Family Portrait Artist
Wendy Shalen’s newest show incorporates several generations of her family as its subjects
SOHO About a year ago, artist Wendy Shalen visited her elderly mother at her home in Bridgeport, Conn., and began drawing a portrait of her in silver-point, a type of sterling silver pencil that tarnishes and turns brown on paper over time. Her mother, who will turn 102 in June, is bedridden and can no longer speak. She wears a hospital gown every day so that her full-time nurses can care for her more easily. As she sketched, Shalen wasn’t sure her mother even knew she was there.
“It’s just so difficult to go through this stage,” said Shalen, 63, as she sat in the cafeteria at the Arts Students League of New York at West 57th Street, where she teaches. “You know she would just have a fit if she knew what was going on.”
Around the same time, Shalen discovered an antique photo album tucked away at her mother’s house, along with her father’s college yearbook from New York University. In the album, which is 70 years old, Shalen found photographs of her older brothers and her grandmother, and portraits of her parents on their wedding day. Her mother’s hair was pinned in an elegant bob and her father was dressed in a tuxedo and wore a white tie and a handkerchief tucked in his pocket.
The discovery of the photo album, coupled with her mother’s decline, inspired her latest show, “Family Matters,” a collection of 46 family portraits and images that opened at Prince Street Gallery on April 22. Incorporating a range of mediums, including charcoal, watercolor, dry point etchings and handmade paper, Shalen’s exhibit features graphite portraits of her mother and father, drawn from the photographs she found in the album, alongside “Mom at 101,” the portrait of her mother in bed at her home in Bridgeport.
While the show contemplates the process of aging, it also nods at generational continuum. Portraits of Shalen’s twin children, Samantha and Luke, now 33, are also central to the show. A watercolor of Luke as a young boy is paired with a graphite drawing of him as an adult, dressed in a jacket and tie, and smiling.
“He’s so handsome now,” said Shalen.
Samantha recently gave birth to a little girl, Mia, whom Shalen draws while she’s sleeping, just as she did with her own children. Watercolors and etchings of Samantha cradling Mia suggest a deliberate symmetry with a silverpoint drawing of Mia as an infant, sleeping on her father’s chest.
Though she’s always done figurative work, some of Shalen’s recent shows had a more political bent. In 2010 she exhibited portraits of homeless people, and her 2012 mixed media show “Washed Ashore” in Pound Ridge, New York, incorporated trash she found on beaches into watercolor and pastel seascapes. A few pieces directly responded to the BP oil spill.
Shalen has also taught art since she graduated from Brandeis University in 1973. While a teacher at Birch Wathen Lenox School on the Upper East Side in the 1970s, she took courses at the Art Students League, where she now teaches.
“In the summer I teach in the same room where I took classes,” Shalen said. “Which is really kind of crazy cool. I want to pinch myself.”
The oldest piece in “Family Matters” was done in 1980, the year her grandmother died, at the age of 90, and the year Shalen’s twins were born. Her strongest memories of her grandmother Sophie are of her knotted, arthritic hands constantly in motion as she knitted, crocheted and sewed cloth napkins, lace and beaded collars. Shortly before Sophie’s death, Shalen drew a charcoal portrait of her grandmother wearing a shawl she’d knitted herself.
“Much of the show is dedicated to her creative spirit,” Shalen said. “My mother was never happy about me remembering [Sophie] that way, unfortunately. It’s difficult to look at.”
In a nod to her grandmother’s own artistic expression, Shalen, who also makes paper from her own recycled watercolor paintings, created a series of thick, stark white paper for the show, imprinted with pieces of her grandmother’s lace and crocheted linen.
“You know, you’re getting older and you really do have a certain perspective on what is important here,” said Shalen. “And really, your family is important. Especially as an obsessed artist. Most of us, we do this, we think about it all the time, and I think it’s important to have the perspective that your family is really important and maybe figure out a way to do the work that you do but also show your love for your family.”