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New Firehouse exhibit "Emergency Blankets" reflects reality with charcoal

The "Emergency Blankets" collection is a specific and pointed iteration of his general body of work, encompassing the outdoors, hunting and the Western landscape.
SPACE BLANKET 6 charcoal and pastel on polyester 85" X 85" 2021

The Firehouse Art Center's newest summer exhibition, "Emergency Blankets", currently features the large-scale charcoal and pastel drawings of Wyoming artist Shelby Shadwell and uses representations of emergency space blankets, showcasing his signature fusion of hyper-realism and abstraction. However, the overarching narrative of the series, the artist insists, goes far beyond its literal imagery.

According to Shadwell, the "Emergency Blankets" collection is a specific and pointed iteration of his general body of work, encompassing the outdoors, hunting and the Western landscape. The series, inspired in part by the space blankets hikers often pack for emergencies, relates to these themes on a deeper level. His work blends meticulous observation with abstraction, breathing life into two-dimensional images and giving them an illusion of three-dimensionality.

It was the harsh images of detained migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border wrapped in these blankets that initially shook Shadwell, sparking an urge to experiment with the material in his artwork. Despite this inspiration, Shadwell clarified that the series isn't directly about these stark, jarring images. Instead, he suggests his work aims to raise questions rather than deliver didactic messages or moral judgments.

"I would prefer to maybe hint at things that are very important, but not give any answers. I'm not trying to sway people to do one thing or the other," Shadwell said. "Hopefully people will come and have an experience with the work. Maybe they feel, you know, a sense of awe or wonder or inspiration."

The concept of 'pareidolia' — the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in an ambiguous visual pattern — is another driving force behind Shadwell's art. He connects this concept not only to visual perception but also to the human tendency to weave conspiracy theories, highlighting the dangers of mistaking illusion for reality, a theme that has gained relevance in recent years.

"People look at my drawings, which are just dirt on canvas, and see patterns that emerge as very realistic and representational," Shadwell noted.

While none of these themes are explicitly depicted in his work, they serve as the philosophical underpinning of his creative process. Shadwell begins his creation process by taking space blankets, unrolling them from their compact packaging and forming them into different conglomerations. He then attaches them to the wall and lights them with dramatic direct lighting. Shadwell works from these three-dimensional shapes with charcoal, complementing his observations to help complete the work or fill any gaps.

Charcoal, Shadwell explained, is a key part of his teaching methodology. The choice of this medium was influenced by its speed and effectiveness compared to graphite or pen and ink. As a very fast process, charcoal allows him and his students to work quickly and create completed images in a relatively short time. His approach encourages students to work quickly, an ethos that extends to his own practice.

Shadwell's educational focus is not limited to this exhibition. He brings a rich background in drawing and printmaking to his classes as an associate professor at the University of Wyoming, teaching everything from basic still-life drawing to advanced drawing courses that explore the links between drawing and other artistic disciplines.

Further clarifying his process, Shadwell mentioned that he does not actually use charcoal on the space blankets. Instead, he observes the blankets, which are tacked to his studio wall, and draws on a flat adjacent surface. 

To demystify his technique, Shadwell is offering a live drawing demonstration on August 12 from 6-8 p.m. at the Firehouse Art Center during the Summer on the Streets. This event will allow attendees to observe his process firsthand, ask questions and potentially gather some educational insights. The exhibition "Emergency Blankets" is now open to the public until September 3.

Shadwell reiterated his role as an artist is not to provide an answer or influence a particular perspective but to encourage engagement with these overlooked aspects of life. 

"I'm merely holding up a mirror to society, reflecting our actions, choices, and the multi-layered reactions that ensue. The objective is not to draw conclusions, but to initiate dialogue. After all, it's through discussion, not evasion, that we learn, grow, and evolve," Shadwell said.