Both a creator and activist, Sharon Whitham combines her two passions through her prints and mixed media works. She expresses her concerns about climate change and its environmental impacts through her art and through her involvement with Shared Habitat Earth (SHE). Whitham explains that members of SHE “are creating art to show nature’s beauty as well as its fragility.”
Splitting her time between Boston, Maine, and Mexico, Whitham draws inspiration for her art from the natural world. Her works focus on organic forms, and sometimes even incorporate natural materials.
Whitham explores ideas of unpredictability through her prints, allowing the creative process to guide her as she crafts images which are not entirely within her control. Whitham describes that:
“Whatever process or technique is used – both the plate and the paper go on a journey as the ink and images are layered. I am a part of that process and the journey is both internal and literal. Every print is original and unique and the transformation that occurs in creating a print has all the elements of vision, struggle, mystery, grace and sometimes illumination.”Sharon Whitham
Currently, Whitham’s works are on display at Beacon Gallery’s A Delicate Balance, showing June 3, 2022 – July 17, 2022. With a background in both art and psychology, Whitham creates works that mesh perfectly with A Delicate Balance, which focuses on the ways in which our external facades often mask our true internal emotional states.
Beacon Gallery recently interviewed Sharon Whitham about her path as an artist and how it has guided her to where she is today. The conversation follows:
How did you get started in your career?
Ever since I can remember I was always drawing, coloring and making things. I especially liked to make something out of nothing – scrap paper, leaves, string, an empty box, anything I could find that no one else had a use for. I loved to use my imagination and work it all into something I considered ‘beautiful’ or at least more interesting. As I got older I took every art class I could throughout High School and my early years of college. I made huge paintings, with sand, bark, and other natural materials mixed right into the paint. Even back then I was interested in organic shapes and materials in the natural world.
After a life-changing experience in Latin America, I changed course for many years, but eventually got back to my practice of art-making. About 20 years ago I started taking classes again and found a new sense of freedom in creating and expressing myself. I found myself again connecting with the natural world for inspiration and materials. I consider myself to always be evolving as an artist, and still taking classes with a newfound love of printmaking, as well as working in mixed media.
What is the hardest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Probably the biggest obstacle has been accepting rejection and failure. I now understand that failure isn’t really failure – it’s just a learning process. When I experiment and push myself or when a process or a work doesn’t evolve or turn out the way I had hoped- I learn from that. It’s helpful. It’s all a journey and not a straightforward path. I also take rejection from shows or people that don’t particularly love my work as just a part of life. I let it go and move on. It’s like a relationship, and it doesn’t mean your work or self doesn’t have value. I know artists whose work I may not particularly like but I can wholeheartedly support that artist in their artistic journey and endeavors.
What are near-term (and longer-term) plans for the future of your work?
I will continue being a member of the art collective Shared Habitat Earth (SHE) and expanding my body of work focused on the effects of climate change to encourage awareness and action. I have been working on a longer term collaborative project on the effects of the Covid 19 virus and the pandemic that will be a sculptural installation with a narrative and audio component. I am venturing into more mixed media and paper-based 3D art using my hand pulled prints as the foundation. It’s an exhilarating process.
I am also very excited to have the possibility of two shows next year in Mexico. I have been creating work in San Miguel de Allende for part of the winter for the past 7 years and building a body or work inspired by the history, culture and beauty of Mexico.
Who or what inspires you in your work as an artist?
I am inspired by both nature and culture. I love the beauty, resilience and changes that occur in the natural world – particularly the paradox of permanence/impermanence as well as cycles, rhythms, journeys and the concept of balance. I am drawn to the organic shapes, designs and texture of rocks, feathers, bark, leaves, etc. I use the patterns and images of feathers and rocks in my work to portray a sense of heavy and weightless, dark and light, and soft and hard. The feather is light but also strong and resilient. The rock is hard, but also is changed by time and the elements, as well as carrying a sense of its own journey and history.
My process is ongoing. I am always looking, sensing and collecting material from the natural world and from what I read and hear. I write down ideas and make sketches. Sometimes I just putter around in my studio and then things start to percolate. Some of the work is conscious and technical, but the techniques become second nature. Sometimes what has been taking shape and meaning in my head and heart comes out in a fully formed work that I didn’t plan. Or what I’ve created gives me an idea of how to take it further. I sit with a piece for a while looking at it in different ways to see if I am happy with it or feel it needs more work.
Much of my recent work expresses how I have been influenced by the current climate of divisiveness in our country and concerns about immigration issues, tolerance, acceptance, fear of the other and the unknown and climate change. I spend a fair amount of time researching the data and effects of climate change. I have focused some of my work on the most endangered species, adaptations of animals and birds and the changes in the ocean.
What impact do you hope or want to make on the public (consumers, the art community, your community,) and/or society?
As mentioned, much of my recent work expresses how I have been influenced by the current climate of divisiveness in our country and concerns about immigration issues, tolerance, acceptance, and fear of the other and the unknown. In addition, I feel the primary issue we face globally is the impact of climate change. This is an area where I have put most of my artistic focus. I do hope that my art inspires others to awareness and action.
Life is very challenging to navigate, and can be exceedingly difficult and tragic for some. It’s easy to get self or tribe focused, and our country values individualism and liberty. However, we all share this planet along with other creatures, flora and resources. What one person or country does, affects others. Anything I can create and put out into the world that might shift someone’s perspective to be more open, inclusive and aware is worth striving for. I do believe that art can be a catalyst for change as well as an expression of what isn’t so easily spoken or heard.
I’ve also heard from many people that my work in the show about balance is very calming. I love that people can look at the beauty of the stones which may be precariously balanced but also can be beautiful, strong, centered and calming. It takes effort to balance and exude stability and calm, and you may not feel that way in the inside.
Can you share an important misstep you made in your career, and the outcome? What lesson did you learn that may help others, and what advice would you give your younger self?
I’m not sure I would call it a misstep, but I always wonder about the path not taken. At age 20 when studying art, I decided to drop out of school. I questioned why was I paying to paint. I was deeply in debt and thought I should pay off my college loans, move to California to gain residency, and go back to school there for essentially free. I know I had some fears and questions at the time about being good enough as an artist, being able to make a living at it and putting my raw self out there in the world for all to see and judge.
I ended up taking a detour for a while for other reasons and finally got back to my art practice about 20 years ago, feeling driven to do so. I worked through those old fears and questions and am grateful to be on the path I’m on, creating without fear. I don’t regret my choices, but I do wonder where I would be now if I had worked through those concerns earlier. In hindsight I would say to my younger self or someone struggling to stick with it, keep creating and doing the hard work. It’s all a journey no matter what your path, and doing what you are passionate about and how you want to express yourself is worth the struggle and effort.
Can you share something about yourself that others might be surprised to learn?
I worked as a Magician’s Assistant for several years while I was in college and early in my career to make some extra money, I performed several illusions, including Houdini’s Metamorphosis.
Many thanks to Sharon for taking the time to share with us. To keep up with Sharon Whitham and her creations, visit her website and follow her on Instagram @shasha.art.
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