Shannon Estlund talked with Betsy Ruth Byers about the process of making art, moving source images taken by field cameras to production in the studio, the difficult balance of studio, parenting and teaching life in the times of COVID, and how she finds motivation in the studio.
Betsy: I am so glad to be talking today. Artist interviews are one of my favorite things to read so I am looking forward to our conversation. First question, did you want to be an artist your entire life or was it something that you came to later in your education? How did you envision your life as a working artist from the point of view of your younger self?
Shannon: I did always want to be an artist. From as early as I can remember, it was the thing that drew me in more than anything else. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do as a profession and there were things that I thought I had more natural ability in than being an artist, but the visual arts were always just the brightest star out there. I didn't have any idea what that would look like as a profession and I didn't have a picture of how you could make a living doing it. So as I got older I just decided that I would try to preserve as much energy as I could for art making. I decided to make a living in either a related field or something that wouldn’t take all my energy.
Betsy: So, what did that look like in your younger days?
Shannon: After I graduated from college I was living in Gainesville, Florida and there weren't that many jobs related to the arts. I started out working in frame shops and then I worked for a company that made props for theme parks.
Betsy: Oh Cool!
Shannon: Yeah, I was making things for Universal Studios using a lot of Bondo and stuff like that. I always wanted to teach but was told it would be extremely hard to make a living that way so that didn't seem like a path. But that too had such a pull for me that I couldn’t let it go so eventually I pursued it.
Betsy: Was there an event or occurrence that made you know it was time to get your MFA; a tipping point for you?
Shannon: You know there was, it was when my children were creeping up on school age. My husband, Mark, knew that I always wanted to do it, and he brought up that it might be time. I’m really fortunate that he was so supportive and helped me through it all. There was not an MFA program in Jacksonville, Florida, where we were living at the time [now there is]. So with our family situation, it felt like now or never because it would be easier to move when the kids were younger as opposed to when they were going to be in school, having to navigate school districts, them leaving friends and all that.
Betsy: Yes, we are going to talk about the balance of artist and parent later, which is really tricky too, I think. It’s strange to think about how your life as an artist is impacted by both internal decisions that you can make and external factors that are out of your control.
I have known your work for quite some time; we went to the same MFA program at MCAD. More and more, I think there's a specificity to how you paint landscapes that I really appreciate as a viewer. Often, when I am looking at your work, I feel like I'm looking through your eyes; that I am seeing someone else’s perspective. I understand that you often use source images from places you know. For instance you’ve set some field cameras up on your property. Could you tell me about how you decide what to paint from these images? In relation to this question, I’m curious if you think about your audience when you create your artwork or not?
Shannon: I'm happy to hear that you notice a specificity in the viewpoint. I definitely want the viewer to feel like they are in the space, that they're surrounded by the space. Part of how I make those decisions is framing so you feel like you're being enveloped by the space. Often things in the foreground come up around the sides like in Romantic paintings. Another thing that I look for is deep space because I want to pull the viewer in. I have been using a trail camera as a way to get source imagery and that's interesting because the format is very wide, almost panoramic. I can set up the camera with some idea of what's going to be captured in the frame with some deep space and something of interest with only the landscape in the frame. Then it'll capture whatever wildlife happens to go by. From there I can look at those images and sometimes combine a few together. Because it's such a wide format, and I tend to work in square format, I'm able to edit and still have all of those formal things that I’m looking for.
Betsy: Sorry to interrupt, but I find it so intriguing that an artist is putting up trail cameras. Where are they? Are they in your backyard?
Shannon: I set it up in my backyard and in the woods adjacent to my backyard. I live near a creek and there's a ravine and a ridge and a well-used wildlife trail so I catch a lot of animals on film. I've been wanting to dig down more and more into my immediate surroundings. There's so much to learn even in this small area. I'm interested in relationships and systems and how one thing affects another and how everything is intertwined.
Betsy: You could create a Northern suburbs farmers’ almanac, like Aldo Leopold!
Betsy: How often do you check the cameras and do they download automatically?
Shannon: The photos are collected on a card and I have to switch it out. Spring was a really active time because there were a lot of baby animals and so I was moving the camera around a lot. I would find a nest I wanted to watch and set the camera up for a week or two at each place. I do have some favorite spots where if I leave it for a couple of weeks I'll have, like, 900 photos and it's information overload.
