Linnea Lieth is a young artist who recently asked for an interview with Shelly. What follows is a transcript of that interview which addresses Shelly’s background, and how she approaches her art and process.

Verdant Conversation by Shelly Hehenberger

Verdant Conversation by Shelly Hehenberger

Linnea Lieth: I don’t know very much about how you started out as an artist – did it start out as a hobby, or did you always want to be an artist?

Shelly Hehenberger: Yes, I always wanted to be an artist. Some of my earliest memories were of creating art. I would always be drawing, even in church. Even today, I’ll be in a meeting and I’ll feel like I have to doodle. I always was doodling in school – it helps me concentrate better. So essentially by the time I was in middle school I knew I wanted to be an artist, whatever that meant. I was always the teacher’s pet, the one who got special attention. I was a big fish in a little pond, and there wasn’t that much creativity going on around me.

LL: Was this a small town? Where are you from originally?

SH: Bloomington, Indiana, where Indiana University is. Probably from the time I was about five or six, my mother had me in private art lessons with someone that we knew. It was pretty casual. Then in high school I was extremely serious about art, taking all the art I could and entering contests, things like that. I did win a scholarship to take a summer art class at Indiana University when I was a junior in high school. That was my first real painting class, because my art education in high school was more like studio time. And I took advantage of that – I even carved out a studio space for myself in a storage space across the hall. It was full of boxes but I asked them if I could use it and during class I would go to my studio by myself and paint for two hours. I thought this was how my life was going to be. Then I went to graduate school and did a Master’s in painting, and since then I’ve been teaching, and painting, and working as a professional illustrator. I did my illustration work by hand until about three years ago, then I learned Photoshop, and now I do everything on Photoshop. I knew that eventually I would have to go digital, but I resisted it. I didn’t know how it would work out for me. But it has – I get a lot more work.

LL: I was poking around on your website and I saw that your first degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design. Especially now since graphic design and digital work really go hand in hand, do you think the design experience has helped you in your illustration work?

SH: Well it certainly hasn’t helped me in terms of understanding programs and such, because this was in the 80s and we didn’t have computers. A photocopy machine was the height of our technology. Now other places may have had that, but not at Indiana University. IU is a good school. I mean, they focused on design – I learned the principles of design, a little bit of advertising, and it was really communication arts. And I’m really glad of that. I’ve talked to other people who are studying graphic design, and they’re learning InDesign, they’re learning Photoshop, they’re learning Illustrator, and that’s great. But they may not be learning design principles, and how to really make good designs and communicate. I’m glad, in a way, that I only learned the one, even though I guess the idea now is to learn both.

LL: Right, and that’s more applicable to fine art anyway.

SH: Yes, and you’re going to learn that stuff in fine arts, definitely. Although I have to say, I took just as many fine arts and art history classes as I did graphic design, and it was a lot like high school. My art teachers basically just gave out the materials and showed a technique and said “go for it.” In college I only ever really had one class that showed me something. That was Color Theory, and that was the most important class I ever took. You can kind of tell the difference between an amateur artist and a professional artist by how they use color. Do they use color straight out of the tube, or do they understand color mixing? Do they understand value? And I don’t think it’s something that most people naturally understand because we have such an emotional reaction to it that we just think blue is blue, and don’t understand its relationship to other colors.

LL: Do you think you would be as “good” of an artist without your degrees, whatever “good” means to you?

SH: Oh no, definitely not. Because when you’re in art school, you have to be completely focused on art. I mean you know there’s a critique coming up, so you’ll work really hard and figure out something to do. Definitely, it was critical having both degrees. And I think the design, and then the fine arts degree are the perfect complements to each other. I use both in everything I do. I use design skills such as composition or balance in my art, those are definitely not things that I’ve thrown away.

LL: Growing up, did you have any interests that were almost as strong or equally as strong as your interest in art that distracted you from it or maybe complemented it?

SH: Not really, I was interested in music in middle school, but when I got to high school I just focused on art. I was interested in French, but I never considered making French my major, ever. So no, there was never anything else that was competition.

LL: Did you always have a clear idea of what your career path would be?

