an artist’s profile by Catherine Joyce
Shawn McNevin, Artist of the Elements
an artist’s profile by Catherine Joyce
Shawn McNevin speaks quietly of the path she has taken through her art. Her love of landscape is rooted in her being but her decision to follow this passion has not been an easy one. Born in Deep River, a town literally cut out of the bush, north along the Ottawa, she grew up surrounded by Nature, by the river, rocks and pines of her childhood. No one in her family had ever been an artist but she found herself, after their move to Ottawa in the mid-60s, creating a small portfolio on her own. After graduating from high school, she was drawn to Algonquin College where she completed a Graphic Arts program in 1971, then worked as a graphic designer with the Government for seven years. It wasn’t until she was pregnant with her first child, after moving up to Chelsea in 1975, that she rediscovered a latent longing to find her artistic direction. She experimented on her own; then in 1986, with her kids in school, she enrolled in the Ottawa School of Art. In her final year she completed a series of pastel drawings of overpasses. They soon came to mirror the journey she was on – the huge cement obstacles she had to pass through on her way into town, the sense of another world far removed from the river, sky and hills that felt like home, the urban reality of juried shows and market demand. Upon graduation she turned down a coveted offer by a gallery. “I realized that I had to go my own way, separate from the performance pressure I associated with the city. In painting those overpasses I was curious about what I couldn’t see – those shadowy places just out of reach. The ‘not knowing’ carried me into a mystery – into an inner and an outer landscape that I needed to explore. By going it alone with my art, I have discovered who I am.”
And so the search began. Although she had no idea of her direction she took old watercolours she had painted in school and began to smear charcoal over them. Figures started to emerge, swimmers submerged under water. Intrigued, she painted more and displayed them on the Studio Tour – the reactions she received taught her the power of the elemental in her art. She has had a love affair with water all her life but these paintings revealed the dangers as well as the beauty – reminding her of a near drowning in childhood that only her mother had remembered. “You don’t know what things mean. Art leads you. It speaks to you and if it rings true, it speaks to the experience of others.”
The awakening can only come to the artist; it cannot be forced. For years McNevin saw herself as ‘just a housewife’ living an average life, with nothing much to say. But the power of art to unlock the emotions, to scream forth on the page with the unique signature of the artist comes when you least expect. Such a moment happened in art school when all around her were students executing highly intellectualized work. A visiting artist from Toronto walked among the easels, commenting, encouraging, but he merely looked at her work and passed on. She felt dismissed. Later, when all the paintings were lined up, he singled hers out as the most visceral. “I did not speak to you because you were so absorbed – you were pouring your heart out and I did not want to break your concentration.” The piece taught her what she was capable of: it was the first time she had put anything out so completely, an experience of wholeness, of being absolutely alive on the paper.
“You have to let it come from you, to be true to your nature. You cannot follow the trends.” McNevin acknowledges that this has not always been easy for her. Initially she fought against landscape painting, knowing that more traditional forms had fallen out of favour in the contemporary scene. It was only after the fact that she could see the progression of her preoccupations – from the menacing overpasses, through the submerged swimmers, to the fires alight in the darkness, and the dorries drifting on the water; she realized that she had been drawn along by an inner current of awareness, a kind of destiny that ‘knew’ where she belonged. Landscape – the painting of elemental forms and aspects of light – would soon become her life.
The turning point came eight years ago when McNevin left the Studio Tour and opened her own small gallery, Studio 167, in her home. She visited Newfoundland for the first time the following year. There she saw in reality the shapes that had long inhabited her mind and her art – the misted mountains, the veils of rain, the ancient rocks and the ever-changing sea and sky. Her inner landscape, steeped from childhood and later shaped by the light-filled paintings of Turner and by the mysterious contemplative stillness of Rothko, now found its outer expression in an elemental soul landscape of constant change. “You lose things – they emerge and disappear the way life opens and closes to you. You think it’s this and later you discover it’s something else again.”
With her husband, Bill Sevigny, McNevin bought on a point of land in Cow Head in western Newfoundland and built a house, from which she can travel in her yellow mini converted school bus to paint on site. “Out there I have found such peace. I am myself – without any anxiety about commercial sales, galleries or networking. In the landscape I find a connection to the self – it releases you because it is so much more powerful than you. You don’t analyze. You just look and look again and try to capture what is happening. You become lost in everything around you. You get that feeling – it comes out in your work. It’s like talking to God. In a sense Newfoundland is the original Canada, Nature at its rawest. I take these raw forms and move them back into dream. And in so doing – in being so attached to that earth, sea and sky – I am free, at peace. All else fades into insignificance.”
An artist of the elements – earth, air, fire and water – Shawn McNevin has finally found her dream space, coming full circle through the mysteries of landscape, from her childhood in Deep River, through her love of the Gatineau to the wilds of Newfoundland – to find herself at home in her art and in her life. “I am who I am meant to be.”