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articles

2012     Durango Telegraph                       Drawing From The Wells
2010     Denverarts                                    The Sculptures of Shan Werlls at Smokebrush
2006     Pagosa Daily Post                         Hold It! Show Features Work of Shan Wells
2006     Durango Telegraph                       Celebrity on Canvas
2006     Durango Telegraph                       Moments in Durango History
2003     Durango Herald                             Get Inside the Mind of Local Artist Shan Wells
2003     Greenmuseum.org                         And The Future Is Now
2003     Southwest Art                                Art Values
2002     Westword                                      Feel The Burn
2002     Rocky Mountain News                   Critic's Choice
2002     Durango Telegraph                       Baptism By Fire
2002     Farmington Daily Times                 Second Riverine Commission Announced
2002     Four Corners Business Journal      reCollections Mural Installed
2001     Durango Herald                             Compelling Works at Red Canyon
2000     Pollock Krasner Foundation           Millenium Report
2000     Colorado Council on the Arts        Colorado Spotlight
1997     The Press                                      Landwork



 

 



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Feel the Burn

The fires that scorched Durango have ignited artist Shan Wells’s imagination.

By Susan Froyd

Environmental sculptor Shan Wells grew up in southwestern Colorado, immersed in nature and the immediate landscape -- which has become his artistic medium -- all his life. It shows in the work: In Wells's visual world, stones, leaves or flower parts might be arranged in patterns on the ground, sandstone slabs nestled in the crook of a tree, or burnt piñon twigs affixed to wooden blocks on a wall. But what happens when an artist's ongoing source of inspiration undergoes radical and unexpected changes within a few weeks' time? That's just what this Durango native experienced when the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires raged through Wells's domain last summer. Some of his responses will go on display Friday, when his sculptural suite titled burn work opens at the Cordell Taylor Gallery.

Providing the show's foundation are two earlier, possibly more objective, pieces -- Artifact and Zygote -- that were inspired by fires at Mesa Verde and explored philosophically, from a distance. "Though it was still part of my home, the Mesa Verde fires didn't threaten me; they didn't threaten my memory," says the artist. "I was able to deal with them in more of a cerebral fashion. Both pieces carry my pre-disaster feelings about what a fire is -- how it's both good and bad for the land."

"But the Missionary Ridge fire was so close to my home," notes Wells, who helped evacuate the home of his aunt and uncle under terrifying circumstances. "Imagine trying to pack up a whole house in a half-hour -- packing everything you can possibly get into your car, with this huge fire roaring toward you, smoke all around and planes flying overhead. It was like a war zone." Remarkably, the fire leapt twenty miles in their direction in the matter of an hour, propelled by dangerous fire-filled plumes. "Plumes were the most visible aspects of the fire and also the most frightening. They're massive clouds of superheated air and ash and gas and smoke, but the fire is actually inside them -- you can see it. When the fuel is exhausted, the firestorm collapses, like hot-air balloon, and falls, scattering hot ash and cinders everywhere. The firefighters I met said it's something you might only see once or twice in your whole firefighting career, but there were at least twelve here that I counted."

Like a wartime survivor, Wells is only beginning to sift through the ashes of what his community experienced, and the two more recent works he'll show in Denver are clearly driven by a raw form of expression: "It was like the sun came down and touched the earth, and the fire released it in a huge and violent way. I felt like the only way to deal with it was to make an immense drawing." So one piece, Plume Drawing -- a ten-square-foot work in pencil and charcoal -- literally darkens the sky with its enormous, looming imagery that represents a dramatic release of uncontrolled energy. "I don't even show the land," Wells notes. "It's like a monster hanging over your town -- much like Godzilla -- and you can't get away from it." Another work, Swab, compares the recent, pudding-like mudslides in the Durango burn areas to an outpouring of the Earth's blood.

For Wells, these rough and difficult works are only a beginning. "I'd like to say it was cathartic, but really I'm still in the middle of it. I haven't yet made peace with it," he says quietly. Like Durango and its surrounding communities, where fierce debate has already begun between environmentalists and logging concerns, he's still trying to decide what to do next. He does know that he'll continue to explore burn works, a concept that really sprouted like a seed from Colorado's scorched forestland. "Now we have to look at the future: What do we do now? Cut it all down, and start all over? I hope that by showing this, it does help in some way to spark discussion -- more civil than we've had so far -- about how we can save what we've still got."

