by Len Lear and Grant Moser
Acclaimed Chestnut Hill artist Clarissa Shanahan, 47, who has worked on more than 20 movie and television productions, including “The Horse Whisperer,” “Meet Joe Black,” “Angels in America,” “Summer of Sam,” “Pollock” and “Boardwalk Empire,” has an exhibit of her work currently on display through June 28 at the Carol Schwartz Gallery, 101 Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill.
Clarissa’s preferred medium is encaustic painting, which is painting with tinted beeswax. But it’s much more than that. An initial image is created, and then the wax is applied layer after layer, obscuring some parts of the picture, letting other parts stand out, ultimately creating a sense of depth and distance.
“I’ve worked with most materials at some point or another, thanks to being a scenic artist,” Clarissa said last week. “Every single job requires you to find yet a new way to achieve something … but encaustic is simply my favorite medium. Wax is so very atmospheric, and it has a beautifully organic irregularity to it. There are ways to use wax that do things that you can’t do in any other medium.”
In her early 20s the New York state native (Long Island up to age 18 and Brooklyn up to age 33) knew she wanted to be an artist but didn’t have the first inkling about how to make that happen — until she stumbled upon an article about decorative painting. “All of a sudden I found something I wanted to do,” Shanahan explained.
She took the initiative and tracked down everyone mentioned in the article, called every studio that specialized in decorative painting, and applied for every scholarship she could find to learn more about how to pursue this art form. It paid off when she got a scholarship to a studio in New York City.
She began getting her own private jobs doing work in people’s homes, even once touching up a mural in the New York apartment of legendary fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. “I was introduced to a painting contractor who did really high end jobs,” she explained. “He kind of took me under his wing and took a chance on me when I didn’t yet have a very extensive portfolio. One of the first things he called me for was to do some tie-in and repair on that mural in Oscar de la Renta’s apartment.”
A friend recommended her for a photo-tinting job at Planet Hollywood, which eventually led her into the scenic shop community. Jobs followed doing theater sets, Christmas windows at department stores in New York and even stained glass displays.
She was hired to work on “The High Life,” an HBO production, in the mid-‘90s, which allowed her to get her into the United Scenic Artists union in 1996. She was now part of the movie industry. “I’m a really big movie-head, and it never occurred to me that there were artists who make these sets, that I could have a career in the movies doing what I did. I sort of got there through the back door.”
Through this one job, she began a new phase of her life, working on more than 20 movie and television productions, including “The Horse Whisperer,” “Meet Joe Black,” “Angels in America,” “Summer of Sam,” “Pollock” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
“I was pretty fortunate,” Shanahan remembered. “I found a home pretty quickly and was very lucky because the ‘charge scenic’ [her boss] who hired me was one of the best people I’ve ever worked with. We clicked, and the crew clicked. I liked the way of working.
“Scenic painting is really the theatrical version of the same skills as in decorative painting. It’s all really about making something look like it’s made from something else. A lot of aging, surface finishes, all kinds of neat art projects come up. I loved the variety of working project to project and on different filming locations. The most fun for me was whenever I had the opportunity to create paintings for props or set dressing, like in ‘Pollock’ (biopic about famed abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock). That was such a treat.”
But after a while Clarissa got antsy and decided to go to school. “I’d never finished any formal education. I wanted to be a student.”
She began applying to schools, looking for academy-style instruction. This means a student progressing through stages: drawing, painting, print-making, sculpture — and lots and lots of practice. “What I wanted was very old-school,” she said.
So she took a break from film and began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) full-time. She endured a bit of minor celebrity on campus because of her movie experiences. It was at PAFA where she discovered encaustic painting, which dates back to the Egyptians, who used it to create funerary portraits. The Greeks, who used beeswax to repair ships, found they could use it decoratively if they added pigment. It’s been used ever since, including by medieval artists to create icon paintings.
Clarissa, who has no spouse or children, has been living in Chestnut Hill for five years and has no plans to move. “This neighborhood is such a good place to live, really. It has a strong community, lots of artists, good resources, many community-driven events. Great foodie neighborhood, too. My civic pride is showing. Everything I need is here.”
Many of her paintings focus on crumbling, forgotten and derelict man-made structures, from buildings to amusement parks. The images are often haunting, with muted colors, that evoke the idea of memories, whether remembered or already lost.
What does Clarissa like to do when she is not painting? “Netflix is the short answer. Museums, galleries, seeing friends, trying to learn a new language online, the usual stuff. I tend to work in binges. Long incubation phase, then when I know what I want to do, I binge-paint. I’d like to tell you that I’m working on splitting the atom, but really, Netflix.”
For more information about Clarissa’s work, visit www.clarissashanahan.com or call the Carol Schwartz Gallery at 215-242-4510.