SH: I thought I would want to teach. And I did teach – I taught at a university for one year, and I really did not like it. And that’s when I realized that I would much rather do illustration, along with my own fine art, as long as I could maintain both. It’s hard to do both; every day I have to balance between sitting on the computer doing my illustration and going to my studio and painting. It’s about fifty-fifty. I worked on sketches for an illustration project this morning, painted all afternoon until I came here and now I have to go home and work on more illustration stuff.  I’ll paint too because I have some collaboration work. Luna Lee Ray, another local artist, and I have been doing some collaborative work since last year.

LL: So how has that been, collaborating?

SH: You know it’s kind of good, because there’s no pressure. It can be something where I just enjoy working on it and I know that Luna’s going to paint over half of it anyway. We just trade it back and forth until we feel like it’s done. We’ve had some pieces sell. This year on the Orange County Artists’ Guild Studio Tour, we’re sharing a studio. And if you come to that, you’ll see a lot of collaborative works there.

LL: How happy are you with the work as compared to how happy you are with your individual work?

SH: I’m amazed by the collaborative work, because it’s like a child. I can see so much of Luna in it and so much of myself. She’s really the only person I could collaborate with, because I admire the way she works and the way she thinks, and the things she values in art are very similar to the things I value. We work really well together. I don’t ever try to emulate her work, but we just feed off each other’s ideas. We check in on each other, and it’s just total supportiveness.

LL: I imagine that was the same idea behind joining the Artists’ Guild, to get that same support.

SH: Right, camaraderie with artists. We artists tend to understand each other better than other people tend to understand us. So I definitely have a lot of artist friends now. And we’re all on each other’s side – I’m not saying that everyone gets along marvelously all the time – but on the whole, these are people who are on the same page as far as our values.

LL: Who do you see as your audience?

SH: First of all, my audience is myself. I know when a piece is done when my inner critic is pleased. Next, my next audience is people who visit my website or my shows – literally anyone who looks at my art. I understand that a lot of people who look at my work do not have any idea what they’re looking at. They don’t understand abstract painting, they don’t have an education in art, and unless it’s a picture of something or a story they’re not going to have any relation to it. But when I tell people how I work and what I’m trying to do, then they suddenly see something in it and are more interested. Ultimately, my audience is the person who buys my work to look at in their space every day.

LL: Do you apply that same concept when you look at other people’s work? When you admire another artist’s work, do you try and find out about that artist’s purpose or process?

SH: I think about the process, I don’t just look at the finished product – especially if the artist works in layers. Probably the most important aspect of my work is layers, and when another artist works in layers that’s the first thing I notice. Another thing I think about is the time it takes. Andy Goldsworthy is one of my favorite artists, and his work is nothing like mine but most of all, I really admire the time he takes. His process is what interests me – his way of going to a place, and working with whatever’s there. He doesn’t go in with a preconceived idea, and that is exactly how I work. This is how I’ve worked for a long time, and hearing him talk about his work and his process makes me feel like this way of working is more valid.

LL: Speaking of nature, you have stated that nature is your primary artistic inspiration. You have also talked about the themes of “chaos” and “cosmos” or deconstruction and construction. Do you look more at the physical landscape or its processes?

SH: Both. I like the internal and external aspects of nature. My graduate thesis was about the internal cycles of nature as a parallel to the cycles of my process.  I’m definitely interested in cycles, but I can’t help but be inspired by color combinations, or textures, or patterns. I get a lot of inspiration by just being in a natural setting. For some people nature might be this untouched wilderness, and for some people it’s everything we touch and hear and see and smell. So for me, it’s really the physical world.

LL: That’s really interesting. Okay, I have one last question for you: you said earlier that your goal was always to become an artist, “whatever that was.” At what point did you start considering yourself an artist?

SH: Probably in third grade. But the words “I am an artist” never left my mouth until college. And it wasn’t until I started having an income from art that I could say, “I am an artist, a professional artist.” But in reality, I’ve always been an artist. I think I was born an artist. People tell me “Oh, you’re so lucky you’re so talented,” but the truth is that this is the only thing I’ve ever been good at. This is really the only thing I’ve ever been able to do.


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