Cheryl Shurtleff Remembered at Boise Art Museum 

A retrospective of the late local artist's work opens later this month

1, 2, 3, 4, 1991, graphite on Bristol paper, 20 by 67 inches.

from the collection of Art Dodson and Dan Scott

1, 2, 3, 4, 1991, graphite on Bristol paper, 20 by 67 inches.

Late artist and Boise State University professor Cheryl Shurtleff had no patience for "innocuous art." That stance, and her persuasive intelligence, challenged and endeared Shurtleff to her students and impressed her colleagues, while her relaxed demeanor underscored her independence and approachability. Endowed with a fertile imagination and brilliant drawing skills, Shurtleff proved to be a master of the odd, the mysterious, the macabre and the unexpected. Although it drew from a wide range of influences, her work was invariably her own. Both personally and professionally, Shurtleff was warm, generous and a delightful conversationalist. She was also an adventurous spirit whose love of the outdoors (nurtured by growing up in rural Payette), enthusiasm for revolutionary art forms and innate inquisitiveness laid the groundwork for what became a remarkable artistic and academic career.

Experience Shurtleff's world through Cheryl K. Shurtleff: The Road is Wider than Long, a retrospective opening Saturday, Sept. 30, at Boise Art Museum. This timely, important exhibit aims to demonstrate the scope of Shurtleff's legacy as it traces her artistic evolution from early charcoal and pencil drawings on Bristol paper (always her preferred ground) through dramatic large- and small-scale graphite drawings, word/image compositions and a turn to the three-dimensional. A well-researched catalog will accompany the exhibit.

Shurtleff, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of symbols, was an avid student of surrealist literature and art. Her studio library was stocked with books from the last two centuries, including surgical and medical texts, scientific studies of the animal kingdom, pictorial archives and anthologies of "curiosities," treatises on designs inherent to the universe and 1940-50s pulp fiction paperbacks, all revealing an insatiable appetite for a multitude of subjects. She was also an incurable—albeit eccentric—collector of historical and medical artifacts. Her studio/private museum was filled with specimen jars, math cards, more than 300 postcards depicting Americana, miniature sales samples of men's suits, toys, thin volumes on French intellectuals and representations of anatomical parts, especially hands and eyes, which became common motifs in Shurtleff's art. It was a helter-skelter affair held together by a certain, underlying logic even before she got down to methodically categorizing it. Altogether, these gems from the past and present betrayed an obsessive search for personal metaphors to weave into her art. They helped forge a visual vocabulary that was cerebral, idiosyncratic and multi-faceted. Standing before the results was being in the presence of something special.

Shurtleff's virtuosity with a limited palette of black and gray rendered in pencil and charcoal was astounding. She described graphite as "a sensuous medium" which she used to great effect in creating dense, rich surfaces with layers of countless strokes that took on the viscosity of oil paint. Her labor-intensive technique rendered deep blacks that had an almost hypnotic effect on viewers, beckoning them, inviting them to interact with the imagery. Once a viewer caught on, they understood why she considered drawing "a meditative experience in real time."

Shurtleff looked at art as a conjuring, transformative medium, filled with omens and signs. She was fascinated by words and symbols and felt compelled to examine the power they hold over us all, especially in combination. The most seminal of her works in which these two elements combine is Magic Power, from 1991. Comprising 30 graphite drawings presented in vertical sections, the title is split to the left and right with relevant words below each letter creating a dictionary of positive and alarming references. The center panel, which contains tight drawings of organic and inanimate objects, presents like a draw of tarot cards spelling out a dark, unsettling future.

To truly appreciate the character of Shurtleff's art, it's important to understand the central role surrealism played in her career: It was the heart and soul of her aesthetic. As an art history major, she was drawn to the art of Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, the Dadaists and the French poets who were pioneers of the movement, including Andre Breton, Louis Aragon and Comte de Lautreamont—the latter was the most influential. An obscure mid-19th-century poet who died at age 24, Lautreamont was discovered and canonized by the surrealists in 1917 as a founder of their cause. Shurtleff said it was from his work she acquired a taste for the irrational and the macabre. For her, his most memorable quote was "As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table." She kept her copy of his prose poems in a sealed plastic bag.

What struck Shurtleff most about the surrealists was their disquieting perspectives, poeticizing of the banal and elevation of the ordinary to the realm of metaphysics and intellectual play. The fact they were dedicated collectors themselves reinforced the rapport Shurtleff felt. To illustrate their impact, note the impressive 1991 four-panel graphite 1,2,3,4 depicting her "plant tents," pyramidal cone shapes generating to fruition a strange, tangled outgrowth. It's most certainly a personal metaphor.

Equally important for Shurtleff was the surrealists' interplay between the literary and visual. Besides being the inspiration for Magic Power, a later series of graphite drawings of figures on yellowed pages from old French dictionaries are a prime example. Flux and the others look antique, and might even be seen as descendants of manuscript art.

The physical strength and stamina required by her strenuous drawing technique took its toll on Shurtleff's health, aggravating the rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed in 1995. She concentrated more on small-scale work and took off in other directions, but her heart was always in the larger surreal pieces. In 2003, she drew—with difficulty—the 73-by-50-inch charcoal de Chirico-esque piece, Spring War, and in 2007, she completed Taxidermiphobia, a similar-sized charcoal drawing, which was painful to execute. Both are major works demonstrating her determination, despite her arthritis, to portray nature at the mercy of mankind's excesses and whims.

This began a period of turning Shurtleff's inventive genius in a different direction. Entranced from an early age by fairy tales and fables, and aware of theories positing animal consciousness and sentience, Shurtleff researched 19th-century artists J.J. Grandville, Charles H. Bennett and Wilhelm von Kaulbach, who illustrated children's stories, such as fables, featuring animal characters. Their detailed drawings gave life to those allegories, showing animals in human garb communicating with one another. In 2003, Shurtleff constructed a series of small structures from blocks of wood covered with digital drawings by these artists, snippets of another time. The cognitive question was one she would return to.

Then came Shurtleff's late figurative "dolls," personalities made from lengths of cat hair. They were at once witty, playful and heartfelt. Followers of Shurtleff had learned over the years not to guess or assume what would emerge next from her studio, but they knew the results would be completely original and unconventional.

In 2013, Shurtleff shared a revelatory experience that resulted in two late works, Winter Night and Wolf Trap. While hiking one winter, she got lost. She was alone, and with night closing in she huddled in a snow well around a tree. Throughout the night she was aware of the activity of assorted creatures, and she felt they were keeping her company. For Shurtleff, it was confirmation of their sentient nature.

Those two pieces were included in Shurtleff's last exhibit, Encounters, in which she took the issue of animal consciousness to a new level. In a series of improbably designed small-scale graphite drawings, she put her animal subjects in freefall. Unlikely pairs of creatures, partially emerging from the outskirts of each drawing, encounter each other in an intensely black, puzzlingly surreal universe. Their faces and eyes register surprise, curiosity, panic and playfulness. They are startled by reactions to flying saucers and comets. Without jackets and ties, a dizzying dialogue between animal body parts reveals recognizable human attributes.

Though her work speaks volumes about who she was, something Shurtleff once said goes right to the heart of what being an artist meant for her: "I value the provocative nature of art, the dialogue that it provides, the questions it poses and the mysteries it suggests."

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