One of Shanahan's new paintings in the exhibit is "Madame Tussaud (self-portrait), beeswax and oil on panel, 72x48.

One of Shanahan’s new paintings in the exhibit is “Madame Tussaud (self-portrait), beeswax and oil on panel, 72×48.

by Len Lear

Chestnut Hill artist Clarissa Shanahan, 49, who spent 17 years as a film industry scenic painter, has a new exhibit, “Tales from the Ruins,” now showing until the end of October at Gravers Lane Gallery, 8405 Germantown Ave.

Shanahan has worked on more than 20 movie and TV productions, including “The Horse Whisperer,” “Meet Joe Black,” “Angels in America,” “Summer of Sam,” “Pollock” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Her 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 in an earlier interview. “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.”

Shanahan’s work can be dark, moody and haunting. According to a statement from Gravers Lane Gallery, “The work evokes deep thought, memory through images of abandoned places and haunted spaces. ‘Tales from the Ruins’ is the perfect exhibition for Chestnut Hill’s Harry Potter Festival.”

Shanahan, who teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Woodmere Art Museum, Fleisher Art Memorial and Wayne Art Center, especially likes to paint historical figures.

“History is the ultimate storyteller,” she told us last week. “Everyone has a story. I might be reading something that references a person I know nothing about but piques my interest. Exploring their backstory further will begin to make them come alive to me. Researching history is so unpredictable, it takes you to places that you weren’t expecting to travel; it’s fascinating.

“Last year I completed tour guide training at Laurel Hill Cemetery, and so I’ve become really involved with programming there and have developed my own tours. It’s absolutely heightened my interest in learning about those whose stories aren’t necessarily known, as well as those who most of us have heard of.

“I’m particularly in an American folk hero phase right now, lots of Wild West figures. I want to depict them, telling my interpretation of their stories. I’ve been ‘casting’ people that I know as figures from history that I want to portray. I told you, I’m a film person.”

Many of Clarissa’s paintings have also focused on crumbling, forgotten and derelict man-made structures, from buildings to amusement parks. The images are often haunting, with muted colors, that are intended to evoke memories.

“Eventually I began to think about what history had happened in these places that I was painting,” she explained, “and I thought about the individual stories to tell. The idea of temporal layering is still very much a driving factor in what inspires me — contemporaries of mine, from different periods of history, captured in a Victorian era ‘photograph’.

“I’m now working on a series of very large scale interpretations of historic portraits, ‘casting’ people that I know who have the same flavor. Howard Carter, Dr. Polidori, Wyatt Earp, The Pinkertons and Elisha Kent Kane are a few pieces that are now in process.”

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.

She 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. Jobs followed doing theater sets, Christmas windows at department stores in New York and even stained glass displays and eventually work on movie and TV sets. “It had 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.

“Scenic painting is really the theatrical version of the same skills as in decorative painting … 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.” In addition to Shanahan’s exhibit, Gravers Lane Gallery has a window installation for the Harry Potter Festival, Colorado-based book artist Valerie Savarie and New York jeweler, Biba Schutz.

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