arrangement, an attractive painting and thought! Then there are the “Working Girls,” black and white, surrounded by red, a comment about the work and the girls. The scene is specifically New Orleans; it is generic city, a look into lives, focused by color. Sharon Rusch Shaver paints place well– New Orleans with music and wrought iron, a cityscape in perspective with all the lights and activity of the night, “Dusk,” or a Nantucket boat dock, “On the Dock,” in full mid-day sun with flags flying and rigs ready.
She paints what she sees and makes the viewer feel what she feels. Most often, excitement is involved. Sharon Rusch Shaver grew up on Grand Island, New York; the oldest of five, three girls and two boys. Both of her parents were artistic and painted in oils, though neither professionally; so they were encouraging and supportive of her talents when school teachers commented on their amazement at her early artistic ability. She always drew and was fortunate to have a comprehensive high school art program. Her career had begun.
Looking at Sharon Rusch Shaver’s paintings and immediate award winning canvases is a glimpse of native talent reacting to the world around her. “I would see something and just have to paint it,” she says. Never without a sketchpad and a camera, The artist records visuals and then interprets a focus that while recognizable is her unique perspective and perhaps subtle comment. She won a first place purchase award in 1978 for an oil of a corner in her bedroom, a tightly painted view of her dresser, balanced just to the right of center by a view out a curtained window. Her own gallery viewings of schooled compositional arrangements, nuances of color rounding with light and shade, and conventions of interior views with glimpses beyond instructed her instinctively. The artist titled this painting, “Morning,” a recording of her space, now an early glimpse of her major talent.
Once Sharon Rusch Shaver began her painting journey, she knew she had found her gift and literally threw herself into the paint. Her portfolio is the history of American Art: portraits, landscapes, still-life, genre; children at the beach, birds on a wire, flowers in her garden, a stream tumbling over rocks, musicians taking a break. They are an interpretive look at life around the artist. Photographs of the artist painting en plein aire, in a class, on installation site, or at an exhibit catch her color-loaded palette, a smile on her face, and an intense eye on her subject and canvas.
The artist Sharon Rusch Shaver was commissioned to paint portrait murals in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham. Nashville Magazine then asked her to paint a portrait of Patty Lovelace for the cover of their October 1989 issue. As the arts in Nashville gained center stage focus, so too did Sharon Rusch Shaver’s art when she was selected to paint the mural for the Frist Center for the Arts Post Office. It is a Norman Rockwell style look at Tennesseans responding to WWII , saying good-bye, and leaving on the train from Union Station next to the Frist Center, which was the old Nashville Post Office. She gave that mural and the one for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame an archival look, paintings translated through print processes into black and white magazine or newspaper images, a style that she has continued to develop and has used to stimulate her particular creativity.
Sharon Rusch Shaver began the 21st century in celebratory style with a commission from the White House to be one of thirteen artists for its 2001 Calendar. When she traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the award and meet the other artists, she asked to look through the White House photo archives, as she knew she wanted to paint a subject with people and history. She found a photograph taken during the presidency of Warren G. Harding of a Plains Indian in full ceremonial regalia, standing in front of the White House, shaking hands with President Harding. That is her painting done in her now developed style of an early black and white collodian print, giving only the Native American textiles and beading their natural color. The original Sharon Rusch Shaver from Tennessee painting for the month of November, 2000, is now a part of the permanent White House collection.
Beyond the value ascribed by winning awards (15 major juried), exhibiting solo (27 gallery shows), public commissions (6), and being published (12 articles with accompanying images), This artist’s true artistic merit is that she is capable of painting both lush landscapes and sweet children; but like other artists of note in American history, she has developed her own style, her particular means of communicating what she sees. And she experiments daily. Dedication is her discipline; Sharon Rusch Shaver is compelled to go to her loft studio and “get into the paint” for hours each day. She also has an occasional tea party and invites the neighbors into her wonderful world: long skirts, big hats, fresh flowers. The artist shares herself generously and gains from that sharing. She soaks up people nuances and then puts them on canvas. Her nudes seem to be glimpses rather than studies, though she has done a series. They are women not so much painted in life class but painted in life. Sharon Rusch Shaver paints them in her now signature style of deep blues to gray with red promptings. She technically commands her medium and controls her space; but beyond that, Sharon Rusch Shaver gives the viewer insight into the individual or the situation without crossing a personal space line. A visit to her loft and a look at what she is doing this very moment is an adventure into color applied unsparingly, making her surfaces sparkle. The artist’s subjects range from a three by four foot close inspection of luscious purple grape clusters on large-leafed, mature vines or a well-lighted kitchen counter holding lemons cut to squeeze on a glass fruit juicer with oranges waiting their turn and apples looking on, to six by eight inch snippets of 17th c. still-life renderings of floral porcelain teacups and saucers and exotic butterflies. Ground is becoming less, and figure more. Darkness fills less, and exquisite color more. It is a subtle transformation and perhaps only temporary; a constant fine-tuning of technique and presentation, as well as an ever open eye and mind to new expression. Sharon Rusch Shaver’s work appeals now to a huge audience, but better yet to all the individual reasoning in that audience. Because her ability to get into the paint as well as into the subject, Sharon Rusch Shaver’s work is a present success with enduring appeal, “everyman” modern.
Lucy Scott Kuykendall
Pryor Gallery of Art