She’s Wild at Art
When I first saw Shawna’s large, bright canvases from a distance, I had to get down there… and fast… even if it meant passing up many other artists’ booths. Up close, her bold, singing work did not disappoint and when Shawna came around the corner with her wild hair barely contained and her stride full of joy, I instantly knew her natural glee perfectly matched her art. And who wouldn’t be drawn to both!
As an undergraduate at Auburn, Shawna was a nude model for painters at the nearby Columbus Museum of Art in Georgia.
“It took some getting used to,” Shawna says, “ but I made $20 an hour, the most I’d ever made.”
Her body isn’t the only thing she’s bared for art.
This past December, Shawna quit her job as an art therapist, packed a van with art supplies and home furnishings, and drove from Jensen Beach, Florida, to Scottsdale, Arizona, to exhibit her tissue paper pieces at the Arizona Fine Art Expo, a 10-week show housed in a giant white, u-shaped tent.
Every year from January to March, more than 100 artists occupy booths at the show and paint, sculpt, make jewelry, etc., in their spaces, sharing their work and techniques with guests seven days a week.
Shawna took a leap of faith to try her hand at being a full-time artist, encouraged by her boyfriend Greg Tomb, a masterful glass blower who has made a living from his art for years by traveling to shows around the country.
So, newish relationship, new “job,” new city, new condo… all at once. Hello, Overwhelm.
“January was a stinker of a month,” Shawna says, laughing. “Setting up a booth with a partner for the first time was stressful as we got used to each other. And traffic at the show was slow, so we naturally worried about money.”
By February, Shawna had made friends throughout the giant tent and she and Greg were grooving as a couple.
“I’m the type who has to be connected with people,” Shawna says. “If I’m making art, I must also be doing something to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
She’s a cheerful and kind spirit who gives and gives of herself. Her artwork, created by gluing colorful tissue paper onto canvases, is an outward sign of her inward joy. Full of happy, bright colors, her pieces cause continuous smiles.
After getting a Master’s degree in art therapy, Shawna has been a nationally board-certified art therapist for 20 years. She honed her skills working with tissue paper while showing clients how to express their emotions through their hands; even if it meant they used only black. The simple act of wanting to switch to a color other than black could signal a big breakthrough for a client.
How does someone help traumatized people day after day without succumbing to trauma themselves? Especially someone like Shawna who is sensitive and attuned to others’ feelings and energy.
“I’ve been lucky to work for companies that offer insurance with mental health benefits for employees, and really good self-care is a must,” Shawna says, with a chuckle. “Plus, helping people freely express in 2- and 3-dimensions while encouraging them to connect to their imaginations and innate creativity is very rewarding.”
Shawna was born in Alliance, Ohio, but grew up in Jensen Beach, Florida, influencing the definite coastal feel in some of her work. From the age of 2, Shawna chose crayons and paint over dolls and TV. Her mother knew, even then, that Shawna was an artist.
Shawna used her therapy training to acclimate to her new nomadic life and the self-contained art community that pops up each winter in the Sonoran desert.
When people show interest in her work, she delights in telling them how she does it. Oftentimes, they want to learn to do it.
“After several women expressed interest in doing tissue paper art, I put up a class sign-up sheet in my booth and it filled up in less than a week!”
Shawna has given several classes during the show in a classroom available to artists for just such activities, and she’s an excellent teacher/coach/cheerleader. I was lucky enough to take her “Tissue Paper Art 101” class and admired how she put everyone at ease about being creative.
“First thing we’re going to do is take off our judgement hat and throw it out of this room,” Shawna says.
Animated, she tosses her imaginary hat like a frisbee and smiles big. Her long hair, extra curly and full, moves when she does, accentuating her vibrant personality.
The room we’re in has walls but no ceiling, except for the big white tent overhead. We can hear cars on Scottsdale Road, but Shawna can easily be heard telling us about the nature of Bleeding Art tissue paper, the medium for her artwork. When the paper gets wet, colors bleed onto adjacent papers, creating unpredictable patterns.
Shawna then uses a sponge brush to gently apply a mixture of Elmer’s glue and water, adhering the paper to a canvas. Or she might use a bristle brush to smooth it into place. In this beginner’s class, our only objective is to experiment.
“Cut it or tear,” she says, “there is no wrong way. You’re learning about the paper’s qualities with every piece of tissue you add.”
After working with tissue paper for decades, Shawna has mastered composing images, although she admits controlling how the colors bleed is nearly impossible. Coat hangers hold folds of tissue paper already splashed with water and fully dried. Working when the paper is wet can be difficult, so Shawna always has lots of dried, prepared paper on hand.
Greg’s talent isn’t limited to blowing remarkably beautiful glass bowls. He’s a good carpenter, too, and built Shawna a rolling cart to hold her art supplies, including glitter glue, paints, tiny canvases on wooden easels and all sorts of tiny sparkly notions to add to a completed piece of art. The cart even has a handy rail on one side for displaying her many coat hangers of inspiring papers.
