“Wow! She’s the real deal!” was a comment overheard when I was viewing Carolyn Shattuck’s current exhibit at Compass Music and Art Center in Brandon. In fact, although I have known Shattuck for almost 30 years, I had never seen the entire breadth and depth of her work, and I was duly impressed.
We met at Castleton State University where Shattuck was teaching a printmaking class, and I signed up, fascinated with learning about monotype, where I could paint directly onto an acrylic plate and make a print from that. Viewing the variety of techniques that she uses in creating her colorful wall pieces and sculptural books piqued my curiosity about her journey.
From her beginnings in silkscreen through pursuing a master of fine arts in painting from Bard College, and her continuing experiments, Carolyn Shattuck has always sought to absorb as much as she could of technique, mastery of color and skill at combining different media. As a result, she is not only a consummate artist, but also an excellent instructor. She teaches book art workshops in New England and Florida.
Shattuck has shown extensively in the United States, and has been included in numerous juried exhibitions, including Delta National Small Prints, Parkside National Small Prints and Printwork ’98, 2K at Barrett Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie. She has also received numerous awards including the University of Texas Purchase award, National Works on Paper and her books are included in numerous University Special Book Collections as well as in the Smithsonian Museum.
I’d like to ask Shattuck some questions about her evolution as an artist, and how she manages to combine so many different processes and interests in her work.
B.A.: Although you were an artist as a child, I believe that you came to art as an adult. Could you tell us a bit about your journey?
C.S.: I have always worked with my hands. I have a memory of myself at age 7 working with my mother’s Necchi sewing machine, making Ms. Canada doll clothes. I wanted to go to art school, but it was received as a foolish idea by my parents because, “You couldn’t make a living.” I trained as a nurse and when the opportunity presented itself in 1970, I took a silkscreen course. That opened the door.
When my children were young, I studied with a printmaker in Indianapolis and worked as an artist when they took naps. Upon moving to Vermont in 1978, I finished my external undergraduate degree (BFA) from Johnson State College. I was able to apply my nursing experience from the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing towards my undergraduate credits.
B.A.: How did you transition from silkscreen printmaking to painting, and then to work in mixed media?
C.S.: Since silkscreening was the only skill I knew in the art world, I didn’t want to give it up until the joints in my hands rebelled from the pressure of the squeegee pushing the ink through the mesh. I also became aware of the dangerous chemicals I was using. I pulled my work out of a few galleries and took several week-long courses in monotype offered by Art New England at Bennington College. It was transformative.
About the same time, I decided I needed a “terminal degree,” an MFA, in order to teach, and keep growing professionally, so I taught myself to paint and was accepted at Bard College. My time was often split between the two disciplines. I decided to continue with both, thinking that one would eventually dominate.
I also learned an unusual printing process with water-based fiber dyes resisting oil-based linoleum. At some point it became obvious to work over the monotypes with collage, pencil and paint. My work evolved into a unique image, so I never had the goal of printing editions, as many printmakers do. My images are works on paper and sometimes mixed media. I also incorporate relief images into the final piece.
B.A.: Many of these works seem to have a personal tone. Why do you think that it’s important for an artist to express what they feel?
C.S.: I can’t see it any other way. It didn’t appeal to me to engage in an intellectual construct in art making. The ideas usually come to me through an intuitive, emotional source. I definitely believe it is very honest and real to connect and express yourself through art.
My art training exemplified the idea of acting as a funnel for many types of work made by people, absorbing this information and then letting go of these voices in order to develop your own. An artist has to have faith along the journey to absorb the ups and downs, both in life and in the art process.
B.A.: The books are very complicated art pieces. I really see them as sculptures. How did you come transfer your print-making into books?
C.S.: My printmaking/mixed media images required me to work on a horizontal surface. There was a lot of layering. I was also fascinated by the structures of bookmaking. I took a few book art workshops but am primarily self-taught. I learned the mechanics of bookmaking through a book called “Cover to Cover” by Shereen LaPlanz.
The transition from printmaking layers on a horizontal surface to constructing many components on a vertical was not difficult. Each process was a conversation of weaving the information so they could relate to each other. I liked the challenge of finding the right folds so that the book could remain flat and also expand into a multi-dimensional world. I and my friend Joan Curtis decided to exchange monthly journal entries. I was explaining a dream I had of my mother-in-law’s death and Joan suggested that I make a book. That was the beginning of bookmaking.
B.A.: Concern for the environment seems to be a key theme in your work. How do you think that making art helps to save the environment?
C.S.: Well I hope it does. Seeing a visual image of a turtle with Fibropapilloma, which causes blindness and starvation, has a direct effect on us. I think it stays in your memory longer. I have made four unique Turtle Books and all of them have sold. I was in the midst of learning to make origami elephants for the book, “Save the Elephants,” and I met a woman who told me about an American, Esmond Bradley Martin, who was killed because of his actions to stop the ivory trade. The combination of image with text is very powerful.
B.A.: You live part of the time in Rutland, and part of the time in Key West. How do these places influence your work?
C.S.: Definitely kayaking in the Keys has given me an awareness of the fragility of sea life. I have included images of turtles, jellyfish, shore birds in my work. The release of sea turtles back into the sea was often in the newspaper in the Keys. There was an awareness of their endangerment. Some of them are so damaged from propellers and plastic bag ingestion, they cannot return to their habitat. I visited a turtle hospital in Marathon, which led me to collect more information and make turtle books.
Sometimes an event presents itself such as the moment when I looked towards the trees near my studio in Rutland Town, Vermont, and I saw a catamount. It was amazing. I felt that the siting was a signal for me to discover more about this animal. According to Vermont Fish and Wildlife, they are registered as an extinct species. I began gathering information from the Web. I also traveled to the Vermont History Museum where there is a stuffed catamount. The staff was very helpful and gave me the last recorded article of a catamount killing. lt was printed in The Standard in 1881. All of this became information for the “The Catamount Book.”