I like to wonder about what I could create if I could just get what’s in my mind into a book, song, business idea, or perhaps onto a canvas. I’m a psychotherapist by trade with a passion for art of all kinds. Here in Alison Shull’s home and studio I can’t help but trip over inspiration and keep stumbling on serendipity as I stroll past her work.
“Somewhere in 2009…” Alison tells me, she saw a face emerge out of a canvas she had covered in blue. It’s presence in her mind had changed the blue’s destiny forever. As Alison recalls, she, “went with it” and kept the blue, pregnant with its facial forms and surprises for other minds. I see its solemn countenance peeking out at me too. I consider, “Is this face in our minds or on the canvas? What would I have seen without her story guiding my attention?”
I wander ahead wondering, “Who gets the credit for unintended forms on a canvas?” Then, Alison reveals to me that she didn’t go looking for an opportunity to create through the brush. A former Cornell lecturer in engineering materials, Alison says she is also the loving mother of two school aged children. One day in 2009 before that auspicious adventure with blue and after dropping the kids off to school, Alison tells me she had the impulse to “drive in a certain direction” and found herself headed for a nearby flower/antique shop. There amongst the furniture and flora sat an easel.
She looks at me like a yogi about to stretch for an arduous asana and recounted how she said to herself, “Don’t think, go with it”. Go with it indeed. She goes on to describe how after taking care of the pecuniary details, out of the store with the easel she went! Apparently this won’t be the last story of Alison opening up to her inner wisdom and its unforeseen logic.
As I glance around the room where the enigmatic easel proudly stands, I have to ask, “Did you know anything about paint?” With a sparkle in her eye, she moves toward a closet and arises brandishing a box of paints. “The colors in the box can change when exposed to light”, she tells me. So, these paints have been lying in wait for Alison, to re-capture her interest, no doubt becoming irresistible when the empty easel called out. “While lecturing at Cornell on ‘light and color’”, Alison continues, “I had used these magical paints from the Golden Company. Depending on the angle of the light the paint will emit different hues.” There was more than meets the eye going on here for sure. Something happens within Alison’s mind’s eye and it seems to have begun before she had the conscious intention to paint. Her previous experiences with paint and color were academic and thoughtful. Tipping the right side of her head toward her first piece she recalls,
“The act of being engaged and moving the brush without being analytically attached was beautiful!”
In fact, I can see the erstwhile images that must have been reflected from the recesses of her mind that are physically recognized before me on the canvas. Like the story she is telling me, the images just “come out”, in a way that she doesn’t have to question them or put them off.”
Alison motions toward her paintings in the way someone gives the impression that they are preoccupied with something beyond the conversation but she is clearly bringing me into her experience.
“When I would be in this other mode, it’s like dancing, not a random throwing things on the canvas either, more like expressing what’s in my mind’s eye.”
Caught in her experience for a moment I find myself suddenly on a wave that could be in two places at once. Alison describes how she came to use the ‘double canvas’ design to “go with it” when her first spontaneous sweep of the brush took her right off the canvas. There seemed to be a two-way embodied mind process going on with this piece.
Movement from artist to art and back again. I see in the “Parting Wave” Alison’s willingness to surpass boundaries as she includes two canvases and the space between them. I enjoy a ride on the bulky breaker and re-appear in another location altogether.
Where I could go on that wave is anybody’s guess and that’s the way Alison likes it. She tells me she was initially unsure about others reactions to her work, and then realized that perhaps others would experience something similar to what she did while painting but in their own way. I can see she not only accomplishes this by artfully defying boundaries but also with texture and her willingness to move into and within contrasting themes. “Not Always Pretty” is dark and uses “crackle” to roughen things up a bit, not at all the joy ride I had on the wave. While “Rising River” takes me to turbulence on my way to “Lucy in the Sky” and back home to “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.
In line with her objective to allow the observer to enter into an experience, Alison once did not name her painting but has found she enjoys experiencing the moniker that emerges for herself during or after the work is finished. She has even been known to allow others to do the honor.
I thought the excursion was over, but what is this? Another sign of this artist’s talent I think. Of course the rational engineer side to Alison’s mind could not have been hidden from me altogether. As we enter her private studio she tells me all about the ‘spectrometer’ she uses to make prints of her paintings and the innovative use of framing. I can see that creativity can go on with a different type of intelligence. This time it is born out of her many years of scientific study and investigation.
“Stairway to a Dream” jumps out at me with a print counterpart nearby. The frame as deep as a pie dish, colored as black as night, sets the ground for the rose colored abstract shape to float right off of the ground of blue. While it’s counterpart lies flat and motionless. Here is where it ends for me. Where Alison’s thoughtfulness and spontaneity merge in just the right way to keep me entranced and lead me back into my mind.
by Tony Cotraccia