I first met Shelby Prindaville while she was completing her Master of Fine Arts degree from the LSU Painting and Drawing Program. I was, on a whim, looking for artists who documented wildlife in coastal Louisiana and the Louisiana wetlands, for an LSU homepage feature story I was writing. Shelby responded to an e-mail announcement that went out, and I knew immediately that she belonged in this story.
At the time, Shelby created amazing clay sculptures of anoles (lizards) jumping and climbing and hanging upside down off of wall mounts she constructed herself. She even collaborated with a scientist at LSU to make a new clay material that cures on-demand, which is how she was able to create such delicate sculptures of anoles in action. She was also a regular contributor to the science blog Anole Annals. I was amazed by how Shelby combined scientific accuracy with the most beautiful abstract backgrounds to bring various species to life, and in a way that magnified the animals’ unique characteristics and natural behaviors.
Since I wrote about her artwork in 2013, Shelby has continued to amaze me with her ecological artwork. So I decided to interview her about some of her most recent work. Turns out, she writes beautifully too, so enjoy!
Me: Your recent paintings often feature animals from unique perspectives, from stacks of snails to "fish eye" three-dimensional encounters with donkeys and pigs. Can you talk to me about what inspires the "animal encounters" in your artwork?
Shelby: Many developed countries are somewhat disconnected from the natural world, and so most of my viewers haven’t been fully exposed to the wonderful and curious attributes that my subjects possess. By depicting animals from unique perspectives, I hope to intrigue viewers into expanding their emotional and intellectual connections with nature.
Me: On your website, you say: "I am interested in the human role in shaping an ecological balance and create images centered on the beautiful fragility and resilience of the natural world. I want viewers to interact and emotionally connect with my work and for that experience to demonstrate the joy of contemplative engagement with nature as well as provide a taste of the sorrow a disconnect with nature can bring." Can you tell me a bit more about that? What does creating images "centered on the beautiful fragility and resilience of the natural world" look like, and why are you motivated to do that? And how do you get viewers to emotionally connect with your artwork and/or the animals in it?
Shelby: There’s a delicacy to my artistic hand and composition and media choices that makes my work feel almost ephemeral. I think far too often people take nature for granted, and I don’t want my pieces to feel too grounded because I think that security allows viewers to dismiss both the subject matter and their own relevance to it. Removing representational backgrounds helps a lot because it shifts the typical context of the subject and allows viewers more room for their own narratives. Those unique perspectives help as well because many people have specific images in their heads for what an animal looks or behaves like so if I can break that mold, the viewer is already in unfamiliar territory and is more open to new connections.
Me: It seems that your artwork, and even how you create your artwork (I know you've collaborated with scientists to create new clays for artists) often overlaps with science and ecology. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Has this always been an interest of yours? What do you hope your artwork can do or communicate for the world of science / ecology?
Shelby: I have always been interested in science, and I’ve always loved animals and plants. When I was eight I thought I might become a marine biologist! I spend a lot of time researching various animals and plants I encounter because I hope to capture a part of their spirit when I depict them and I don’t think that can be done without inputting such effort.
Many people are surprised to learn just how much science is involved in art, particularly in formulating and using various art media. There’s something so satisfying about discovering a new product that completely revolutionizes your artistic practice. Typically artists find new products in their local art stores, but I was lucky enough to collaborate in actually developing one – 3P QuickCure Clay – with 3P CEO Dr. John Pojman while I was attending graduate school at LSU.
I think my collaborations and artwork reach different, broader populations than the scientists working in the same areas can reach by themselves. Many people find the idea of science to be intimidating but feel that art is more approachable.
Me: Do you have a "favorite" recent painting? Can you tell me about it?
Shelby: I think my current favorite is Perfect Form. It’s from my second residency at Madroño Ranch outside Medina, TX. The painting is acrylic on basswood panel and features a single bison cow. I really like the uncomplicated and balanced square composition; the cow is just small and isolated enough that she feels a little fragile and sympathetic. I’ve positioned the cow in such a way that only three hooves are visible but that triangulation feels natural – almost dainty – and is a counterpoint to the quadrilateral panel. The color palette is just realistic enough while still being dominated by painterly cyans and blues that highlight the beautiful proportions of the animal.
Me: Can you tell me about any research that goes into painting the animals featured in your artwork?
Shelby: I always interact with live animals and research them before painting them. I think painting solely off of photos or taxidermied specimens results in a lack of life in the painting as well (I have painted dead and extinct animals before, but with the intent of showing that lifelessness). The amount of time I spend with and in researching animals tends to be pretty proportionate to the number of pieces I make featuring each type of animal. My research involves identifying the animal and learning about its anatomy, behaviors, heritage, habitat, diet, longevity, conservation status, and so on. One of my paintings, Welcome, features a Lonomia species (Giant Silkworm Moth). The moth was on my wall the first night I arrived in Peru for my residency there. I saw and documented several other Lonomia species moths, and I later discovered one of these creatures in its larval form as a caterpillar outside my kitchen on a bench and spent a couple hours watching and photographing it, and saw it on and off for a couple days.
Typically I do research as a part of my prep work after encountering an animal for the first time but before really immersing myself or starting a piece, but I did not have access to any research materials while in the isolated rural Amazon jungle so I painted first and asked questions later. After I arrived back in the US and had internet access again, I figured out what species I was working with and learned that Lonomia caterpillars are the deadliest caterpillars on Earth (the moths are, however, harmless). That certainly lent a whole new perspective to both that painting and to my encounters!
Me: What is some of the best feedback you've gotten from people viewing or interacting with your artwork?
Shelby: My favorite responses are those of wonder and excitement with a hint of urgency. I also really appreciate it when locals tell me I’ve authentically captured their environment. And many viewers are really surprised by my interactive installations featuring live plants - those reactions are always fun to watch.