Ernest Shaw lives with his wife, Marna Anderson, in an art-filled, tastefully decorated farmhouse in the countryside outside Kingston. It’s a tidy domestic milieu that hints at Anderson’s occupation as a folk-art dealer and Shaw’s practice as a psychotherapist and artist. But looming over the back patio is a 40-foot-high waterfall that embodies a different kind of energy: powerful, wild, almost scary. When Shaw turns on the pumps, water shoots over the tumultuous arrangement of boulders and rocks from multiple directions – a thunderous roar that’s incongruous with the bucolic setting of the house, patio and well-kept lawn. No mere fountain, it’s a force of nature. (Shaw and his wife built it from scratch, trucking in tons of earth and bluestone boulders and using the old concrete pool below as the catchbasin.)
The same elemental quality characterizes Shaw’s artmaking, which was no mere career but an existential quest. Over the course of 50 years, the 75-year-old artist produced thousands of sculptures, paintings and drawings. He describes the process as a journey emanating from some deep artesian source within the self that “carried me along like a strong current, which I willingly, ecstatically rode.” It’s the work of transformation, “of engaging our selves and our world to create meaning out of our life’s journey.”
The process is akin to his work with patients as a psychiatrist, therapist and teacher of mindfulness meditation. Shaw’s themes are archetypal. He digs into the very essence of mutable existence, revealing its precarious balance between life and death. “While we long for a life free of human dilemmas, we can never escape, because they are the essence, the work of being human,” he said.
A small sampling of his rich oeuvre is currently on display at the Arts Society of Kingston in a show called “Mortal,” which opened August 5. While there isn’t room for his di Suvero-sized steel or granite sculptures – many of them situated at university campuses, museum sculpture parks and public municipal spaces across the US – the show will highlight touchstones of his prodigious output. They include wood pieces from his dreamlike Mnemonic Series: graceful forms not quite human, not quite animal, carved from blocks of laminated plywood coated with liquid graphite, which gives them a soft, dusky finish, as if they were fabricated from mist; and the carved-wood Caravan Series: ritualistic boatlike vessel, anvil and shrine forms whose surfaces are distressed, as if they were ancient archaeological artifacts. Also on display are black-and-white paintings, made from raw pigment pressed into paper and canvas, that depict gestural figures and featureless heads; and tonal graphite drawings incorporating ghostly circles and nestlike masses, evoking suns rising through the mist and other atmospheric effects, made during a trip to Tuscany in 2000.
Shaw grew up in the Bronx and Queens and graduated high school at age 16. After graduating from Alfred University, he attended the SUNY College of Medicine in Syracuse and did his residency training at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Even in med school, he made things, and while at Albert Einstein he studied writing with the distinguished Filipino American poet, José García Villa.
In 1970, after completing his residency, Shaw moved to a 20-acre property in Gardiner and was hired as the head of mental health services at Vassar College. In 1973 he taught himself to weld. Two years later, he quit psychiatry as his career as a sculptor took off. He created more than 400 works in steel, many of them large-scale and some incorporating large stones.
Particularly remarkable, in terms of scale and sheer force, is an enormous, hieroglyphiclike assemblage of granite displayed on the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey, titled Sumo. Shaw fabricated rusted steel totemic forms, called Votives, some 32 feet tall, and huge, amphora-shaped vessels of woven strips of steel. In the late 1980s he shifted to carving wood on a more intimate scale, then painted his Informant and Witness series.
Ten years ago, Shaw and Anderson moved to their current home, whose landscaping and renovation have consumed much of his energies. But even in hiatus, Shaw can’t stop making art: In one of the art-crammed barns on the property, new hanging pieces – each consisting of a piece of wire stretched into a series of commodious curves, loose yet crisp, from which sag masses of burlap resembling tired flesh – hang from the walls or window locks. The burlap was used to cover the shrubs and trees in winter, and the new series evolved after he removed it in the spring. Shaw’s imagination is ever at play, even while doing yardwork.
Hudson Valley One’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Shaw at his home.
You’re self-taught. Did you ever take an art class?
The last semester of my senior year at Alfred, I took a drawing course. Our first assignment was to draw from nature, so I took my pad and a few bottles of beer and went off to sketch a spot where a small stream meandered its way through a shale outcrop. I had forgotten my pens and brushes, so I took twigs and leaves and dipped them in the ink, drawing the shale. I didn’t know how to render the water, so I just scooped water onto the paper. Back in the classroom, the instructor – Daniel Rhodes, who was also head of the Ceramics Department – walked around glancing at our work. I felt anxious when he carried my drawing to the easel in front, expecting to be bounced from the class; but instead Rhodes praised it as the one drawing in the class that could be talked about as art. I couldn’t do one good drawing after that, but Rhodes gave me an A and told me he would mentor me if I went to art school. But I went to med school instead.
What compelled you to become a psychiatrist?