Betsy: Right! I can imagine. So next question, what drives you more, the creative ambition in the studio or your professional goals?
Shannon: I think creative ambition in the studio is the root of it all. I think that if you're really focused on making the best work you can make that answers both creative ambitions and professional goals - because it all starts with the work. I don't know how else you get there. It is really important to find the motivation and drive in the work itself. Otherwise you can get frustrated or burnt out.
Betsy: Yeah, I agree if you keep making the work, those two things [creative ambition and professional goals] will hopefully align. What is the most satisfying thing about being an artist?
Shannon: The process. That dialogue that happens between you and the work. I love starting pieces feeling the potential and then seeing them take shape. I love when you feel like you know a piece so well and then you'll sleep on it and come back and it looks different the next day. The whole experience of making; it feels like you are guiding it, but you're not dictating what it is.
Betsy: Yes, I can see this in your process. I think that we have some similar approaches to letting a painting find itself yet pushing it forward by resolving formal issues. I’m intrigued by how your paintings play with color and how color can be transformed. I find joy and interest in passages or moments in your work when a hue flips suddenly or unexpectedly.
Betsy: Those moments when you pull that off are surprising and kind of abstract, yet fluid. It’s quite painterly and I adore that about your work.
Shannon: Thank you! That is something that I am really preoccupied with right now. Going back to your question about thinking about an audience: that's where I'm really thinking about the viewer because I'm making a still thing that’s meant to stand in for the experience of being somewhere. How do you translate the experience of all five senses to something that’s still and purely visual? So for me it's important to have those kinds of surprises, like a color that might be purple and in the context of other colors it shifts to black or orange. The way color can change and pattern can create shifting space. More and more lately I've been preoccupied with the visual experience.
Betsy: How has the pandemic affected your studio or has it not? What kind of things are you working on? What kinds of things are you preoccupied with in light of where we are now and what we are dealing with?
Shannon: The pandemic has been an opportunity to pause and reflect. But the murder of George Floyd, and too many others, and the protests across the country all demonstrate to me that racial justice is the most urgent issue right now. It has made me think about how my practice fits in, or what am I doing with it? How does it operate in the world? I'm still questioning that. Right now my best answer is that my practice helps ground me and helps me to feel like I have the resources to try to contribute to human kind in some meaningful way. I suppose people still need to experience wonder and feel connected to nature. At the same time, more needs to be done towards racial justice, so I’m still questioning.
Betsy: Of course. The idea of what we do practice and how it relates to the bigger picture has become a question for every human being. We can only hope that what we are doing will make things better. With purpose, ego and history, it all gets complicated. There is also the question of privilege. What does it mean to have an MFA or to be a landscape painter when you're living in a community that is struggling with racial justice? Well all communities are struggling with racial justice.
This question may be a bit convoluted, but thinking about those concerns as an artist and as a parent, how are you balancing it all? How do you try to maintain studio life, parenting and teaching? Do you have some conclusions, or, do you have anything helpful to share that balances all those different parameters or roles in your life?
Shannon: Yeah. That's a big question.
Betsy: I know. I don’t think it has to be a big answer though, Shannon, I think we can take baby steps.
Shannon: So the tricky part is the lack of time. There's just not enough time for everything and so I try to be very efficient so that I can be really present for whatever it is that I'm doing in the moment. One thing that helps me is planning out the week ahead of time and then compartmentalizing my time. Because of COVID, everything is happening at home now and it would be really easy to mix everything together (teaching, helping my kids with distance learning, and art making). For me it's better to split it up and put everything on a schedule. I'm so lucky to be able to work from home while my kids are schooling at home, and they're old enough that they don't need me constantly the way your kids probably do. I can tell them, “Right now I need to be in my studio and work.” Having clear goals and being adaptable and flexible when they don’t work out -that is the best way I know to manage it all right now.
Betsy: Are you motivated by deadlines? For instance, does it help to prioritize your studio time when you have an upcoming exhibition or project?
