Over the past several weeks, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been exposed to new work from a wide variety of artists with whom I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to become acquainted.
During all of these restless computer hours, and the many miles of social media feeds I’ve scrolled through; most of the bright spots, during these often-dark days, have come from the work I’ve seen artists sharing online.
One of those, particularly memorable, bright spots recently entering my field of vision happens to be the work of Northport, NY artist, Alisa Shea.
Shea’s hyperrealistic watercolor compositions expose an artist paying diligent attention to the tiniest of details and with some serious technique at the ready. Her choice of subject matter reveals an artist dazzled by the delicious textures and shimmering play of light found in the mundane, the ordinary, the commonplace. Shea awakens the rousing realization there are a multitude of scenic vistas and infinite unique perspectives available just a few feet away from us, during each and every moment, wherever we happen to be. Shea’s paintings are proof positive that we are truly surrounded by beauty at all times, if we are just willing to open our eyes and see it; an inspiring notion for an era defined by stay-at-home quarantine orders.
And the story of Shea’s interrupted journey to a full time life in the arts is heartening for any late-bloomers who may be considering making similar bold moves of their own.
About Long Island Artist, Alisa Shea
“Alisa Shea is a child of the 70s from Normal, Illinois. Despite a clear passion and aptitude for fine art, Ms. Shea was persuaded to forego an art education in favor of more practical pursuits. In 2013—two decades, two degrees, and several unrelated jobs later...Shea decided she could no longer defer her artistic goals, and left an established career in health outcomes research in order to pursue painting full time. Shea currently works exclusively in watercolor. She lives and works in Northport, New York with her husband, two sons, and one beautiful English bulldog. She has no representation, hoards her work in the closet, and paints in the kitchen…”
My Conversation With Watercolor Artist, Alisa Shea
Hello, Alisa. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today. I’ve only recently become acquainted with your paintings - and I’d love to introduce my readers to what it is you’re doing. There’s a real ‘wow’-factor to the level of detail you bring into your watercolors -- and the ways you are pushing the medium to manifest such tantalizing texture and light elements in your depictions. Can you speak a little to your background and the types of work you are best known for?
Tucked in the pages of my baby book is a yellowed piece of paper with a crayon still life of fruit in a wicker basket. I’ve been drawn to realism for as long as I can remember, producing representational art even as a preschooler. The first real juried art show I ever won was in high school with a photorealistic colored pencil drawing of a broken wine glass stuffed with tiny wooden doll head beads… ON A MIRROR. I’ve always been a sucker for intricacy and tedious detail. Anything less, simply doesn’t provide me with that same immersive, focused experience that I crave.
Painting in watercolor just ups the ante. With watercolor, I have to do much more problem solving--figuring out how to save my whites and in what order I should approach the various components and layers of my subject -- and I have less ability to correct for errors. These additional challenges amplify the level of concentration required, and that only enhances the experience of flow and enjoyment for me.
It sounds like you’ve had the seed of an art career within you since the beginning - and that you truly enjoy imposing challenging limitations on yourself in an effort to continually raise the bar on the quality of your output. But, if I understand correctly, you really didn’t completely give yourself over to this artist’s life you’re living now until less than a decade ago. Can you talk a little about how you finally found your way to a full-time career in the arts.
Making art was the only thing I wanted to do for as long as I can remember. Growing up, this passion was encouraged, but less so as I approached adulthood. I was accepted into the College of Fine Arts at the university of my choice, but before I could even set foot on campus, my parents got cold feet and insisted that I change course. As an 18-year old kid whose parents were still writing the checks, I went along with their plan to study occupational therapy (OT) instead of art, not fully appreciating what impact this decision would have on my life years down the road.
Not surprisingly, I found myself unhappy with OT after only a few years. Convinced that I could never get back into art, I enrolled in graduate school for health policy instead. I met and married a neuroscience PhD student and became the primary breadwinner for our household for the duration of his doctoral and post-doctoral studies. Before I knew it, we had two young boys, moved to Long Island for work, and settled into two demanding new jobs. We hired a full-time sitter for our sons.
But then my husband was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Our sitter became wildly unreliable and I felt like I was juggling chainsaws trying to manage my demanding job with two young children and no stable support system. I sat down to do the math and realized that after childcare expenses, my salary was barely enough to cover our monthly grocery bills. And I was deeply unhappy.
