Meet Artwork Archive Artist Lisa McShane. This passionate environmentalist creates sweeping landscapes of the American West, capturing unique light and atmospheric effects. She considers her paintings a collection of memories influenced by her surroundings and her deep connection to eastern Washington. Lisa’s artwork has caught the eye of the US Ambassador to Yemen, the Washington State Governor, and the National Park Service’s Artist-in-Residence program. She chronicles these experiences and more in an engaging and informative blog, 1000 Paintings.
We spoke to Lisa about when to do an artist residency, why she blogs, and how she discovered incredible artist opportunities.
Want to See More of Lisa’s Work? Visit her Artwork Archive Public Profile Page.
WHAT DREW YOU TO FOCUS ON LIGHT AND THE SKY WITHIN YOUR WORK, AS WELL AS EROSION?
I’ve been looking up more. The landforms I love are in eastern Washington and I live in western Washington. There are the really gorgeous Cascade Mountains, but I’m from eastern Washington and that landscape resonates deeply within my soul. My studio faces west and I live in Bellingham not far from the water. I see the most amazing skies everyday - pearl grey or sweeping clouds and lots of nuances. More recently I’ve been mixing up skies I see with the land that I love to ground it. I see a lot contrails, so I’ve been painting the marks airplanes make in the sky. I know they’re polluting, but there’s something raw and beautiful about them. They contribute to climate change, but I see the light reflected on the heavier particulate matter. I see exquisite patterns of contrails at dusk. Even when the horizon line is higher up, I’m always interested in painting land at dusk or dawn. The shadows are deeper and the contrast is higher. I really value higher contrast and a graphic abstract quality. There are bigger patterns and shapes at dawn and dusk.
YOU GREW UP WITH YOUR FATHER IN THE AIR FORCE AND HAVE SPENT MANY YEARS WORKING ON ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY AND CONSERVATION. HOW HAVE THESE EXPERIENCES INFLUENCED YOUR WORK?
I grew up away from home, away from the place my family sees as home. It put a deep longing for home in my soul. My great-grandparents originally settled in an area of badlands in eastern Washington - it's beautiful, but stark. They came there in the 19th century after traveling from the plains in the Dakotas or Minnesota. They chose to stay in a place with six inches of rain a year on the end of the Palouse. The soil is thinner, perched above the Snake River Canyon. That is our place in the world and some of that is in me. I’ve lived in Mississippi, Turkey, Germany, California, and Washington. We didn’t visit home while we lived in Europe, so we subscribed to a newspaper to see what was going on in Washington. Rattlesnake Mountain in eastern Washington particularly resonates with me. It’s very visible from hundreds of miles in every direction - there is a grandness to it. I’ve painted it a lot. My father visited recently and was telling me stories of his earlier childhood. He grew up at the base of that mountain and I never knew. I was surprised that it popped up in my work
I still do environmental work. It does inform my art, but I’m not always sure how. I spend lots of time trying to solve environmental problems. When there are environmental changes, it changes my paintings. My sunsets have become more deeply colored, ominous and hazy due to the recent wildfires in British Columbia. We couldn’t go outside - the air quality was so poor. I started thinking about the air around me. The sky has been crazy red and orange because of the fires. It’s beautiful and horrifying.
YOU TREAT YOUR PIECES AS MEMORIES, NOT SIMPLY AS LANDSCAPES? WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PIECE AND MEMORY, AND WHY?
Many of my paintings are symbols of many moments. The first one that comes to mind is Parking Lot Sunset. There is something about it that I really love. It’s partly because of the vivid red and grey sunset. It’s set in a parking lot - you can’t see it, but you know you're there because of the lamp post. It’s set in eastern Washington where I went to high school. I was often out at sunset and I’d stop someplace to watch. The parking lots are just a sprawl of cement. It’s familiar to us as Americans, but so unusual to other people in the world. Americans devote so much space to parking cars. The painting looks over the lot and sky, grounded in a piece of land that's not beautiful. The beauty comes from the light. The work is beautiful and evocative . I have so many memories from years and years standing in places like that looking at the sunset. I can relate to Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.”
I love painting roads too - you can see that in my paintings. You can often see ribbons of black highway. I like the contrast of yellow fields and black roads. Roads take you places you don’t expect - it really excites me. I have a big road trip in August to Arizona. I’m really excited about being on the road and sketching what I’ll see. I did this as a kid - I drew what I saw from the car window.
WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS OR STUDIO?