In class, we get very quiet as we experiment with collages of tissue on a thick piece of paper, to get a feel for how to handle the glue, paper and active colors. The moistened foundation papers tend to warp or curl.
“No worries about curling papers,” Shawna assures us. “Once it’s dry, simply put it inside a large coffee table book overnight and it will emerge flat.”
After experimenting, we tackle covering a canvas with tissue. Shawna has several canvas sizes available. I grab a 10-inch square and spot some prepared papers with orange, white, pink and yellow. The brighter the better is my motto. Plus, I have visions of Shawna’s art in my head. Using her prepared paper means my piece of artwork is a collaboration with her.
Two hours fly by. Shawna finishes our partially-dried artwork with a spray acrylic in either mat or gloss. It also provides UV protection.
I enjoy the class so much, I’m hoping to be able to take her Intermediate course before she packs up and goes back to Florida.
Canvases aren’t the only surfaces Shawna covers in tissue paper and paint. She makes one-of-a-kind notecards and decorates the covers on planning calendars and bound journals, turning them into useful works of art. I bought one of her journals to use in a writing workshop my daughter Jaime and I are taking in Paris this June.
“Art is integral to who I am,” Shawna says. “I find a natural flow between creating therapeutic space for the art-making process for others and for myself. I’m in constant connection to my creative core, even when addressing an envelope, cooking or starting a new art project.”
Sculpture is another 3-D art form Shawna relishes as she uses organic materials to evoke the Divine Feminine. “Nature is rarely linear and my sculptures are a celebration of all that is feminine, soulful and passionate,” Shawna says.
As an undergraduate, she dove into sculpting with wood, clay and stone, and sometimes using found objects to create assemblage pieces. In fact, her senior thesis was based on a theme for nine large-scale assemblage sculptures. But when she started working, sculpting took a back seat, even to her collage work.
Two years ago, Shawna’s best friend, Susannah, fell in love with the carved wood, alabaster and marble pieces Shawna had created in early 90s. “Susannah asked me who had done the carvings and she couldn’t stop touching them,” Shawna says. “When I described how I carved them, she nearly flipped because she’s only known my tissue paper collages. She emphatically told me I must, must, must get back into sculpture as soon as possible. In fact, she made me promise I would.”
The Expo, a creative place to the max, is the perfect spot for Shawna to sculpt, paint, and, most importantly, make good on her promise to Susannah.
Shawna is wise to acknowledge her need for being emotionally connected with the people around her. We all have that need to some extent, yet some of us don’t always honor it… and we’re the poorer for it.
A giver, Shawna has created a new life and a new relationship that gives back. She credits Greg with evoking the courage she needed to embark on this current desert adventure. In fact, he convinced her to see the possibility of taking a two-month hiatus from her job last summer and travel to New York where he would rent an apartment, giving Shawna the freedom to produce her large-scale pieces for two art shows in which she and Greg would participate.
Shawna’s employer did not offer anything like a hiatus and she expected a big fat “no.” But when she asked, they said yes!
Greg believed in her work enough to know she could pursue it, and they could share a life on the road as partners in every sense of the word. He also believed in her talent enough to hand-build the large canvases for her work.
“It was amazing and scary to wake up each day and only have to make art,” Shawna says. During those two months, she learned a lot about art, about Greg, about herself and about the public’s reaction to art.
When Greg suggested they both apply to exhibit at the Arizona Fine Art Expo, Shawna saw the stars aligning. That’s when she made the decision to leave her job of nearly four years and dive head first into being a professional artist. These last four months have been eye-opening, frightening and a catalyst for her next stage.
Recently, Shawna scheduled an art therapist job interview for early April back home. “I’m hopeful to go back to work full-time in South Florida,” Shawna says. “I will definitely continue to do my art on the side, and exhibit at shows.”
Greg has a few shows lined up for the remainder of 2018, giving them an opportunity to flex and strengthen their intermittent long-distance relationship with FaceTime and other technological wonders to stay connected.
Shawna sounds at peace with their future. “We have plans to join forces down the road,” she says.
I’ll miss Shawna when she’s back in Florida, but I have no doubts she’ll brighten the lives of her clients through art therapy and retail art therapy.
Shawna’s extraordinary parents, Jim and Melody, taught her to always be kind. She takes kindness one step further and is always loving, even with people she doesn’t know.
On a daily basis, Shawna bares her soul to those who are lucky enough to be near her, and she gives us permission to open our souls and be creative, be vulnerable, be colorful, be loved and see the joy in life.
Shawna shows us how to throw our judgement hats out the window, and we’re the richer for it.
Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in sculpture from Auburn University.
Master of Arts in Art Therapy from Ursuline College, Cleveland, Ohio.
Instagram – @shawnamariescarpitti
Twitter – @seascarp