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Head of the class

The rise of painter Tawni Shuler



Tawni Shuler is a deliberately abstract, yet conscientiously structural painter. The melding of these two seemingly disparate styles is the result of the artist persistently finding and re-finding herself. It’s a process that has Shuler producing work that provides glimpses of clear central images blurred and muddled by her memories.

Given the discipline of her creative process, and the notice she is garnering, it may be surprising to learn that Shuler is just 23 years old.

“I’m young,” admits Schuler, a recent graduate of the University of Montana’s BFA program. “I didn’t think that much of what has happened recently would come about. I mean, I haven’t been to graduate school yet.”

The early spoils of Shuler’s artistic journey range from a nearly all-expenses paid invitation to Arizona State University’s graduate art program, beginning next fall, to a one-year contract with Missoula’s Gallery Blue, which will run until next May. She has also been tabbed by Southwest Art magazine as one of 21 top artists under 31, a distinction scheduled for publication in September.

According to Gallery Blue manager Shayna Schapp, the contract and the laudatory coverage are just the beginning.

“She’s got it. She can draw, she can paint, she can render from life—that has been immensely beneficial to her pursuits.”

Schapp is most taken by the fact that Shuler’s paintings touch on fine representational rendering and cloudy abstraction. A good example of her style, says Schapp, is one work currently on display at the gallery, “Decomposition.”

“What I love in ‘Decomposition’ is the really soft blue line drawing of the bones, the joints—she took her drafting skill and incorporated it, architecturally, into essentially abstract pieces,” Schapp says. “Her [new] pieces are darker, more violent than her first body of work. Each, for example, has a sense of bodily fluids and blood, they’re pervaded by a sense of violence, but at the same time that is subdued so as to give the impression that they are memories.”

Shuler’s confidence stems from intensive grilling at the hands of John Giarrizzo, an art professor at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo. Before she transferred to UM, Giarrizzo worked closely with Shuler to hone her classical painting style.

“I’m glad that I know how to draw from life. I was forced to paint several still lifes,” says Shuler. “I had a lot of time to develop technique.”

It was the other half of the equation, her abstract stylings, which Shuler developed upon transferring to UM. Coming from a rural Wyoming farming background, many of Shuler’s early memories are rough. She chooses to direct her paintings toward the harsher aspects of that lifestyle.

A current work-in-progress delves into memories of her younger brother, his pigeon hunting, and the birds’ carcasses hanging from the front porch. The recollection for her begins with a series of strong images.

“What I do is I write down nouns—usually, they refer to some specific memory,” she says. “In the case of [the pigeons], I remember red twine, I remember pigeons hanging upside down, cold. I remember my brother’s gun. I remember yellow winter grass. The sky was gray, like Missoula in winter. I’ll take nouns tied to these thoughts and associate colors with them. Almost without knowing it, I start sketching out the objects, but subconsciously, I’m picking and choosing what I want people to see through what happens between the painting and me.”

Shuler attributes her “freeform” approach to the tutelage of David James, a UM art professor specializing in abstract painting. She admits that she had no understanding of the form when she first arrived.

“Before I came to Missoula, I thought abstraction was kind of cheesy—an easy way out,” she says. “David made me see things differently: he pushed me beyond my comfort zone—for instance, he made me paint with plastic bags the first day of class.”

James recalls that day in his Process of Abstraction course well. “I think Tawni said to me once that that experience was kind of traumatic,” he says, laughing.

While at UM, Shuler worked closely with James to develop a style that cemented the way she approached her inspirations into a workable method of painting.

“I would say, ‘Hey, take this painting, you’re getting too careful, throw it down on the floor and dump something on it,’” says James. “That happened a few times this year, and from there, everything just started coming together.”

Shuler remains modest about her recent success, frequently pointing out that she hasn’t even gone to graduate school yet. James is a little less reserved.

“She’s one of those people, one of those students, who will conquer when they decide on a direction to go in,” he says. “She is, honestly, one of those once-in-a-lifetime students.”

Tawni Shuler’s paintings can be viewed at Missoula’s Gallery Blue, located at 121 W. Broadway.

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