Edwin P Shelton has been creative since he was a young child. He has explored many media and now creates abstract mixed media items with fabric, wire and paint. Viewers might see the experimentation and juxtaposition of materials in his artworks. His hope is that his work gives others the permission to play.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
When I was a toddler, my maternal grandmother placed me on her lap while she was babysitting me. She had a piece of white paper on a book. I watched her draw a schematic horse. It was a magical experience.
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A few years later, my mother gave me some oil clay. I made a number of small clay objects. She tried to save them in the attic, but they melted.
When I was a bit older my parents drove me to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art as a guest and later as a student. About 6 decades later, I can still see in my memory of the Ancient Egyptian collection. It was amazing to find these outstanding pieces in Richmond, Virginia.
As an older boy, my father showed me how to use wood tools in his wood shop in the basement of our suburban home. I used hand saws to cut wood in a vice for several projects. It was a place to experiment and learn how to put things together.
As an early adolescent I had a paper mache phase and I made large scale representational sculptures. A jovial pirate, a twine covered gorilla, and a robed Greek figure were some of those projects. They were ambitious for my age. I made a fiber glass panther for my high school. It was the mascot. It was damaged by rival students shortly after it was installed.Throughout my youth, my mother was very tolerant of the messes that I made.
I also had an amazing legacy of dedicated art teachers like Mr. & Mrs. Cheatham, Mrs. Spillman, Mr. Tillotson, Lockie Duggins, Clifton Fink, Mr. Ross and more talented art teachers.
I was allowed to complete my freshman year in the art department in an advanced placement course over the summer after high school. I had a collection of supportive art professors at Virginia Commonwealth University like Harold North, Myron Helfgott, Lester Van Winkle, Heather Holden, Chuck Henry, Chuck Renick, Joan Watson, Chuck Renick, Chuck Henry, Joseph Seipel, Tom Adair, David White, Richard Carolyn, and others. For me, the VCU sculpture department felt like an extended family. While I was there the VCU art department had a number of famous visiting artists that gave amazing slide presentations. which supported my dream to live a life as an artist.
As a graduate sculpture student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I worked with professors such as Don Reitz, Ernie Moll, Richard Reese, Pat Vechione, Wendy Edwards, Bruce Breckenridge and Truman Lowe. I completed my MFA credits at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. I was there with Jackie Winsor, Howardena Pindell, and Susan Rothenberg. There were additional visiting artists who gave impressive presentations.
I am inspired by Nancy Rubins, Howard Finster, Hilda af Klint, Lucas Samaras, and other exceptional artists. I feel they also took advantage of their respective imaginations and rich intuitions. I met everyone except Hilda af Klint.
International travel has been a surprising influence for me. In 1981, I had an artist-in-residency in Paris, France for four and a half months. In 2017, I was able to teach art in the Zhangdian Experimental Middle School for 4 weeks in Zibo, China as part of a teacher exchange program. The phenomenal trip included a two-day tour of Beijing which included the Great Wall of China. All my contacts in China were extremely friendly, and willing to share a great deal about China, it’s history, and culture.
What do you do differently?
My practice is to create eccentric abstract forms that I have never seen before from discarded industrial objects.
I enjoy assembling the parts, so they are structurally sound with innovative compositions. The surfaces are covered in fabric which is attached with upholstery thread and glue. I often disguise the fabric with coats of paint. I also enhance the surface further with paper mache, fake gems, glitter, and even faux fur. The identities of the objects I use in my sculptures are often dissolved with my chaotic camouflage. The outcome for the viewer will hopefully be an encounter with mystery blended with whimsy.
What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Creativity has become a big part of my spiritual path. Presently, I am working with the theme of nonduality with my titles. To me, nonduality is about no separation from the divine. Everything is spiritual. My artworks are personal icons. I have had a wonderful spiritual tour over the decades.
Does your work have stories to tell?
My artworks are non-representational. They do not convey conventional narratives. I think they reveal the process of all the decisions required to create them.The outcome shows the choices of materials and fabrication. I feel my decades of experiences are also incorporated into each artwork. The viewer will likely try to figure out what are the repurposed objects incorporated into these eccentric assemblages.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
My practice is primarily intuitive.
The studio has an inventory of discarded materials and objects.
