By Shu-Ju Wang
Below, panel 4 in the Affirmative Isolation mural from Proto Illuminations series, by Shelley Hershberger.
A self-described depressed-optimist, Shelley Hershberger is analytical, thoughtful, realistic, and yet always passionate and hopeful. You see this in how she lives, what she’s trying to achieve in her life, and in what she paints.
In order to spend more of her time making art, she recently moved into a smaller house with a detached studio. The studio’s uncontaminated gray water goes directly into the garden, and her plants are thriving. As the Portland Open Studios Board Administrator, she actively—and proactively—ensures that we are on the right track to put together successful events for this year and for years to come.
Always concerned about environmental, social, and political issues, she engages the art-loving public through the subject matters that she chooses, but she never hits you over the head with it. You can walk away satisfied at having seen the beautiful imagery and iconography, or you can delve deeper to decipher the mysteries behind the beauty.
While completing her post-bac degree in Fine Art at PSU, Shelley became fascinated by how subtle shifts in line weight, composition or palette can alter the connotations of universal symbols and ancient iconography. She drew upon local historical references and contemporary news images from Iraq to create a series of mixed media works regarding the impact of war on women and children, incorporating visual influences from two contemporary female artists—Shirin Neshat of Iran and Shahzia Sikander of Pakistan. But when the pieces were finished, she started questioning, “Who am I to work with Middle Eastern imagery? What of my own visual heritage; how might I incorporate the iconography of my Northern European ancestry into a contemporary context. But what would that be?”
Answer came in the form of an old journal she inherited from her great-great-grandfather, an English physician who, in 1820, had traveled through Wales and written down his observations of that early industrialization period. When Shelley transcribed the journal, she was inspired to connect our individual and shared flickering ancestral memories to the present, through iconography. She studied Northern European artifacts from the first millennium, illuminated manuscripts, and medieval floor tiles for inspiration.
She states, “At first, no matter how I worked with the imagery, the result reminded me of the Crusades. I was disgusted, apologetic. But I was also fascinated and supremely conscious of the connections between the fundamentalist, top-down behavior of those darkened ages with what’s happening in the world today.“
Since then, she has been on a gallop, creating work that she’s passionate about; that references our past with our present; that asks, ”How do we illuminate our lives today“, and “Are we making any progress?“
Using traditional and her own newly invented icons, she paints, layers, takes away, and layers again, to juxtapose masculine and feminine, ancient and contemporary, rigid and loose, degradation and recovery. Always searching for balance; always looking for ways to counter division with unification, and war with peace.
Starting with simple patterns, her paintings are thought provoking and anything but simple. Just ask her about them when you visit her during Portland Open Studios, and you will see this artist animated and energized by her concerns.
Shelley is also an accomplished printmaker, bringing her painting skills to the printing press in creating monoprints that result from a combination of relief, collographic, non-toxic intaglio and monotype techniques. You can see Shelley’s paintings and prints, and her wonderful studio environment, during both weekends of Portland Open Studios, on October 11, 12, 18, and 19.
To see more of Shelley’s work, go to her web site at http://web.pdx.edu/~hershber/.
Above, a “working” wall in Shelley’s studio.