 

 



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Get Inside the Mind of Local Artist Shan Wells

By Nathaniel Miller
Herald Arts & Entertainment Editor


Shan Wells might have been more at home in post-Revolutionary Mexico, circa 1930 or '40, when art was thriving and radical and grafted inextricably to the face of leftist political thought. This is not to say that Wells is out of place in Durango, but he stands apart.

The artist, joining forces with Debra Greenblatt for "Glossadymi," a two-part installation at the Fort Lewis College art gallery, will be present Thursday at an opening reception for those who wish to know his mind. Poetry will be supplied by Wanda Wilson. Wells, born in Cortez and raised in Durango, had an art upbringing: His parents owned two local American Indian arts-and-crafts stores. He later received several degrees in fine arts, and finished with a Master's in Fine Arts from the Ilam School of Fine Art in New Zealand. "There's a lot more acid on you over there," he said in an interview Thursday at his studio. "It was like going to boot camp. They kind of chew you up and spit you out." It was that European-style education that taught Wells to think through his creations and define them, more or less, before beginning work. "You can't just take something and put it on the wall and call that art," he said. "You have to be able to sit and talk about your work in a rational way."

Now Wells is immersed in more projects than you can count on one hand: In addition to the sculpture and the painting, he teaches art at Pueblo Community College, makes illustrations for children's books, drafts political cartoons for The Durango Telegraph, and runs his own graphic design business. "It's part of trying to make a living in Durango," he said. "You've got to wear a lot of hats." Examples of the sculpture can be seen at "Glossadymi" (an invented word blending "glossary" and "dynamic" to approximate "languages of power").

Greenblatt works largely with television sets; Wells deals in the "gathering (of) information that is free." Both, he said, have to do with the way information is used to create or destroy.

The children's illustrations can be seen in Wells' collaborations with author Nancy Libbey Mills. Mills will be at Maria's Bookshop on Saturday to sign copies of their latest work, A Dance With the Orange Cow.

Wells' political cartoons, often less than complimentary to President Bush and his sympathizers, have drawn fire of late. His take on the recent Israeli-built wall was labeled anti-Semitic in letters to The Durango Telegraph. It was perceived by some that he had drawn Ariel Sharon with an oversized nose. "That was just my own naïveté," Wells explained. "I wasn't thinking about big noses. I was thinking about a caricature. It's something you only get through experience. There's no school for political cartooning you just do it." He said the last thing he wants is to be considered a racist.

In his fine art, which pops up all over town (three paintings are currently on display at Ellis Crane Gallery), Wells struggles to bridge the chasm between art and science; one might say that he approaches, delves in and partakes of science with an artistperspective. He believes the "sampling of nature" is simply a logical extension (and evolution) of the hunting/gathering process so, for example, he will observe a particular color on the "skin" of a rock, and "feeding it through (his) sensibilities," transfer it to canvas. Wells' path veers away from that of the scientist because he won't dissect; he won't take his subjects apart in order to see them clearly. The age of a tree can be determined by cutting it up and counting its rings, he said, but "unless you understand that it's part of a lung a world-lung you miss the point. ... I draw from the way science looks at the world, and I try to turn it into something that's more holistic."

Wells laments the current state of America not just its political state but it's artistic one. He says that this country is, artistically, stuck in the 19th Century, still espousing the belief that Pablo Picasso is modern there is a kind of unwillingness to move on, and a thick, fibrous suspicion of change. "I think we're afraid of it, but not just art: I think we're afraid of intellectualism," he said. "This country is in a scary place right now."


 

Published: December 27, 2007
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                                                                                                             Photo by Todd Newcomer

Moments in Durango’s History

New public art project now fully installed

by Jules Masterjohn

The year was 1917. French/American artist Marcel Duchamp displayed a porcelain men’s urinal on a pedestal in a New York City gallery, titled it “Fountain,” signed it “R. Mutt,” and called it art. His rationale? He was an artist, so whatever he made was art. This off-the-wall act shocked the art world and proved that Duchamp was walking his talk. He stated his avante garde ideas about art in the comment, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” The idea that the viewer participates in art making is fairly new and is one of the foundational principles in conceptual art, a genre that would find its roots 50 years after Duchamp’s sculpture outraged audiences.

In a recent story at BBC News, Duchamp’s “Fountain” was voted the most influential modern artwork in a poll by 500 experts. In the article, one of the experts, Simon Wilson, commented on the top choice. “It reflects the dynamic nature of art today and the idea that the creative process that goes into a work of art is the most important thing – the work itself can be made of anything and can take any form.”