I start with an armature based on what I find in my debris collection. The parts are wired together before the surface treatment takes place. I often use the fabric patterns attached to the sculptures for the areas for painting. Usually the paint color is similar to the fabric color underneath it. The paper maché, faux fur, fake gems, etc are placed to enhance the sculpture in an intuitive manner.
How does your environment influence your creativity?
My studio is my retreat environment.
I can escape into my reality in #11 room on the second floor at St. Mary Studios in Michigan City, Indiana. I have been renting this former science classroom for about 3 years. It is about 25 feet by 30 feet. The ceiling is about 9 ½ feet tall. The half wall of windows looks onto the ally and a brick wall. This studio space has recharged my creativity.
I have a former coat room with a sink to store my materials. I built a temporary wall to create storage for older wall panels. The temporary wall is useful for taking photographs and hanging the wall artworks. The sculptures are stored in the main space. The worktable is by the windows. The tools, paints, glues etc are chaotic placed around the worktable and the window ledges.
My creative practice is constantly evolving through experimentation as I strive to create these archival assemblages. Sometimes I cannibalize materials from my old artworks seeing new possibilities with old parts and sculptures.
I usually am working on two or more artworks at the same time. I have an internal dialogue with them until I decide they are complete. I do not track the amount of time invested in these funky sculptures.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
The inspiration also originated from over 6 decades of life experiences. I enjoy visiting familiar and unfamiliar artworks in museums and galleries. Social media is another outlet. I still rely on my intuition and my internal dialogue with the materials and objects.
Do you prefer the kind of project that is challenging and requires attention, or the kind where you get in your meditative zone and enjoy the process?
My studio allows me to have the meditative zone. I can have a total focus on the process and my practice. I can work in a relaxed environment. These assemblages require several of stages before they are complete. I often work on a couple of sculptures at the same time, giving the glue time to dry.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
The idea arrives with the parts, objects, and debris that I put together. At some point, I need to decide whether it will hang on the wall or sit on a table or stand from the floor (for large scale pieces). I enjoy the negative spaces in my unconventional assemblages.
Recently, I have started to cannibalize older artworks. I have cut up older artworks. The old parts are introduced into the new pieces. I like this new approach. It is like I am ”stealing” time back. The transformation of the older parts into the new assemblage works far better.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
I do not have a specific formula. I want the artworks to be visually engaging. I stop when there is nothing else to add or subtract. The last stages require painting. I apply acrylic paint over the designated scraps of fabric on the sculpture. I often touch up the artwork with enamel spray paint. I use matte spray to seal the entire assemblage.
Which part of the design process is your favorite?
There are infinite creative possibilities with the wealth of discarded materials our culture constantly generates. I enjoy putting the initial pieces of household debris together for the assemblages. I work my materials to make the structures sound. The available rescued household objects determine my compositions. Wire holds most of the parts. I use epoxy to glue the stained glass in place along with the paper mache.
Which part is a challenge for you?
The painting stage takes most of my patience. The undercuts can be difficult to cover. The painting sometimes contributes visually to dissolving the forms.
If you could live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose? Why?
I would select 1916 when the Dada movement started. The anti-art, absurdity, and chance approach to creativity would have been exciting. These unconventional artists broke new territory for visual explorations. The zeitgeist seems unpredictable, unconventional and socially revolutionary. The shadow aspects of the culture would have been scary and intimidating with the start of authoritarianism and Facism.
How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors?
I have been blessed to be married to Laurel Izard (https://laurel-izard.com) for 43 years. We worked together with Izwin for about twenty years. We have had our respective teaching careers. Life just keep getting better.
I still enjoy teaching art. It’s challenging, but I am learning a lot and love working with my students. I have a great deal of passion for both my studio time and my teaching time.
Where can people see your work?
Horizons Reimagined, South Bend Museum of Art, South Bend, Indiana. September 22 – November 5, 2023
45th Juried Exhibition, Midwest Museum of American Art, Elkhart, Indiana. Oct. 2 to Dec 7, 2023
80th Salon Exhibition, South Shore Arts, Munster, Indiana. SEPTEMBER 8–NOVEMBER 4, 2023
79th Annual Wabash Valley Exhibition, Swope Art Museum, Terra Haute, Indiana. November 3, 2023 to January 7, 2023
I was invited to create a site specific sculpture for the upcoming Abstraction + Healing Exhibition at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts, Michigan City, Indiana. October 30 to February 10, 2023 are the exhibition dates.
Interview posted September 2023