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You know a piece of art is doing its job when it takes you outside of your comfort zone and makes you not only do a double take but question yourself and then delve further. Painter Shannon Stovall’s imagery does just that—prompting viewers to challenge their perspective through vibrant colors, odd dimensions and bold details. Her focus lies in exploring the ways humans perform their projected ideal personas; and the idea of putting on a mask or veil to maintain the role.

I am interested in the act of these projections and why and how we do it,” Stovall states. “Very often it is to hide perceived inadequacies, which stems from notions of all forms of personal identities (social, gender, sexual, cultural, racial etc.), but in so many ways these kinds of projections rule the way we interact with the world.”

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She discusses an unwillingness to be seen, which creates a sense of mystery in her subjects. The mask she creates hides the subject’s true emotions and intentions, causing the figure or situation the figure is in to exude a sense of uneasiness.

“The facial disguise temporarily eliminates from social intercourse the part of the body that reveals personal feelings and attitude…For me, a work is successful when it is perplexing, yet poignant,” Stovall states. “Not sure if I have actually reached that quite yet, but that is the goal.”

Within her realm of work, she has created a foundational platform through ideas of identity and the human experience, particularly female; but has, through her creative process, struggled with how these concepts are universally understood.

The danger of working with universal themes is that images can quickly become cliché and watered down, while on the other hand, too much personal content risks coming across as self-indulgent and inaccessible to a general audience. Finding a balance between what I want to do and how I do it is difficult.”

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Stovall also finds it difficult to push herself to take risks. She emphasizes the importance of creative independence, but divulges that if there is no one to push her, there is always a risk of sticking to what’s comfortable.

“Your potential becomes very limited when you get caught in a habitual routine of making. To quote Cheryl Strayed: ‘Be brave enough to break your own heart.’ Decipher that how you will.”

With a number of creative elements in her arsenal, Stovall’s go-to source of inspiration is writing. Filling journals with her stream of consciousness writing exercises, she uses these as fuel when she feels stuck.

“I try and write without thinking, without insecurity or judgment of myself and I purposefully abstract how I feel into metaphors and visuals. It helps me sort out my thoughts, and sometimes those images stay with me and powerful and inspiring things happen.”

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Through her work, she strives to inspire viewers to laugh and question themselves and the world around them; and draw light to those that are overlooked. Though she seemingly has an inherent understanding of her purpose in her craft, she has only recently come to terms with truly embracing art as a career since her days in school.

“I always had the fuel and fire to create, but there is a certain amount of confidence and independence you attain in your way of making when you know that you are the only person now who can push you. This has also been something that I knew I needed to make very concrete in my mind before I tried to get myself out there with my work, so I wouldn’t run the risk of overwhelming myself when I wasn’t ready. I finally feel comfortable in the quality of my work and mind to actually engage in what I hope will be a career.”

When Stovall moved to San Francisco at 18, she was a photographer. It was only through dark room processes in manipulation and effects distortion that she discovered her style in painting.

“When I got to college I continued to push these techniques and aesthetics through cyanotype and van dyke printing processes, and my photography became more and more painterly and abstract. I was taking painting as my elective all throughout the two years I was a photography major, and it was one painting I made that made it all click. I had never really had a true epiphany until that moment. I will never sell that painting.”

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With a heavy emphasis on oil and watercolor, Stovall is drawn to specific advantages and challenges each offers—including silky textures in oil and the clean simplicity of watercolor. Watercolor leads to a number of complexities such as being able to replicate the same stroke; thus leading to many “happy accidents.” With oil, she finds that images can feel “too perfect,” while watercolor allows her to see the push and stroke of her hand in the imperfections of watercolor.

“Something I love about watercolor is that it keeps me on my toes. It is a pretty unforgiving medium in regards to mistakes, and it can be a bit unpredictable. It’s a very independent medium that sometimes does what it wants, and I’m drawn to the idea of being able to “tame” it, so to speak.”

At the same time, the reasons she dislikes oil are the same reasons she lusts over it—the saturated colors and creamy textures, and the way she is able to move it around the canvas.

“There is no other medium with the same luminescence and life to it. Honestly there is nothing that makes me feel like “I am home” more than the smell of those fumes!”

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Stovall’s current projects include a watercolor series consisting of four different paintings that will gradually decrease in size from the largest (54” x 93”) to the smallest (around 16” x 20”). As a collection of “still lives,” she has captured fragments and moments of her life to study. Her titles include: this is where I came from, this is how long I have loved you, this is how much time I have missed, and this is the weight you carry.

Instead of trying to think of your life in an unrealistic way (which most people are guilty of, me too), I am trying to take a step back and observe parts of my life as they…truly are. I think collectively they have a sense of optimism and joy but also brutal honesty and sadness.”

Stovall’s craft offers a very personal perspective into her reality as well as universal concepts of identity and emotion. She seamlessly induces an interrogative awareness, breaking down social norms and building up novel perspectives. As such, she is continually learning, or realizing rather that she knows nothing.

That is something I re-learn all the time. The moment you think you know how do to something perfectly is when you realize there is so much more that you don’t know about how to do it. For example, masking fluid. It’s a form of liquid latex used with watercolor to mask parts of the painting where you want to keep white, and it prevents paint from seeping underneath. I have used it a couple times with great success and I made the horrible assumption that I am very good at using it. Harsh realities have been made, and boy did it teach me!”

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She states that the key, however, is to remain authentic in nature.

“Remember to stay “grounded and [remember] why you chose the artistic path to begin with.” Be humbled by success and be comfortable fighting the fight that is being an artist. Find your balance and stay focused no matter what.”

Her wildest dream?

“I guess I would also love to be a mermaid. Probably one of my favorite dreams I ever had was when I could breathe underwater.”