Begun in the 1960s as a reaction to the commercialization of art, conceptual artworks communicate more through the idea than through the tangible object. A challenging art form, even to the art informed, conceptual art removes art’s reliance on a physical manifestation and depends upon the viewer’s ability to interpret concepts and understand ideas. Basically, the “art” happens in the mind where the object, if any, and the viewer’s intellect interface.

This oftentimes misunderstood art form – conceptual art – has literally hit the streets of Durango. Local artist Shan Wells recently finished installing the moments project, a history-based public art piece that consists of 20 green metal stanchions placed around the city, each presenting a historical photograph of the location where the stanchion is mounted. There are 11 stanchions in the downtown area, mounted on the sidewalks and oriented in a specific direction to assist the viewer in “seeing” the past by comparing the historic photograph to what is seen in present day.

In keeping with the history of its conceptual genre, Wells’ public art piece has not always found sympathetic reception among locals. One artist, who asked to remain anonymous, doesn’t believe that the project is art but merely historical interpretive signage. “Why is it any different than the sign posts about Animas City along the bike path?” was this artist’s challenge. Like Duchamp’s “Fountain,” we can identify it as art because the artist places it within an art context. And in doing so, asks that the viewer think differently about the purpose of the work. The moments project is intended to do more than give us information. “It employs the ‘canvas’ of interpretive signage as a user-activated mechanism of engagement,” Wells wrote in the brochure that accompanies the work. The brochure offers a map of the stanchions as well as a description of how one might understand the project as art.

For Wells, a native Durangoan and sculptor who first practiced the conceptual art form during his undergraduate studies in California, there is no identity crisis about this public art project. During the moments project dedication in October, Wells shared these words with the crowd: “This insertion of the past into everyday life enables viewers to make an immediate, real-time comparison, which in turn allows the weight of years falling between the frozen moment of the photograph and the present instant to be keenly felt … a gentle bump against the most powerful of nature’s forces – time.”

Like many contemporary artists, Wells is very interested in time as an operative element in life and has created this public art project as a vehicle to encourage one’s journey, using the mind’s eye, to arrive at a predetermined destination. “Time is a huge part of the universe, and in many ways the least understood. The idea of traveling in time is quite possible as an intellectual and imaginative exercise, you just have to leave your body behind. It’s a learned skill that you get better at with practice and research.” Through the moments project, Wells offers an opportunity to “make the sudden passage of time felt.”

The idea for the project began when Wells and his wife, Regina, decided to return to Durango to raise their children. Wells identifies strongly with his hometown and knows much about its history. Many of the photos he chose for the project stimulated a flood of memories and feelings in him. “I could look at the 1890s Strater Hotel and mentally overlay today’s building, and in so doing, feel the rush of a hundred years of time flow past me, whispering about world wars, the Spanish flu, depressions, moon shots, miners and ranchers. I could see John Kennedy making a campaign speech in the banquet room. I could hear the clatter of the horse-drawn trolley as it rolled up Main. I could see the pain in the eyes of our Ute brothers and sisters as they watched their lands slowly shrinking away from them, see the hope in the eyes of settlers looking to start fresh and be judged by the fruit of their labor, rather than their skin color, or their station in life. I could feel the rustle of generations of Durangoans still moving in 1887, 1920, 1953, 1978.”

After the last few years of attending council meetings and submitting documents of all kinds to keep the project moving forward and receive the city’s stamp of approval, Wells is relieved to see the artwork finally installed around town. His greatest satisfaction is in convincing the City Council and related commissions to view the moments project as art, not as interpretive signage. More meaningful for Wells, however, has been the gratitude he has received from some community members. “I’ve been stopped by many people who are deeply appreciative in a familial way. That is to say, they see it as an expression of love of place. And they’re right! One fellow, an amateur historian, actually showed me where Juan Rivera crossed the Animas in the middle 1500s. The trail is still there. Brilliant.” •

The moments projects brochures are available at the Durango Arts Center, Public Library, City Hall, Recreation Center, Center for Southwest Studies, and the Visitor’s Center.


 

Published: Nov. 13, 2002
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Baptism by Fire

Local works through tragedy of wildfires with burn art series


by Amy Maestas

In the aftermath of the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires this summer,local artist Shan Wells held a
metaphorical mirror up to his life, attempting to recognize how the fires’ destruction had changed it. This was not a small mirror from a vanity case; it was enormous – to capture both the breadth of Wells’ 6’3” stature and his emotions.

