Who could turn a black plastic trash bag into art?
His name is Shelby Shadwell, and his work isn’t garbage.
Using as inspiration an item that you and I see simply as a device to dispose of wrappers, spoiled food and other refuse, the University of Wyoming assistant drawing professor has built an outstanding portfolio of charcoal-on-paper artwork that has drawn international attention.
One of Shadwell’s drawings—he affectionately calls it “Elephant Man,” though, officially, it remains untitled—graces the cover of the latest International Drawing Annual from the Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. His drawing was chosen as the annual’s featured image from among 1,308 submissions from 490 artists in nine countries.
“I had no idea I was on the cover until I opened an email that showed the image of the cover,” says Shadwell, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis (BFA, 2003) and Southern Illinois University (MFA, 2006) whose personality is as engaging as his work. “I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’”
To this day, months after the publication hit book shelves around the world, Shadwell still doesn’t know how or why his drawing was selected for the annual’s cover. “But I know who I need to ask. A guy named Jason Franz,” Shadwell says with a smile. “If I ever get a chance to meet him, I’m gonna ask him.”
This is the second time that Shadwell’s work has been included in one of the world’s most prominent drawing publications, which was conceived in 2005 to support Manifest’s mission to promote drawing as a rich and culturally significant art form. A series of drawings featuring silhouetted semi-trucks in the landscape, many inspired by images taken from the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s online road cameras, appeared in the annual’s fifth edition a year ago.
Shadwell’s latest body of work could be his most challenging: He is attempting to turn the cockroach, generally regarded as one the most disgusting insects, into art. The idea to portray cockroaches in his work was born during a 2011 summer residency in Wendover, Utah, which, at the time, was dealing with an infestation of the reddish-brown pests.
But, heck, he’s already made trash bags into art. Why not cockroaches?
“My work is, in part, an investigation into if and how one can find aesthetic beauty in things that have particularly negative associations for people. I hope that viewers can at least be contemplative about what is and is not aesthetically pleasing, both personally and culturally,” Shadwell says.
“There’s an overall historical trend in art that attempts, intentionally or otherwise, to elevate common day-to-day experiences or items into high art. Robert Rauschenberg, with his bed mattresses, and Andy Warhol, with his Campbell’s Soup can paintings, are two rather famous examples,” he says. “It seems like whenever someone says that art cannot be something like trash bags or cockroaches, there is always an artist who wants to prove them wrong.”