So I quit my job--for sanity; for balance; and for financial reasons. Because my husband’s PD diagnosis made it clear that you never really know what’s coming next in life; and I had already waited far too long to pursue anything that actually gave me joy. I like to joke that I had a mid-life crisis because my dramatic career change came just before my 40th birthday, but it was really a crisis I’d been having since age 18 -- I just finally got the courage to take charge and change course.
Shortly after I quit my job, I signed up to take a 6-week “Watercolor Kindergarten for Adults” class at the Art League of Long Island because I wanted to start my foray back into creativity with something challenging and new. Watercolor was a medium I knew absolutely nothing about and found completely intimidating, so it seemed like a logical place to start. I could write an essay about why I love watercolor, but it’s the medium’s less sexy qualities that I appreciate the most: I can start- and stop in random intervals, and there’s virtually no clean-up. I have two busy school-aged children and a needy bulldog. My ability to sit down and paint uninterrupted for long stretches is extremely limited. With watercolor, I can paint for 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there, and just leave everything out until the next time I can steal a few minutes away.
What exactly are you working on these days? Are there any short-term artistic goals you can share with us?
My larger paintings take between 3 and 4 months to complete, so by the time I’m finished, I’m ready to paint something completely new. This inability to paint in a “series,” or closely related subject matter, has been a problem for me professionally, as series work is often expected from artists. My goal is to find a way to accomplish this task without sacrificing my own personal needs.
A life in the arts is often a life with many positive facets balanced against just as many distinct challenges. Many of my readers are artists, themselves, and it can be therapeutic for them to know they are not alone in the challenges they face from day-to-day. Would you be willing to share some of your recent challenges with us?
I am definitely getting anxious about transitioning from starving-to-thriving artist. College is right around the corner for my two boys, and living on one income on Long Island is not particularly conducive to building a robust college savings account. As a late blooming artist, I am still in the “start up” phase of my career. As such, my biggest challenge is finding the right audience for my work and moving toward a place where I can help sustain my family financially through the sale of my painting.
I’m always interested in hearing about the specific pieces of artwork that have made a difference in the journey of my fellow artists. Can you tell me about any of the art you were exposed to along the way that had an impact on your life or your work?
The summer after I quit my job, I stumbled upon one of the anthology series “Splash: The Best of Watercolor” books at the Northport Library. I think there were 15 editions out at the time, and I ended up travelling to three different libraries in order to find all of them. I was mesmerized by what I saw; I had no idea such things were possible with watercolor. I took notes and wrote down artists’ websites for further research at home. “Splash” was truly inspirational to me, and so it was beyond exciting to eventually have my own work featured in Splash 17, Splash 20, and soon Splash 21 (publication estimated for August). Sadly, the publisher has since filed for bankruptcy and the future of the series is uncertain, but these books will always be very special to me.
How has Long Island played a role on the advancement of your art career?
My family’s move to Long Island, coupled with the other life changes that surrounded it, was definitely a catalyst for my decision to quit my “real” job and pursue art full time. The “Watercolor Kindergarten for Adults” class I took, taught by Roberta Erlagen at the Art League of Long Island, was instrumental in introducing me to this medium and providing me with the skill set I needed to get started.
Do you have any success stories tied to the use of social media to get your art out into the world?
An Instagram comment and subsequent messages from renowned watercolorist Thomas Schaller are how I learned about the world of international watercolor exhibitions and gained the courage to start submitting my work at the professional level. His feedback was instrumental in building my confidence at a very early stage of my journey. Instagram continues to be a huge source of camaraderie, feedback, and inspiration for me as an artist.
If you could go back to the beginning of your journey as an artist - what is the one piece of advice you'd give your former self?
Take the risk. It’s OK to pursue something simply because it gives you joy. Your happiness is important too.
Tell me, are there any other artists from the Long Island who are making work that speaks to you?
I love the art of Margaret Minardi, who works in many media but most often in colored pencil. I’m a sucker for representational art that tells a story, and her work hits this sweet spot for me in a big way. She’s also a fellow Northport resident :) Cherie Via Rexer, owner of RIPE Art & Framing in East Northport, has been not only the sole framer of my work for years, but also an endless font of knowledge and professional guidance.
Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us, Alisa. Before I let you go, can you tell my readers where they can see (and/or buy) more of your work?
A Selection of Alisa Shea's Artwork
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About The Author:
Interview and writing by Eric Taubert (Taubert Gallery - The Fine Art Photography of Eric Taubert). Find him on Twitter at @erictaubert. Connect with him on Instagram at @erictaubert.