Shelby Shadwell’s “COMEDIE 10” installed and shown to scale. (Shelby Shadwell)

You have to make your vision apparent by shock. To the hard of hearing, you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

—Flannery O’Connor 

Shelby Shadwell is a Laramie artist who draws large and startling figures — such as Air Jordan-sized cockroaches, masses of black trash bags and used diapers. 

Studio Wyoming Review

The verisimilitude of the drawings, on display through Feb. 29 at Blue Door Arts in downtown Cheyenne, might give you the creeps. But if you inspect the work closely, they might also engross and fascinate you.  

In “AUNIVERSAL PICTURE 1 and 2,” Shadwell illustrates swarms of oversized roaches. It’s uncanny to notice the detail of insects drawn with a lump of charcoal. The artist enlists kneaded gum erasers, abrasives and white pastels to create the dynamics of the roach bodies. He also uses them to make negative space that adds depth to each work. The viewer can find eraser marks, smudges and fingerprints that marks the presence of the human artist.

Light also plays a role. In some of the roaches, it creates the effect of natural or artificial light shining down from above. The insects that crowd the top section almost look silver in the light. Those at the bottom of the frame are in the shade but cast shadows on the paper medium.

About the term “AUNIVERSAL PICTURE.” According to his artist’s statement posted at the exhibit, it “refers to this first image/credit from John Carpenter’s 1982 film ‘The Thing’ which has been a big influence on my work and philosophy.”

The detail is obviously the result of careful study. The high, dry and cold climate of Laramie is not conducive to roach swarms. Shadwell reports that he orders boxes of bugs from biological supply houses, as many as a thousand at a time. Shadwell, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Art and Art History, uses them as models for his work much as classical artists used plaster casts and live humans in the studio.

Shelby Shadwell’s charcoal on paper, “AUNIVERSAL PICTURE 1” (Shelby Shadwell)

He also depends on the expertise of fellow professor Jeff Lockwood, an entomologist who teaches creative writing courses at UW. Lockwood is the author of “The Infested Mind: Why Humans, Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects.” The two have had lively discussions about how childhood memories of insects might play into our adult psyches.

Shadwell remembers days at his school library in Missouri when he and friends sought out books with pictures of insects and snakes and other creepy-crawlies. They dared each other to touch the pictures. This left a lasting mark on Shadwell. As he contemplated new work, he wondered what other fears he carried around with him. Other work in his exhibit provides some clues.

But it goes beyond that. “Masses of black trash bags, piles of cockroaches and sculptures of diapers invoke the image of a multi-level Rorschach test for viewers to contemplate,” Shadwell says in his statement. They connote disposability, decay and revulsion as well as “personal fears and anxieties.”

The meticulous rendering that makes these objects sumptuous and attractive conveys the opposite.

An image showing Shelby Shadwell’s “AUNIVERSAL PICTURE 15” (Charcoal on paper, 85” x 85”) to scale. (Shelby Shadwell)

The large and startling diaper in the large (85-by-85-inches) and startling “AUNIVERSAL PICTURE 15” may be a disposable vehicle for human waste but its rendering is pristine and memorable. The diaper’s folds take the shape of the lines of a beautiful flower. A flower’s colors and scent are built by nature to attract pollinators. The diaper in the photo is obviously meant to “catch” something which is the inevitable product of human pollination.

The subject’s V-shape invokes the female anatomy, the space in which all of this got its start and led, eventually, to a baby’s bottom in the diaper. The black shadow below the diaper imparts an ominous quality, an echo of the fears Shadwell mentions as inherent to his role as a father. With birth comes life, responsibility and, in the end, death.

Black garbage bags may be the most utilitarian of objects, but Shadwell gives them a new look. In “AUNIVERSAL PICTURE 9,” garbage bags become a large and startling mouth. The manufactured lines of the plastic combine with folds rendered by the artist to resemble lips in motion. We don’t know if the purpose is a kiss or a stern lecture. But the shape suggests a kiss as does the gray mass below it which could be saliva. A kiss excites the salivary glands, among other things, and saliva, necessary for a healthy mouth, is also a messy byproduct which, if captured, could go right into the black plastic garbage bag you take out to the trash. Voila!

Shadwell’s “COMEDIE” series are instantly recognizable as memes on social media sites. Shadwell takes a different look, juxtaposing a visual with text that may or may not make sense. In COMEDIE 5, he draws a big black spider on a diaper. The text over it reads: “THAT’S JUST LIKE YOUR OPINION MAN” — a reference to “The Big Lebowski.” You have to spend some time trying to grok the message. It looks like a meme, but does it make sense? Memes don’t always make sense. 

Shadwell is trying “to convey a certain amount of absurdity” in the images, he says. Confusion, too, but that also may be part of it. You may linger on the image just long enough for it to have some impact on your psyche. 

Shelby Shadwell’s piece “COMEDIE 5.” (Shelby Shadwell)

The “COMEDIE” pieces, Shadwell says, reflect the fact that most people first encounter visual artists via digital technologies.

Shadwell draws one self-portrait every year. His most recent is part of the exhibit. In it, the artist wears a black stocking cap and a speaker wire droops from his left ear. The right side of the face is in shadow. His left eye squints as if he is trying to get a better look at you while you get a better look at him and his art.

Shelby Shadwell’s “Self-Portrait (without pants).” (Shelby Shadwell)

Shadwell’s show is a rare opportunity to see the artist’s work exhibited in Cheyenne. His resume features a long list of exhibits and honors. He recently won first place in the International Drawing Annual 9 from the Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in Cincinnati. He received the Best of Show Award in “Inspired Lines: The Appleton Museum of Arts Drawing Biennial” in Florida. He was awarded a solo exhibition at the APEX Space at the Portland Art Museum and his work is now in the museum’s permanent collection. 

The resume doesn’t list any exhibits in Cheyenne, despite Shadwell winning two fellowships from the Wyoming Arts Council based in Cheyenne. This points to the lack of exhibit space for contemporary artists in Wyoming.

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Asked how she landed Shadwell for her small gallery, Blue Door Arts proprietor and artist Terry Kreuzer replied: “I asked him.” 

The gallery’s hours are 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and by appointment. It’s located in the Hynds Buildings at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Lincolnway. Enter through the blue door — you can’t miss it.

Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Michael Shay

Michael Shay’s book of short stories, The Weight of a Body, was published by Ghost Road Press in 2006. His fiction and essays have appeared in Flash Fiction Review, Silver Birch Press, Northern Lights,...

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  1. When I was a Foreign Service in Kathmandu we had roaches in our kitchen. We acquired a kitten mongoose which, when held in my hand like a vacuum cleaner on our kitchen counter, would fill his mouth with them. I began to inspect them too. Looking closely at the roaches in their face, they look very kind. I know this may be odd, but that is what I thought.

    Al Read
    aread@wyoming.com

    1. Al: You have the beginnings of a wonderful memoir here, maybe even a short story set in Kathmandu. A kitten mongoose? Wow.