Shannon: It helps and it hurts. I probably dedicate more time to art making when I have a deadline but then I also kind of wonder what would happen to those pieces if they had had more time to breathe. You'll never know; you can never go back in time. Sometimes I feel like it's really good for a piece to sit on the wall for a month. Sometimes I don’t have the time to let it sit. I’d like to hear what you do to balance it all?
Betsy: I am the same as you. I have to compartmentalize. I have to be very efficient in the studio and that is the one thing that did change [upon] becoming a parent. I really miss playing, sitting and staring at work in the studio. It’s not that I don't sit and look at my work, but longer moments feel elusive. When I'm in the studio I need to be consistently moving and I just know, “okay I have two hours.” Things are much shorter snippets of time and I don't get to simmer on ideas when I'm in the space. I do a lot of thinking outside of the studio and that helps; I know my next move that I need to make. I don't have the capacity to move fluidly between those things. I like to focus on one thing at a time. I either give my energy to the family, the work or my teaching. It's hard to mix between.
Shannon: Yeah, me too, because otherwise I find that I’m always on the laptop, I’m always working if I don’t separate it out.
Betsy: Yes, and the fatigue right now with the digital interface feels so burdensome. I hate to check in on email or be on a call while I'm spending time with my kids.
Shannon: Yeah, yeah. And the students are going to feel that way too.
Betsy: I know, I know!
Shannon: I’m concerned about that.
Betsy: I was in a recent teaching workshop and we were talking about the fatigue of Zoom calls and meetings. I love one of my colleagues at Gustavus; she is a dance Professor. Her name is Michelle Rusinko and she’s done a lot of work on restorative behavior and resiliency. She's a cancer survivor and she just said ‘You know, when you think about it, when you're on Zoom, it's a certain way of looking and you're so focused on the visual and the hearing that your other senses are just starving.” Inside I was like “yes!” and I know as a painter who works on sensory experiences, like you do, thinking about all of these ways our bodies know things that we are missing out on right now is painful!
I am curious if you have a project you are working on right now or what work or artists have you been looking at lately?
Shannon: I'm working on a continuation of something that I've been working on for the past year using photos from a trail camera and working with that imagery: landscape and wildlife.
Betsy: Are you working on any sculptures?
Shannon: I have some experimental sculptures lying around but nothing that is resolving itself just yet. I’ve always got objects around, but I’m focused a little more on the paintings right now because I have a bunch of things that I need to wrap up. I feel like I need to put a period on the end of this group of work. I had a show in March, like I know you did, and it's like it's suspended in formaldehyde. I put the work up at Augsburg’s Gage Gallery and then everybody had to leave campus and the work is still there. I'm not exactly sure when I'm going to get it back. My most recent work is part of what informs my next steps and it’s a little weird to have that show frozen in time. I think right now I need to finish the works in progress that are connected to that work and then see where that takes me.
Betsy: That's kind of wild to still have your work there - it is like it is frozen in a time capsule! I got to take my work down from Rosalux, so at least I had closure. To have your work alone all summer -that has to be a weird feeling. I always feel like my work is an extension of me so that must be strange!
Shannon: It will be really great to see that work again. Most of those pieces were really fresh when they went up. I really pushed for that deadline so I haven't really internalized what some of those pieces even look like.
Betsy: I'm going to get back to you about the artist inspiration but, for any young painters that might read this, do you have a favorite color or brand of paint you are willing to share?
Shannon. Oh yeah, I really love Williamsburg Oils. I love that they have the actual paint on the label. You can see exactly what paint is going to look like, you can tell the transparency, you can tell the sheen of it.
Betsy: Do you have a favorite dark color?
Shannon: Oh, so right now, let me grab that tube . . .
Betsy: This is the good stuff!
Shannon: I just discovered this one -it's Courbet Green.
Betsy: I’m writing it down!
Shannon: Yeah- it’s a really dark earthy green and it's got some blue in it -it's kind of bluish.
Betsy: It sounds right up my alley. Do you have any artists you are looking at right now or that you have found during the pandemic?
Shannon: Lately I’ve been looking at Matthew Wong. Have you seen his work?
Betsy: No, I don’t think so.
Shannon: It’s just incredible. He died recently, just as he was becoming really successful; he committed suicide. He paints interiors and landscapes and I just love the way he uses pattern, and his palettes are gorgeous -really lonely and beautiful.