I spend lots of time outside and take tons of photos. I have thousands of photos on my iPad. I have a drawing table in my studio, pencils, and lots of paper. I sketch thumbnail after thumbnail until I get what I want. I then make a 4x6 inch drawing and then start painting. I stretch or glue up my own panels. I tone with burnt sienna and start with layers of white. I sketch in landforms and then start painting the sky. The light comes first, then I paint the land in to bring it up to the level of the light. I know the direction of my painting when I set the light.
I don’t stream music, but give myself a $50 budget a month to buy albums and CD’s. I like buying new music and going to shows when I can. I’m a huge Josh Ritter fan. He’s from the Palouse area of Idaho. He writes a lot of place-based music and I love that landscape. I can see the landscape when I listen to his music. I also love researching materials and pigments. My husband is a geologist, and I’m interested in knowing which mine my paints came from. I love Rublev Color's Blue Ridge yellow ochre and knowing where they sourced the material. I also love Ercolano red, sourced from near Naples at bottom of Vesuvius.
YOU HAVE TRAVELED AROUND THE COUNTRY FOR YOUR WORK AND ARE AN ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE AT THE PETRIFIED FOREST IN ARIZONA. TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS. WHEN IS THE RIGHT TIME TO DO AN ARTIST RESIDENCY?
This is my first time doing a residency. It’s for two weeks - a good length of time to break into residencies. Getting away from the usual routine is especially important for an artist. I’m going to a place where there’s nothing in the park, so I’ll be outside at dusk and dawn, and at night. That’s really important for a landscape painter. I have a friend who did a residency in Denali, and that’s how I found out about the Artists-in-Parks program by the National Park Service.
Visitors will engage with me when I’m doing my residency in Arizona. I did an open studio a few years ago and I loved it because people come in to talk to me while I painted. The time left alone is actually one of the things that I have a hard time with. I’ll be taking photos, processing them, working from sketches, and painting in an adobe house or the visitors center. I’m really excited to be in a new place, and experiencing a new light and sky. I also have to do a public program at the Petrified Forest, so I might do a drawing session. Perspective on roads and paths can be hard, and I have a passion for that. If it all goes well, I’m going to sign up for a longer residency in one of the other parks, like the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. The Badlands and Glacier Park do ones for four weeks. I want to do one in Ireland too - there are many similarities between Bellingham and Ireland. It’s a minimum of six weeks and they allow family to come and stay.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO BLOG AND HOW HAS IT HELPED YOUR CAREER?
I worked full time in conservation and politics for a number of years. It was a great job and opportunity, but I knew I wanted to paint. After a year running the Governor’s Field Campaign across the state, I took a year off and painted full time. I knew this is what I want to do with my life. That was when I started my art blog 1,000 Paintings. A blog is a great way to interact with other artists. It’s a pleasure to meet other active artists through my blog. And having an active blog associated with my website increases its search capability.
My blog also helped me organize what I was going through and what I was learning. I love research and wanted to share it - I have so many spreadsheets. It quickly became clear I needed a good database to organize my paintings. I tried out different ones with free trials and did tons of research. I bought a few, but never totally loved them. John Feustel, the founder of Artwork Archive, reached out and asked if I wanted to try his program. I started using it and it’s really great (Read Lisa’s blog post on it here). I’d migrated to storing digital images in Dropbox so cloud-computing just made sense. John is great to work with, and added this functionality or that when I needed it.
YOUR WORK HUNG IN THE US EMBASSY IN YEMEN. WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE AND HOW DO ARTISTS GET THEIR WORK FEATURED IN EMBASSIES?
The Art in Embassies program has curators and a site where you can upload paintings for them to consider. It’s really cool! The program draws from galleries, museums, and artists across the USA. With all the amazing things to choose from, it was a thrill to be selected. The process is really interesting. When a new ambassador is appointed to an embassy, they put together an art show. It travels with them to the embassy and it lasts the duration. They choose pieces based on what they want to convey in the embassy. The ambassador to Yemen wanted to showcase landscapes and chose Sun Sets on the Horse Heaven Hills. It’s similar to the landscape in Yemen. I received a thrilling email and phone call from the curator. Then they sent an art shipper to my studio. Three and a half years later, the ambassador left Yemen and I got a call from the Art in Embassies program telling me my painting was coming home. I wasn't sure if I’d see it again since Yemen is such a war-torn country. I felt like I knew that ambassador because he had my painting. I watched the news with rapt attention.
Around the same time the State Governor of Washington requested one of my paintings for the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia. It depicts dusk on the Twin Peaks and I painted it at a farm in the foothills of Mount Baker. The sun was setting so the light was saturated and then a cloud of smog rolled in and turned the peaks gold. It was pollution yet it was one of the most beautiful atmospheric experiences I’ve observed.
Want to See Lisa's Work in Person? Visit the Lucia Douglas Gallery.
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