Shannon Lewis' father was a watercolor artist with a T-shirt shop. But while she was growing up in Los Angeles, Shannon never thought seriously about pursuing art. It wasn't until she had grown up, raised two daughters and injured her back that she found her artistic calling. While recovering from her back injury, she decided to study psychology at Portland State University. However, a visit to the art department undermined her plan. "I thought, woo hoo! I'm home," Shannon recalls. She promptly switched programs. "I never looked back once I went to art school."
Urban Art Network
Shannon finished her art degree in 2001. She was one of the early artists to sell in the street on First Thursdays, before the Urban Art Network formed and the Street Gallery became official. Things got off to an auspicious start. "I sold everything in about 20 minutes," she said of her first night out. "And so it began. I think I've missed about five First Thursdays in fifteen years." Shannon treasures her connections with her fellow Urban Art Network artists. "A group of us have been together forever," she said. "It's like family. I wouldn't know what to do without them."
Abstract paintings are Shannon's specialty, mostly acrylic, though occasionally she paints in oils. For Shannon, abstracts are grounded in ideas. "In order for the painting to work," she said, "I have to have some kind of story." Many of her paintings start with the inner workings of something, such as atoms or bones, the idea of the structure or support of a system. Shannon loves science, finding inspiration in string theory, biology and chemistry. She also loves X-rays, the way solid images become soft.
When Shannon's apartment had plumbing problems, it inspired a whole slew of new work. "I started getting really fascinated by all the pipes and inner working of buildings," she said. "So I did a series on pipes and how things work."
Some of Shannon's favorite colors are goldenrod, cadmium orange with a dab of quinacridone red mixed in, and greens. She loves colors with jewel-like tones, and using light to make them shine.
Shannon thrives on the experience of painting. "It's a selfish moment when I paint," she said. She avoids writing artist statements, because she doesn't want to influence the viewer with words. "If I tell you what I meant," she said, "I know you're not responding to the work, you're thinking about what I think. Who cares what I think? If I do my work right, you should be compelled to look at it. I'm just a conduit."
Where paintings come from is a mystery to Shannon. Her muse is unpredictable, lighting a fire under her one day and deserting her the next. She explains that one night she's thinking, "That was so easy. Then other times it doesn't come. I'm sitting in the same chair, drinking the same coffee, the room is the same temperature. Everything is the same. But you can't get it to do anything. What happened? I was a genius last night."
Last year, Shannon made big changes in her life. She downsized from a four-bedroom house to a small apartment at Milepost 5, the low-cost artist community in Montavilla. Now she is surrounded by artists and their work. When asked about the local art scene, she replied, "I'm living it." Her best friend, artist Travis Wade, lives across the hall. Shannon and Travis have just opened Plumbum, a small gallery within Milepost 5 where they show the work of other artists.
Milepost 5's amenities continue to increase, with other people opening small shops and galleries. Muse has opened a tiny art supply store within Milepost 5, and the community's restaurant, Eat, is open to visitors and residents.
After fifteen years at the Street Gallery, Shannon has made countless contacts. People approach her at First Thursday and request shows of her work. Her paintings have hung in lots of businesses around town, ranging from intimate cafes to large institutions like Providence Hospital.
Shannon prefers handling her work independently. For a while, she had an art dealer, which seriously cramped her style. "It was a nightmare," she remembered. "She'd call me up and say, 'Orange is selling! You've got to add more orange.'" Shannon was still living in her big house then. "My life was getting so expensive," she said. "In order to live I had to dumb my work down and make it sellable. My work got very non-confrontational. I was bored."
Shannon had to severely pare down her belongings to move into Milepost 5. But with less stuff, she has less to take care of and a much more affordable lifestyle. At this stage of her life, Shannon is choosing art over everything else.
See Shannon and her work at the Street Gallery. You can also visit Plumbum Gallery on First Fridays, when Milepost 5 opens its doors to the public (900 NE 81st Avenue). Her show at Providence Hospital will hang until July 17 and her website is http://www.ruapukitty.com/
—by Teresa Bergen