Wells saw a lot: fear, pain, loss and uncertainty; he saw raw wounds thatneeded healing. Although Wells was not a victim of the fires’ insidious path,his inspiration was.

As an illustrator and environmental sculptor, Wells’ art comes from nature –literally and intellectually. He creates what some call “eco art” or “land art,” a movement largely popularized in the 1960s that focuses on the connection between humans and nature. His work might include leaves, stones or flowers. Or it might include burnt twigs and thick mud, which are part of his sculptures currently on display at the Cordell Taylor Gallery in Denver.

Wells’ exhibit, “burn works,” showcases five pieces he created in response to the devastation of this summer’s fires as well as past wildfires at Mesa Verde National Park. The Mesa Verde fires inspired three pieces, Zygote, Artifact and Arrested Languages, which he created last year and displayed in Durango. They are, by Wells’ definition, more intellectual than intuitive. But this year, he added two new pieces to his suite of art, both of which carry a powerful punch of sorrow and rage, and have deeper meaning because of their proximity to this native Durangoan’s back yard.

The most dramatic, Plume Drawing, is a black-and-white 7-by-10-foot triptych in pencil and charcoal. It is a vast spiral of smoke rising from an invisible landscape.

“This drawing is about the uncontrollable energy of these plumes,” says Wells. “Its size is meant to evoke the power that was inside them.”

Swab is a 12-by-10-foot sculpture of five auger-like farm implements wrapped in organic cotton and supported by rusted poles. The swabs are soiled with a slurry of mud and ash, which Wells collected from the mudslides that deluged the valley after the fires.

“The mud and ash from the mudslides were the color and consistency of chocolate pudding,” he says. “I helped people who were buried in mudslides. And when I got into this mud, I noticed that it was like clotted blood. These mudslides were like the land was hemorrhaging – like the earth was trying to cleanse itself.”

Swab, Wells says, conveys the pain that comes after the fire and the need for wounds to be tended to. One swab remains clean, however.

“This means that the jobs of conservation and reclamation aren’t finished, and won’t be for a long time. We also have a job to do of rebuilding from these fires’ damage to our economy and to our social fabric.”

Wells grew up on East Animas Road, so when the fires hit, along with his artistic wellspring, many of his childhood memories went up in smoke too. He spent much of his childhood picking chokecherries and mushroom hunting on Missionary Ridge. Many of his family members still live in the valley. Wells helped his aunt evacuate her home and helped an uncle clear brush on his property as a defense. This is why the two new pieces in his sculptural suite are so particularly painful and personal. However, these two pieces also are acting as catharsis, Wells said.

In 1996, Wells, whose father was a ranger at Mesa Verde, became interested in learning about the effects wildfires have on nature. That year and in 2000, he worked with firefighters to understand the regeneration of the land destroyed by fire and in turn incorporate it into his work.

“My art is about conceptual ideas. It is also like a series of questions about how humanity views nature, how we value it, interpret it, label it,” says Wells.

“One of the main things I look for in my art is how to bring us back to the most basic thing, which is the earth. We use the earth’s resources to separate us from it. But we shouldn’t. If things are cut off, like water and snow, everything else falls away. It only takes a shrug of the earth’s shoulders for it to crumble.”

As Missionary Ridge was crumbling under the heat, Wells says he wasn’t thinking about how it would impact his art, nor was he immediately aware of any inspiration for future works. He was immersed in helping family, community members and firefighters survive. He was also coming to terms with his own emotions.

“I felt guilty when the fires started,” he says. “I had wanted to learn all I could about what wildfires did to nature and the landscape. So, when they started, I thought to myself, ‘Well, here’s your opportunity. Now you can learn all you want to know.’ I didn’t want to learn this way. But I have much more respect for this natural process now.”

Beyond his own healing, Wells also is concerned about healing the community. He’s troubled by the divisiveness that emerged from the finger-pointing and name-calling once the fires were under control. Blame, he says, is not helpful. We all share the burden collectively.

“We came together so beautifully during the fires, and now we’ve become so polarized,” he says. “Blaming each other isn’t going to help us protect ourselves and the forest from future fires.”

Wells is unsure whether his two new pieces will be displayed in Durango, although that’s his desire. But since they are intensely personal works, and, he says, are in many ways incomplete, he’s comfortable using them and any future burn sculptures as salve on his own wounds.

“At the end of the day, I’ve come not to hate the fires,” he says. “But there’s more I personally need to go through before I’m finished with this.”