Artist takes ideas to the limit

Shawn Shepherd is a man of many parts. His strong, well-painted fruits and vegetables have long graced the walls of Café Brio. With his wife, Mary, he is proprietor of the eccentric Polychrome Gallery. At the moment, he is preparing an exhibition of appliqués made from old woolen felt souvenir pennants. I sat down with him to get the whole story.

Shepherd recalled that we met about 20 years ago. I was sketching by the roadside when he stopped and drew a picture of me. This soon became a woodcut print. A woodcut?

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"I got the idea from Herbert Siebener up at UVic when I was helping replace his mural at the University Centre," he began. "We drank some German bitters and ate some stinky cheese in his little pickup truck there. I told him I wanted to do some woodcuts. 'You should - you should!' he said. I made 22 woodcuts."

That's just like Shepherd. He gets an idea and then runs up a whole collection based on the idea. "I take it to its limit," he confessed.

When he arrived in Victoria from Windsor, Ont., in 1990, art was a new thing to Shepherd.

"I had done a lot of things that add up to being an artist but no one really recognized them. I wasn't one of those kids who drew all the time. I've always collected - buttons, hats, beer cans, dinky cars. I was clearly visual and I liked objects. That all sort of blossomed when I moved to Victoria.

"I owe it to skateboarding," he continued. "I wanted to live in California and this is as close as I could get."

He enrolled in a photography school in Victoria. "That was a good excuse. I went for two months and then I quit. It was costing a lot of money."

So he picked up some coloured pencils and started drawing. "My introduction to fine art was going downtown to Fan Tan Alley to look at La Paz studio [the workshop of Luis and Sandra Merino] and Yves Vial's space nearby. 'Wow,' I thought, 'look at the colours!' " Shepherd couldn't afford one of Merino's paintings, so he decided to start painting himself.

A four-year course at university was out of reach, so he opted to paint as much as he could every day for four years - when he wasn't picture framing.

He learned from books and got his first break painting reproductions on furniture for Andrea Nelle's Museum Shop on Fort Street. Chairs and tables sported copies of Cézanne, Modigliani and others and he sold every one.

By 1996, he was launched. Then, in his diligent way, he painted series of portraits, still lifes, breakfasts and food that comes in tubes. The paintings have been well-received locally and seen in solo shows in Comox, Vancouver and Texas. But always he continues to develop his ideas in other media.

Years ago, I praised his fish shaped assemblages with scales made from metal vegetable steamers.

Sculptor Mowry Baden gave him a timely tip about aluminum, "the designer's material," and Shepherd fashioned a series of automobiles folded and pop-riveted from discarded road signs.

Recently, he has created ominous fields of blackness made from sawn-through hockey pucks.

Three years ago, Shawn and Mary opened Polychrome Gallery at 1113 Fort St. "A gallery just seemed like the next step," he said. "We don't have children and we were bored. We thought of leaving town but that's what everybody does and it just kind of hurts Victoria as a city."

It took them five years to find the space and get the courage to sign a lease. It's been a struggle, since they're determined to show the kind of art they like. Now their building is up for redevelopment. Undaunted, they are looking for a new location.

The current gallery will close June 21, following the debut show of Shepherd's appliqués, which began with his collection of vintage wool felt pennants with place names in B.C. and Canada.

"I got tired of having things associated with nostalgia around, so I cut the text out of them and made appliqués."

He patiently sews these abstracted letter forms together, hiding every stitch, and cuts the little mats into "shapes that are relative to everything I've done."

Ukuleles, skateboards, enamel plates, automobile profiles: these shapes add up to his life in the arts.

Textura, a solo exhibition by Shawn Shepherd at Polychrome Fine Arts, 1113 Fort St., May 27 to June 21.


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