My father, who was a very bright man and, I think, proud of me, had two close friends. One was a physician and the other a well-known psychiatrist, who had a wonderful smile and looked regal in his Army captain’s uniform. I thought, “I’d like to be like that, held high in my father’s esteem.” The fact that I had anxieties and plenty of fears in childhood, a rich imagination and a deep longing to understand life and my troubles propelled me to a profession that explored those very questions.
Eventually you veered into art. How did that happen?
Daniel Rhodes had opened the door to art, and the first year of medical school was boring. I would cut out of class early and drive to Lake Onondaga, where I’d pick up industrial flotsam and make sculptures. The unfolding magic of creating something made me feel alive. But working with patients the second year made medical school come alive, too.
You’ve written about how as an artist it is essential “to remember and honor what came before, how the past…calls to us in whispers or shouts.” How does your past inform your work?
It’s not only “my” past, it’s “the” past. We need a sense of history and moral reality to orient us. As a child, my father took me to the American Museum of Natural History, and standing in the Northwest Indian Hall among the giant totems, I was filled with awe and wonder. Those carved wooden totems spoke to my heart, my blood. They told me there was a world within this world, a past history in the present, light inside the dark.
Growing up, my parents gave me a lot of leeway to find my own way. I appreciate that, but it left me a little lost, having no religion or fixed beliefs. I was hungry to be more a part of this world, but didn’t quite know how.
So you developed an armor?
All living things develop some kind of metaphorical armor – even plants and bacteria. Anxiety is an essential part of surviving. The problem is, it can get way out of balance. As we grow, the armor doesn’t grow with us, and it suffocates and imprisons us. But it’s not easy to shed that armor, because behind it still lurk the fears, the terrors, the pain. When people come into therapy, it is not they who are falling apart, but the armor. The real work of therapy is to be present and help them open up to their emerging self.
To ask for help was not my way. Once, in a diving accident in the Caribbean, I nearly died because of this. A storm blew up and I was being smacked against some enormous boulders a distance from shore. I was panicked, choking and swallowing water. Someone was watching me from maybe 100 feet away, but I wouldn’t signal for help. I was able to ride one of those surging waves onto those boulders, which I finally did, and was saved. The next day, I sketched that rock from the beach, calling the circular foxhole where I had landed God’s Cup. It was as close as I came to feeling cradled in the spiritual center of being. I felt communion with the rock, the creator of rocks. That’s why I do therapy. That’s why I make art. They’re both containers that hold me.
What is your process?
I explore something visually and perhaps philosophically. I work in series, each usually consisting of between 30 and 50 pieces. When I’m simply repeating things and there’s no more edge to lean into, no discovery or challenge, I move on. Often a new direction is apparent in the accidents and mistakes I’ve made, pulling me towards their unresolved nature and possibilities.
What issues interest you in your art?
As William Blake wrote, “To see the world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower.” Mindfulness, which I teach, is the practice of consciously paying attention in the present moment. Art has the power to move, stir and shake us. So does therapy. So do relationships, because they press every single button. The issues are life and death, order and chaos, balance and imbalance and so much more. Words and ideas, rich as they are, can be so limiting. The French poet Paul Valéry said, “To truly see something is to forget the name of what one sees.”
You also teach meditation. How does that inform your work?
I’ve studied with some excellent teachers along the way. I’m not a Buddhist, but I draw a lot from the Buddhist understanding of the human condition, of impermanence, of suffering, of compassion. It’s about our connection to the world. No man (or woman) is an island. It is an honor that people trust me with their emotions and vulnerability. Whether I’m making a painting or listening to a patient, the caring is in the details. Love too is in the details.
You were working at Vassar College as a psychiatrist when you took up welding, which changed your life. What motivated you to do this?
In 1973 I had a dream of the Iron Age, of men hammering steel, forging, pouring molten steel out of crucibles. The next day I drove to Kingston, bought a book on welding, oxyacetylene torches and a small electric welder and stopped at Millens Steel for pieces of scrap steel. By the end of the day I had my first sculpture: a lady holding up the rusty skeleton of an umbrella. After that I cut steel forms for mirrors and torch-cut glyphs for decorations. Then I began laying out eighth-inch sheets of steel on the ground and hammering them until they cracked and split open; I would slide one sheet into the other and weld them all into a closed form, creating a steel pod. I explored what steel was and had my first show at Ulster County Community College. I was working on the Totem Series by that time, as well as making steel frameworks with hung stones inside. (One of these is at Kykuit, Nelson Rockefeller’s former estate, which houses his art collection.) The stones were from the dismantled Ashokan Reservoir dams, and some had wagon wheels grooved into them.
So when you were making a piece, even one 20 feet tall, you didn’t make a preparatory sketch or model?
I was always sketching ideas. Yet I trusted implicitly in the process. I would just begin. My basic tendency was to trust that orientation, that direction. If it was a mistake, a failure, I’d find out soon enough. It’s a balance of sorts: when to pause and reflect, when to act.
Within a couple of years you were exhibiting in New York City galleries and having museum shows. How did you make that leap onto the national scene?
