Standing in her garage-turned-studio with soaring ceilings and white walls in Spokane’s Nevada/Lidgerwood area, oil painter Shana Smith conveys ideas rapid-fire, like a machine gun. She hunts for meaningful words like an archaeologist digs for ancient artifacts. Her appetite for finding not only the right images to paint but also the right words to use is voracious and deliberate.
Take the words she has chosen as the titles for the more than three dozen paintings she has created for her new show, “Perceptions of an Artist,” opening this Friday at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery.
“Eleutheromania” is the title of her painting of a woman, who at first glance appears as fairly pretty, but whose head is nearly pulling off her body, her eyes either missing or burned out.
“Eleutheromania is the intense need to travel or to wander to a level of psychosis,” Smith said. “She’s so crazy, she can’t see.”
Another one of Smith’s paintings is called “Actalepsy,” referring to the “multiple ways you can view the universe, not just looking at things the same way,” Smith said. The title and the piece fit in nicely with Smith’s theme of “Perceptions.” It is of a woman’s face with four eyes instead of two, painted in a piercing double-vision image. Smith herself finds the piece so distracting that she plans to hang it in a spot out of view of most of her other pieces.
Several of Smith’s paintings depict fierce women with the heads or horns of animals. She suspects how people interpret her work will depend on their own experiences. With lions, there are spiritual meanings, animal symbolism, various definitions in different cultures. For Smith, she thinks of the lion as the gatekeeper and protector, strong and conquering, without fear of the future. She calls the piece “Perceptions of a Warrior.”
“I actually really love that one,” Smith said. “(The lion-faced woman) is determined, in an ‘I’m going to get you and eat you’ kind of way.”
The layering that Smith has done on the painting has produced bubbles and imperfections, deepening the nude’s moodiness and mottled colors. Smith said these “mistakes,” which she has learned to control and create over years of painting, are sometimes the best part.
“This painting reminds me that it’s my show, my series, my art,” Smith said. “I’m so sick of the art world telling everybody it has to be in one cohesive style and everything. I don’t want to paint the same painting for the rest of my life. That’s not why I paint. My obsession has always been with style-setting, manipulation of material.”
Smith, 36, moved to Spokane from Montana almost three years ago, searching for the nearest city with an art scene where she could afford to relocate. Within just a few weeks of her arrival in town, the University of Montana graduate had her first solo show at Urbanna Natural Spa and Salon and has since exhibited in several group shows including at Terrain, the Liberty Building, Object Space, Missing Piece Tattoo and Kolva-Sullivan.
Although Smith makes her living as a painter with commissions, she has also made a name for herself with her three-dimensional work with roller coaster cars. Using automobile paint, she just recently created shark coaster cars for the Santa Monica Pier.
Being from Montana, Smith said she has been asked to paint a lot of buffalos and other wildlife. But for half of her childhood, she was raised in Chicago, which she thinks may be responsible for her love of other modern styles and subjects. Friday’s show is a turning point, Smith said. The pressure to do what others want her to do or expect her to do is behind her now.
“This is the first show I’ve ever been able to put out where all the art really matters to me,” Smith said. “This is true artistic side coming out finally.”
On one wall of her studio, she scrawled a step-by-step guide to the process she undertook to build her show over the past couple of months. Under the umbrella of “Controlled Chaos,” Smith’s method starts with painting what she calls “something beautiful.” Step two she calls the “hunt,” whether it’s for the perfect image or subject in her mind. Step three is to “play” with what she has, try new things, go deeper, with the express rule that there are no rules. Her last step is “title,” when she finds a word that helps her find a final direction and finish the piece.
“When I find the right word that helps describe my thoughts or feelings I’m like ‘Yes! That explains things,’ ” Smith said. “At first, I was originally thinking of poems or using double homonyms for the show, then I came cross all these unknown beautiful words that nobody knows exists, and a lot of them are from other languages, or there are no words that mean this in the English language, so we use like the Dutch words or the Celtic words.”
The painting of a woman called “Anaraxic,” meaning a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety, shows a beautiful but flawed face with a “who-cares?” attitude. Smith’s largest piece, “Nephalabatta” means cloud walker, or one who lives in one’s own dreams. The image is of a woman with extra eyes again, snatches of dreams around her, a broken doll, a clock face in the clouds, birds soaring in the distance. For the entire show, perceptions are in the eye of the beholder.
While some artists hate having to name their works, Smith uses the titles to help her finish her creative process.
“I’ve always had this obsession where how the technical pieces of a painting, the style choices, has such a similarity to how words are,” Smith said.
Smith climbs on a chair of her studio and reaches for what she calls her “thought box.” Inside a wooden box she’s had since childhood, Smith keeps notes with her ideas. One of her talents is the ability to write backwards and with both hands. The trick helps keep her thoughts secret when she’s writing them down in public.
Smith fishes out a scrap of paper and reads: “If you think of the word as a body and its definition of it as a soul, the word without its meaning is simply a carcass.”
Smith stops reading and explains: “Technique is like a soul of a painting … with painting, you can communicate or create any emotion.”
Smith’s commitment to not follow the rules has led her to try different styles and techniques. From acrylics layered with oils, layering with screen printing ink because it dries fast, under-painting with oils or not under-painting at all, the list goes on. She calls her studio LaLa Land, which describes her mind when she paints. Lately, she’s taken to calling it Michael Lowe’s Apocalypse, referring to the explosion that happens in her studio when she mashes Michael’s art store with Lowe’s .
From her thought box, Smith retrieves an old napkin given to her by a guy she met at a bar once in Alberta, Montana. She reads with a smile: “I refuse to tiptoe through life only to arrive safely at death’s door.”