Artist celebrates anonymity of downtown living

What: Shawn Shepherd’s Downtowners
Where: Polychrome Fine Arts
When: Opening tonight, 7 to 9 p.m. Continues through June 26.

There’s something familiar about the figures in Shawn Shepherd’s new print series Downtowners.

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But if you can’t quite recognize the historic figures, masked in rainbows of colour, that’s a good thing.

The 60 portraits are less about the people in them than the anonymity of city living, Shepherd said.

“I like the idea of doing something that wasn’t putting a particular person on a pedestal as a celebrity, but sort of inverting who they were into someone who is disenfranchised,” Shepherd said.

“Downtown, there’s lots of people and you think they’re anonymous — they’re lost, nobody knows them. So that was the idea of titling the show Downtowners. I’ve taken these celebrities and made them invisible.”

Shepherd’s subjects come from discarded, photo-etched printing plates from the Colonist.

Three years ago, fellow Polychrome artist Ken Banner came across a box of the metal plates at a shop in Sooke. He asked if there were more and went home with 25 boxes of the archived plates, dating from between 1950 and the early 1970s.

“They were all archived, still with a clipping inside each folder and title,” Shepherd said.

Banner made a series of fridge magnets with the plates, which were sold through the gallery. But when he was ready to move on to new material, he sold all 25 boxes to Shepherd.

It isn’t the first time Shepherd has used newspaper plates as source material. In 2004, he made one-off prints using RCMP images from photo-etched plates he found in Vancouver, for a series called The Ten.

“So I’ve always been sort of using found images that way,” he said.

“I decided as an extension of the old portfolio ... that I would pull out all the portraits of celebrities who were regional, national and international and rework the portraits so that the art form itself sort of absorbs them.”

Shepherd’s process begins with scraping down the plates with a chisel, making the images less sharp. Sometimes he takes a nail or dart to draw a grid or lines into the plate. He inks the plate using a roller painted with a trio of colours. Then he does the same, from another direction, with another set of colours.

“There’s a nice saturation of colour, which takes them even further from their intent as a black-and-white image in the news,” he said.

After that, he might use coloured pencils, letter presses and ink, or a brush to continue distorting the picture.

Shepherd said he became interested in the subject of urban anonymity after moving from Fairfield, where he knew all of his neighbours, to a downtown condo.

“You walk out the door and don’t know anybody, and a lot of the people are not in good shape and living on the street,” he said.

Downtowners differs from other series of portraits in that it’s more about the technique than the people in the pictures.

“I’ve painted portraits in the past and you’re so focused on making it an identification of the person, it’s an ID.

“These aren’t that at all, they’re the reverse of that: The image of the person is being swallowed up in the process.”

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