Betsy: Your work reminds me of the Romantics and of one of my favorite painters, Claire Sherman.
Shannon: I love her.
Betsy: Yeah, the way that you lay color down reminds me of her. Do you have goals for the near future or long term? What has been the most important lesson you have learned in your career in maintaining your studio practice?
Shannon: My near term goals are just to get consistent studio time going so I have time that I can rely on, at least weekly, to be in the studio. With all the school prep, all bets are off at the moment. But a big short term goal is to have more dedicated time. Long-term, I'm always reaching for an impeccable aesthetic -no clumsiness or passages that are just sort of working okay, but to have all areas of a painting feel fresh and authentic and all working to form a cohesive whole.
Betsy: When you take work down from a show or exhibition, do you ever re-work it to get it towards this idea of the ultimate painting, the aesthetic perfection? Do you think you have ever done that?
Shannon: You know what happens is that I get more forgiving over time and I accept the piece. That it was something that needed to be this way at that moment in time. When I first finish a piece, usually I have a lot of little nit picky issues with it, but I also realize that I could kill it by continuing to re-work. I have to make a decision to stop. Most of the time, right when I finish a piece I’m not very satisfied with it. After some time passes, it gels -then it all makes sense, and there are fresh, surprising and interesting things happening and I can see it again as a whole. It’s kind of like with cooking -you have to let it rest to allow all the flavors to marry. I usually don’t re-work a piece, if I do it is a pretty strong re-working where it becomes a totally different piece. But that can be really fruitful sometimes. Then you have all of this visual information to play with already. One piece I am thinking of is a daytime scene that I turned into night. That was a lot of fun. I was altering all the colors but I wasn’t changing the composition at all -it’s almost like Photoshop in analog form. How about you?
Betsy: It is very similar. I will sometimes re-work a painting. It’s rare that I do, but when I do it changes in a new direction. I do have about two paintings I have been working on for 20 years that I have shown but keep changing. I think being satisfied is hard. When my students are frustrated, I tell them I have been painting for a long time and I have made only a few good paintings.
What is the most important lesson you've learned so far? You have done all of these things -making objects, raising children, and teaching. What have you learned that helps you maintain making work?
Shannon: It sounds cheesy but it’s so important to listen to your heart. That‘s the best way to make decisions in the studio and in life. But it takes time to learn to hear that voice. In the beginning when you are learning to figure out technique and how to create anything -you might not know what that voice is telling you. So the most important thing is to learn to listen to yourself. I don’t think you can set out to make something that people are going to respond to. The best you can do is make something that you respond to. I feel that is how you connect with viewers. Language has its limitations and visual art is another channel to connect with one another. The clearer you can get with what you are communicating visually is going to depend on how authentic and sincere that message is and you have to know yourself in order to be able to do that -so really learning to hear and trust yourself.
Betsy: Yes, you make it sound so simple. It’s a bit Philip Guston-esque.
Shannon: Yeah, he is an interesting character to me- his daughter wrote a biography about him that I read and it's heartbreaking that he was poor and famous at the same time.
Betsy: Yea, the life of an artist. But I think those are great words to abide by, yours I mean. I think it is tricky trusting in your work to know the next steps. I do find that it is important to get out of my own head with critique. It helps me see something that I might know already that I'm just not acknowledging or ready to acknowledge in my work.
Shannon: That is so true, critique is so valuable.
Betsy: Yeah, I think it is important to seek them out and keep doing that. I really appreciate you talking with me today.
Shannon: I really appreciate you doing this Betsy - I feel very isolated and it's really nice to talk to you!
Betsy: Thank you! You too!
Shannon Estlund is an artist and educator living in Fridley, MN with her husband and two daughters. She received an MFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and received her BFA from the University of Florida. Shannon has received several grants for her work, including Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grants and two Community Foundation Art Ventures grants. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at museums and galleries including the Crisp Ellert Art Museum and Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Florida, the Elmhurst Art Museum in Illinois, Soo Visual Art Center in Minnesota, and at the National Galleries of Scotland. Shannon is a Minnesota Master Naturalist and a member of the collective Rosalux Art Gallery in Minneapolis. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings and Studio Visit magazines.