Life has a strange way of throwing curveballs at you when you least expect it. They can come in fast and furious and sometimes cause substantial stress, but if your karmic sensibilities are sufficiently attuned, life can come right back and pitch an opportunity straight down the middle that you can hit right out of the park if you're paying close enough attention.
Painter Shea Slemmer has had a series of unfortunate curveballs thrown at her in the past year or so, but just when the strikes were against her, she hit a grand slam.
“If you would have asked me three years ago if everything happens for a reason, I would have said no,” says Slemmer. “I firmly believe that we make our own luck, and you can't just say that the universe will guide me. You have to put in the work and you have to make plans. But now, I'm starting to change my mind a little bit.”
A road trip
After relocating to Brooklyn, N.Y., in mid-2017, Slemmer's life took an unforeseen turn that found her unexpectedly moving back to Savannah. It was a low period for Slemmer, and, while she spent her time regrouping and rethinking her life's path, a close friend suggested she take a trip out west to gain a new perspective.
“I needed to get out of town and I needed to clear my head,” says Slemmer. “So there were several people that said, Shea you need to go west, the scenery is beautiful. So I took their advice.”
Slemmer embarked on a road trip, and the farther west she drove, the more her head cleared. When she reached Texas, the universe opened up.
“The sky is what really got me,” says Slemmer. “The big, wide open sky. I'd be driving and I could see for 20 miles, maybe more... You feel it inside you. It just feels open and wonderful. I could feel the weight and heavy things from my past just go. They just evaporated for me out there.”
When Slemmer reached Marfa, Texas, she knew she had arrived.
“Marfa immediately grabbed me. Immediately. There was something different about it than anywhere I'd ever been,” says Slemmer. “Marfa is very supportive of the arts, and you feel it everywhere you go and in every space you're in.
“I remember walking around town for the first time and thinking, this is the most manicured ghost town I've ever seen. That was my first impression. And it's just because [artist] Donald Judd's influence on the town is so modern. Mid-century modernism has just become a part of this west Texas town. And when you walk through the middle of town, you feel that influence... It's like a little oasis in the desert. That's how I think of it.”
Slemmer began periodically returning to Marfa and started a body of work there which proved to be intensely therapeutic.
“It became my place to decompress. I could feel myself lighter,” says Slemmer. “It changed my whole life. It changed my whole trajectory. It showed me how happy I could feel as compared to how I was feeling in New York, where every day was a bit of an intense thing for me.”
Slemmer eventually decided to move to Marfa and recently bought property once owned by rancher Bill Shurley, who also modeled for Ralph Lauren and was photographed as the Marlboro Man for billboards and print ads.
All the while, Slemmer was working on a transformative body of paintings here in Savannah that will be showcased Jan. 31 to March 2 at Laney Contemporary Fine Art. The exhibition, “Cooling Effect,” represents a transitional moment in this exceptional painter's life and is rife with personal meaning.
“I got about six paintings in and realized that I had a body of work that was happening and it was saying something, it was saying something big,” says Slemmer. “This body of work is a genesis to me. I've never done anything like this before. What happened was I started painting with friction... It's kind of a trickle down from the 'Selective Channeling' show, which was done to break me out of my geometric, very rigid way of painting.”
Slemmer's “Selective Channeling” paintings were exhibited this past April and consisted of a series of collaborations with other artists, which she says helped her think outside the box in terms of her own technique. The work in her upcoming exhibition started when she began experimenting with different viscosities of paint and incorporating a different color palette into her work.
“When these pigments get spread apart and then you rub things against them, that friction causes new things to happen,” says Slemmer. “So the friction was causing heat reactions to happen with the paint. But at the same time my palette was cooling down because of what was happening in my life... So I realized that what was happening was a chemical reaction that relates to the last year of my life.
"'Cooling effect' is actually a chemical reaction where heat from friction happens, and then when it evaporates, it takes that heat energy with it and leaves the original surface cooled. And that was also what was happening to me. I had all this friction and heat and then my palette changed because of me going out into an area I've never experienced before and it affected me so much that it affected every piece of my work.”
Slemmer couldn't be more pleased to have this farewell exhibition hosted by Laney Contemporary.
“Susan Laney has been one of the people in my life here in Savannah that I've always respected. I kind of grabbed on to her as a mentor. I didn't really ask her. I just grabbed on to her... She's a hard worker and puts her whole heart into it. And the way she represents her artists is just a beautiful thing.”
Slemmer explains that all of her paintings represent footprints in her life, and even though her path has taken some unanticipated turns, she's sure she's headed in the right direction.
“I think that what I've learned through this body of work is that you cannot control everything.”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.