As printmaker Shelley Thorstensen walks into her Oxford, PA studio she passes a stone with a message from her muse: TRUST. “I have to look at and read it because with printmaking there are so many directions I could go. There’s nothing complacent about making art. I have to trust that I’m going in the right direction.”
Her path to printmaker has been dotted with detours, happy accidents, supportive parents and caring mentors. She declared at age 7 that when she grew up she was going to make “original etchings.” “It took a while,” she said with a laugh. Born in 1953 at Fort Sill, OK, to a military family, Thorstensen lived in Austria and Germany during her formative years. She returned to the US, a bilingual six year old. “I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty and hearing my parents explain that this was where I was going to live for the rest of my life. I thought it made no sense.”
In her New Jersey living room Thorstensen would climb her parents couch for a close up view of a picture. “It was a scene of a small village in Germany. My parents told me it was an original etching. The reason I would climb up and look at that picture was because I missed where I grew up. I have figured out since, and it’s taken this long, that fate had a hand in my becoming a printmaker.”
At age 8 she experimented with linoleum cutters and took Saturday art classes in Philadelphia. At age 10, she had her first artistic set back. “I was in an etching class, and there was a little girl who made an etching of a bunny rabbit under a tree. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Mine was a disaster that looked like cosmic soup. I couldn’t believe it because this is what I was supposed to do. I became determined I needed to learn how to draw.”
Thorstensen attended Syracuse University where she earned her BFA cum laude in Experimental Studios with an emphasis in Printmaking. But she got off to a teary Freshman start. “I realized too late there wasn’t a drawing major at Syracuse,” she said. Fortunately, Roger Mack, a professor who saw her crying in the registration line, told her to establish her own studio in the school’s new sculpture annex. “Put up four walls. Go there and draw and I’ll supervise you. This was my education. It was very cool.”
She ended up majoring in sculpture. She studied anatomy drawing with Professor Gary Trento at the morgue and made sculptures. “They looked like what I’m doing now: organic abstractions.” When she was a junior, the universe intervened. “I had no sense of 3D. I was the worst sculptor in the world. I had made this aluminum sculpture and was rubbing borrowed etching ink on the surface. Roger Mack stopped by and said, ‘Oh, thank God. You’re a printmaker. Go to printmaking. Just go.”
From Syracuse Thorstensen went on to earn an MFA with honors from Tyler School of Art. Life these days is all about her art. “I’m either teaching or making art. I don’t think I’m ever out of the artistic space. I will only talk about printmaking. I get my news third-hand, from my husband Dale (Baggerley), other people and Facebook.”
Thorstensen teaches at Temple/ Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, and at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. “My teaching is very important to me. I need to get those 20 year olds excited. I trust for my students. If I can do this, so can you.” This summer she will be teaching Motivational Intaglio, at the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY, as well as two workshops in Peters Valley, NJ: Manifestation ~ the Integrated Print and The Illumination of Place with book-making artist Liz Mitchell.
For Thorstensen, printmaking has to come from an intuitive place and with formal considerations. “It’s a process that is very long and involved. It’s like I’m dancing in slow motion. My mind can be spinning, but I have to stay focused. There’s the trust that I can do it. I have done it. Logically, it’s going to keep working. But if you don’t feel on edge, it wouldn’t be art.”
From relief printing to lithography, silk screening to etching, Thorstensen will switch techniques depending on the need. I’ve got my vision and I’m trying to figure out how to do it. I’ll try different mediums to get the right feel,” she said. She’ll put work away for weeks, months, even years, if she doesn’t know the next step.
Sometimes she’ll create to music. “I can listen to the same song for days. Not always with head phones, either. Thank God Dale thinks this is okay.” Thorstensen recently completed an edition to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, 2nd movement. “I paced myself with the music. I knew that to print one part takes 1 ½ movements. It’s a rhythm.”
What inspires Thorstensen to create? “What doesn’t?” she said. “Everything. Nature is a constant inspiration because of its flamboyance, its systems, its perfection in the imperfect. If anything inspires me it’s light because that’s how color changes.”
Shelley Thorstensen says she knows that a piece is done when it “gets language.” Instead of working, she finds herself writing on the corners of newsprint. “Titles. Different titles. Ideas about the work. When the piece translates itself into language,” she said, “I think okay, I might be pretty much done.” And after that? “I have to trust that viewers are going to get it.”
Shelley has previously displayed her work at the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, she showed Shelley Thorstensen’s major one-person show Counterpoint: The Leap From Vision to Print.
For more about Thorstensen visit Dolan/Maxwell at:http://www.dolanmaxwell.com/artists/thorstense/index.php
For more about printmaking, visit:http://www.moma.org/interactives/projects/2001/whatisaprint/print.html