On Thursday, April 20, ArtRat Gallery will hold an opening reception for “New Beginnings,” its spring show featuring painters Colleen Gleason Shull and Justin Shull.

'New Beginnings' signage

The exhibit runs through July 20 and features “recent paintings in conversation” as the former artist couple explores new chapters in their individual artistic journeys. Colleen and Justin have collaborated on past projects, and their individual work has responded to and evolved in relation to each other over the past 20 years.  

Ahead of the Third Thursday opening, ArtRat asked the artists about their creative process and latest work, and the influences that shaped their aesthetics. Here’s what Colleen Gleason Shull had to say about “New Beginnings.”

Colleen Gleason Shull in the studio.

"New Beginnings" features recent images of flowers, a recurring theme in your work. How does your process differ between creating landscapes and still lifes?

I approach painting landscapes and still lifes with a similar process of painting from observation. In both I am reacting and discovering my subject. I love to paint the landscapes en plein air outdoors from life, and then I take small studies and scale them up to larger landscapes in the studio. 

The still lifes, I usually set up in the studio in a window with bouquets of flowers like tulips, sunflowers and peonies, with colored glass on mirrored table surfaces to capture more light and color that I paint in a very similar way to water and other elements in the landscape. In all my landscapes and florals I like to leave a certain amount of abstraction of the subject. For me the paintings are more about the process of painting itself and the physicality of the paint than just depicting what the subject (landscape or flower) looks like. I really strive to depict the energy of the landscape or the flower itself when I paint. 

You've lived, studied and worked in many parts of the country. How does your current location near Traverse City, Michigan, inform your aesthetic? 

Colleen Gleason Shull standing before paintings.

I think that every place I have lived has affected my aesthetic, I am really affected by the light and energy of a place. Currently in the Traverse City region, I'm informed by the dramatic shifts of the four seasons. I think this region is beautiful, and I love how every color of the landscape changes during these shifts. I've always loved living near the water and the play of light on the reflective surface, so the Great Lakes and rivers of northern Michigan from Frankfort to Mackinac are my favorite painting subjects. 

In my experience the long winters make the spring feel more magical and the blossoming of the flowers and trees have really become one of my main focuses. I feel this ties my aesthetic and study of the landscape and still life together. I paint out in my gardens and on location regionally six months of the year and then can still focus on the flowers I grow as my subjects the rest of the year in still life form using source photos. 

I also love experiencing the landscape through my two young children's eyes. I have been experimenting with painting them as figures in the landscape, which takes on a more exploratory narrative. I think of them as my little muses discovering the beaches and forests, and it reminds me of the childhood perspective of wonder when I paint the landscape.

Did COVID affect the way you work or the subjects you take on? 

'Peony' by Colleen Gleason Shull.

I think COVID influenced me to work more with my immediate surroundings and flowers I grew at my farm. There was something very satisfying about painting subjects that I grew myself and being able to look out the window and paint or go pick my next still life. 

I also started really scaling up my paintings during COVID, too, and painting in a dedicated studio more than I had previously; moving around with limited studio ability had also limited my size constrictions.  I personally got pretty sick with the Delta COVID variant, and it coincided with being blindsided by our separation as a couple and moving out of our shared studio space into new studios, which created a gigantic shift in my personal life and artistic life. My entire life felt upside-down post-COVID and it took a lot of effort to process, heal and create after the changes that developed. 

Who do you consider major influences in your artistic development, and how did they help shape your perception/execution? 

'Tigerlily' by Colleen Gleason Shull.

I have had some long-term major influences that have stayed steady since about high school and then I usually have some rotating contemporary influences that fluctuate. When I was 14, I went to Paris and saw Monet's paintings at the Musée de l'Orangerie; his brushwork and floral filled landscapes have been something I have circled back to and fully embraced after moving back to northern Michigan. 

I have always appreciated the brushwork of Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism from very painterly, textural painters. I am also fascinated by Post Impressionism and Fauvism like Matisse, Van Gogh and Gauguin, for their colorful spatial compositions. As well as Canadian field painters Group of Seven, Tom Thompson, and Emily Carr for their exploratory painting of the wild northern landscape in rich dramatic color and imagination. 

Which contemporary artists most excite you, and why? 

As far as contemporary painters, I have found Cecily Brown's work exciting since my undergrad painting days and saw her as a role model as a female painter painting large expressive paintings that are large engulfing landscape spaces. I also am influenced by the inclusion of the figure in the landscape in some of my paintings. Another contemporary female painter I enjoy for her imaginative and otherworldly floral-scapes is Inka Essenhigh. I admire her loose brushwork, expressive allegorical space and interesting color harmony.

You're also exhibiting this month at Visionary Art Collective in New York. Can you tell us about that show? 

Colleen Gleason Shull in studio.

I was invited to show with 5 contemporary female painters in New York CIty with the Visionary Art Collective for their first in-person exhibition called The Lens Through Which We See. I joined the VAC when Victoria Fry (the curator and founder) formed VAC during COVID, and it's been inspiring during the pandemic to at least virtually connect with other exciting painters and view virtual exhibitions they organized. 

I admire everyone's work in the show, and everyone is from a different region. The other artists in the show are Brii Custer, Julie Avisar, Ekaternina Popova, Sarah Boyle and Amanda Hawkins. The exhibition also opens April 20 in TriBeCa, and I will be traveling there to participate and view it in person. 

Is there anything else you'd like visitors to consider when they view "New Beginnings"? 

I think “new beginnings” can probably be interpreted multiple ways. I chose to focus on a selection of my Flora series with large, expressive blooms that are semi-abstract representing a blossoming and change. For me the last year has been full of tumultuous change and refocus on myself post-divorce. Connecting to my growth, my experience, my blooming into a new version of myself. It's been painful and beautiful and I am very connected in expressing my emotions in my paintings. I think for a while I didn't see what I was letting out in the studio. I enjoy the process and reflecting on the paintings together and then seeing it come into focus. That's how the last year has felt for me. I'm beginning to see where I want my paintings to grow and evolve with me and with more clarity than before.

ArtRat is located at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids.

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