I don’t know. Luck. Good work. Commitment. One day my girlfriend at the time and I went to Soho with two slide sheets of my sculpture to see if I could get someone to show my work. We were sitting in an eatery and overheard four men who were obviously art dealers at the next table. My girlfriend showed them my slides, and long story short, one of them, Irving Luntz, a major art dealer, drove his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud up to Gardiner the next day. He chose 17 pieces for a show three months later on the grounds of the Milwaukee Arts Center. It sold out (four pieces were acquired by the Bradley Sculpture Gardens, a major collection). A year later I had my first New York City show at Sculpture Now. But I was never hungry to be part of the art world. I liked life up here in the country and simply wanted to work.
The energetic, almost frenetically applied lines and strokes of your black-and-white paintings and drawings of simplified and fragmented figures seem to channel the force of levitating steel beams and rocks of your sculpture. Was there a definitive shift from one medium to the other?
Many years ago I wrote a line in a poem alluding to David and Goliath: “Small stones sting!” Any medium, any scale, well-aimed, incisive, has enormous power, visual or otherwise. In 1980 or so, I had a serious injury working on a large commission piece. My assistant carried pads and pencils into my hospital room and admonished me to “Start drawing or you’ll go nuts.” I made hundreds of drawings over that time. I drew masses related to timed intervals my assistant kept, lying on my back. The masses related to rocks, nests, eggs, the shrimp I ate for dinner, body parts – everything and anything. Eventually the timed masses evolved into a landscape series, which I called the Hudson River Dream Series, followed by the Master Builders. It evolved, became layered. The format of the Master Builders were composed of either six targetlike forms or three doorlike forms on 30-by-40-inch paper. Words appeared on the drawings as both process descriptions and poetic keys, such as “Time reveals and conceals every journey.” The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “You can’t put your foot in the same river twice.”
But you also kept making sculpture.
Yes, but I wanted a softer, more malleable surface and started working with wood. I made large laminated blocks of plywood, worked them with chainsaws and painted them with various materials. I had one of my last shows with the Mnemonic and Caravan Series before I closed my studio. I was going through a divorce and I needed time and space. In 1990 I met Marna, and the next year I returned to psychiatry. In the late 1990s I began to paint again, and from that the Informant and Witness Series evolved.
Both of these series are related to figures. What inspired the Informants?
The Informants refer to those personages in childhood from literature, popular culture, mythologies and real life who informed me what it was like to live with adversity and physical deformity, to be an outcast. Perhaps the ones represented most frequently are the renowned Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, who were sold to a circus as older children before becoming landowners and successful farmers in the South, marrying and having a multitude of children. I was fascinated at the fact they lived full lives married at the hip, unable to be apart even in their conjugal bed. With my own secrets, shames and fears, I could not wrap my mind around how they managed. When one finally died, the other died about two hours later.
One painting shows a black pigment figure with the hand reaching into his twin, touching his heart. And then there was the indomitable Frosty the Snowman, who had to melt, to die every year, but danced, sang, whistled his way into death. These personages informed me how to live with insurmountable struggles and how to die with insurmountable grace.
The Witness figures are very different: single featureless heads, in white against a black ground, or visa versa.
I was in the studio, my back to the open door, bathed in the sunlight, my paper spread out before me, wondering what to do. Then I saw the shadow of my head as it fell across the page like a dream, like fire. I drew it and felt how we witness life by seeing our own shadows; it’s a head watching itself paint, watching itself watching something beyond the painting. There is a tilt to all the heads, a postural attitude, referring to something – something seen, something felt.
Who is the Witness?
All of us, I guess. We are asked to pay attention, be present, be compassionate. To witness goes beyond just seeing; it is a felt presence with the other, with nature, with our own hearts. It is communion with the world.
I can’t help thinking of my father and how at times he was a witness to me. When I was 11 he had a nervous breakdown, probably from the pressures of being in a business he hated. Afterwards, he went back to school to get his Masters, then his PhD in Literature, and spent the last 30 years of his life working as a university professor in Literature and the Humanities, which he loved. So I was his witness as well.
The years he worked full-time, taught some college classes and went to school at night I hardly saw him, and perhaps it is that longing to remember, to honor his heroic struggles and watch him live into his dream, that informs the Heraldic Series, which were done in the late 1980s. They are imagined coats of arms for my family, as though we’d had some lineage I could palpably know. I’d identify my father in imagination with other heroic figures, events and even simple emotions and write them onto the surface of the wooden pieces, like I Remember My Father as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce or I Remember My Father at Masada.
What do you hope to gain from “Mortal”?
It is being mortal. So, what do I still have to do? Be here now, look back and understand what my life and art have been about and look ahead to where am I going. And maybe get my hands back into making art.
The nice thing about being older is having that perspective on life. I’m not expecting anything, but you never know. It’s been a great opportunity to pause, reflect, take stock of where I am and how I got here.
“Mortal” exhibition, ASK 2017 Distinguished Artist Ernest Shaw, on view until August 26, artist talk August 26, 4 p.m., Arts Society of Kingston, 97 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 338-0333, http://askforarts.org.