A slow but steady growth
Splitting his time between studios in Seattle and New Hampshire, American artist Bronson Shonk’s intricate work explores organic growth and transformation through paintings and sculpture. Shonk, who left a career in analytics to pursue art full-time, creates paintings and layered sculptures that are individually engraved to form organic shapes. They ask us to reexamine our understanding of structure, balance, and the free-flowing nature of change.
He currently works with both canvas and layers of plexiglass –the latter are bonded together to become free standing 3D paintings. Both the paintings and sculptures are developed through a time-intensive process of engraving and staining layers of intricate line work. The result is a unique riff on the sgraffito technique, a vibrant blend of drawing and painting.
What pushed you to leave your former life to embrace a career in the Arts?
It wasn’t a sudden change but more of a long and slow occurrence. I got interested in working in the arts when I was in high school. I was always drawn to art, and I was making a lot of it. My first real introduction to art was an IB program (International Baccalaureate), it was a two years focused study in arts. I was working with a teacher and we developed a portfolio. During that time, I became obsessed with making and creating things. I started working with layers.
I thought about going to an art school and decided I wanted to go in a more general liberal arts path. But I started in a little bit more different direction with just a minor in art - it’s not that serious when you’re doing it in a liberal arts school. Then, I got a job on the West Coast and started down this path with a more typical career, working with data and analytics. When I got out here I was questioning everything, I was fresh out of college. I asked myself, what do I really want in life? That’s when I realized all those things I’ve done in high school, all the work that I’ve done, had this feeling of being incomplete. I just didn’t really find what I wanted to find in making drawings and making art. So, I just picked it up and started drawing on the side after work. Slowly, I found myself waking up at six in the morning before work to do some drawing. I did that for a couple years and at some point, I just started to wonder, what if I make more drawings? What if I gave myself 6 or 8 hours a day to just dedicate myself to this? That curiosity grew and reached a boiling point where I just needed to leave what I was doing and start doing this full time.
You’re splitting your time between Seattle and New Hampshire, what are the features you like best from the two places?
In Seattle there’s a lot of rain, grey and soft light, that’s how I would define my studio here – which is very nice to create a certain mood. Going to New Hampshire is very contrasting, when I go there in the summer it’s really bright and warm. I have a really big studio there, it has tall ceilings and dark wood beams. It's a really old barn, with a big sliding door. It’s a gorgeous place to be. For me, the major difference is to be able to take a break from what I’ll normally be doing, and step out of my comfort zone. I'm trying new things there and using that as an excuse to experiment.
Why choose to work with layers instead of only one surface?
The layer work I started in high school was incomplete. Back then, I was taking photographs of my teachers and I would put pieces of plexiglass on them to then draw and paint on them. It was fascinating because, like most artists, I think, when they are painting, they are trying to create the illusion of space: you place things in the foreground, middle and background. It’s always an illusion. I was interested in trying to recreate this physical illusion. I realized I could show different ideas, so I created a hand with a little seed in it and with each layer the seed just sprouted and took over the hand, to become a tree.
I came back to it after I started working in the studio, that was one of those unfinished ideas. There was definitely something there. I started to work on that again, using these forms that I’ve been doing. The most important process with that was how to glue them together. It was a two year research project of calling everybody I could, testing, experimenting and going through materials.until I nailed down the actual process of putting them together.
How does the sgraffito technique translate in your day to day practice?
It involves a lot of tools. For a very long time my art looked like hand drawings and line drawings and that’s all I did before I came to work in the studio. Then, when I started, some advice given to me was that it was important to learn to paint, to use colour and get out of this sort of really structured way of making art that I created - just to get out of my comfort zone.
I never really painted before, all I used was a ballpoint pen. I started to paint and it was just infuriating because, coming from an analytical mind, with the ballpoint pen, the line does what you want it to– it’s predictable. But then, I loaded a paint brush with paint and tried to do the same thing and it didn’t work. I spent a lot of time starting over. At one point, I built up this thick surface on the canvas and then threw away the paint brushes. I took a ballpoint pen and made a drawing on it. I left it and spent some time making the old thing.
One day, I came back to it and painted a little more. I put some water in the paint and I noticed that all the pigment that was wet started to seep into the places where I had made the line drawing. That made me realize that I could all of a sudden actually have this idea of drawing while bringing it into canvases. I developed on that. Simultaneously, I worked in this pottery studio and they had all these tools. I needed something sharp to hatch into the canvas, so that’s what I used. These canvases, while they’re paintings, are actually made of tons and tons of little lines. They give the illusion of being a drawing but with pigments and colour. I didn’t even know that it was called sgraffito, as it’s a pottery technique not really used on canvases.
What is your process of creation? From the original idea to the end result.
Very little planning. The process is always changing to be honest. Right now, I come into the studio and I warm up with pen drawings, just making lines. It’s almost meditative, a way to get my head into the right place and stop thinking. Then, I jump onto the canvases and start working on them, letting the forms evolve. I don’t lay out a composition at the beginning. I usually start with a few forms. I do another layer and I come back to it, and those forms sort of jump off of each other. I’ll place a few forms to balance them out or to create a sense of movement.
What does organic growth and transformation mean to you?
A lot of the ideas I’m trying to get through are abstract ideas and then you’re trying to give them names and make them tangible. It comes from this idea that if you stare at a tree for a long time, you know it’s growing but you’re never going to see it grow. Though, if you look at the cross section you can see the rings, and the layers of time are going to be very obvious. I believe that’s true for a lot of things, it could be a tree or it could be a person. You can’t really see them growing because you’re stuck in the moment. So, we - as human beings - try to understand growth or change, through different ways. For instance, for kids growing up, we use those markings on the wall each year or month; It’s universal and it’s a way for us to see change.
I think that’s where the inspiration for my work comes from, these forms give the illusion of being flowers, trees or dragonflies but they are really much more intended to be forms that represent change, showing branching patterns. Here, I paint in layers those organic forms on top of each other over and over again. The idea is very similar to a long exposure image. It’s no longer an exact form but it becomes this sort of gestural movement that blurs. My work is not so much the picture of flowers, but these leaves and branches stacked on top of each other as they’re moving and growing and deteriorating.