Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Encountering Cheryl Shurtleff

Work of local artist and academic celebrated at Boise State


From the tortoise and the hare to Fantastic Mr. Fox, stories have used animals as proxies for human behavior. In those stories animals fear, wonder, love and, importantly for Boise artist Cheryl Shurtleff, talk. In her exhibition, titled Encounters, which opens at the Visual Arts Center Gallery 2, Hemingway Center at Boise State University Thursday, Jan. 30, Shurtleff compellingly explores animal consciousness through graphite and charcoal drawings.

The artworks that compose Encounters span much of Shurtleff's 35-plus years as an artist and art educator--she retired from the Boise State Art Department in 2013--and offers an in-depth exploration of animals, how they think and how they experience emotion. Foxes, rabbits, birds and other animals float through black-as-coal voids, their expressions acknowledging each other and anyone who might be watching. Like Shurtleff, they're vessels of intense energy.

"I like things that are odd and full of tension," she said.

Her series of 5-inch by 4-inch graphite pieces place animals of disproportionate size in a state of drift through charcoal vacua, demonstrating that tension in sharp relief: Huge rabbits glance at sparrows; a rat observes a shooting star. In these drawings, though they are juxtaposed in stasis, her animals' inner worlds are invoked through body language and facial expressions.

"I'm interested in the compositions of the two animals in the blackness," she said.

Shurtleff has been drawn to themes of animal dialogue and consciousness since she was a child, and the small graphite drawings are an expression of ideas that struck her as she flipped through stories by Uncle Remus and Aesop, and looked at pictures by 19th century illustrators like Charles Bennett, A.B. Frost, J.J. Grandville and Wilhelm von Kaulbach.

Close examination of the drawings reveals Shurtleff's process, which she begins by drawing her subjects on two sheets of tracing paper. Then she arranges them in relation to each other on a sheet of paper and fills in the space between with thousands of pencil strokes. Shurtleff positions her subjects exactly, but they're often out of proportion to each other in terms of size. It's a detail few viewers catch.

"A lot of people aren't bothered by that, that the scale is inappropriate," she said.

Despite the clear inspiration and technical prowess of these small works, Shurtleff prefers to draw on a larger scale, but after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1995, her drawings became smaller, particularly since the mid-2000s. "Spring War," a 73-inch by 50-inch charcoal drawing made in 2003, features long, smooth strokes and fluid transitions between shades.

"Really, the charcoal was flying. I go around and around until I get it as black as I can," she said.

Four years later, she produced the 68-inch by 50-inch charcoal drawing "Taxidermiphobia," which she drew in extreme pain as an arthritic bone in her shoulder rubbed against the muscles and tendons in her arm. The damage caused to her arm and shoulder during that period prevents Shurtleff from raising her right arm above her shoulder--sometimes she has to prop it up to shake people's hands.

"Some of the strokes are less fluid, more chunky. The lines just kind of hurt," Shurtleff said.

Future works, she said, will likely be larger than her graphite animal drawings but smaller than "Taxidermiphobia" or "Spring War," and she's looking forward to dedicating herself to her art after retiring from academic work.

"I had enough money in my retirement fund and I wanted to be an artist full time. It scared me but so far I haven't had any regrets," she said.

Shurtleff joined the faculty of Boise State's Art Department in 1978. At the time, the department consisted of a tight-knit group of male professors. Shurtleff's methods sometimes diverged from her colleagues'--she didn't use a nude model during drawing class--and brought to the department new perspectives on teaching and art theory.

"I thought students should be exploring. There was a romantic notion of what an artist was," she said.

Over the years, the number of women teaching in the department increased, as did the diversity of the work produced by professors and graduates. Driek Zirinsky, a Boise art collector whose collection includes several of Shurtleff's pieces and who sought tenure at about the same time as Shurtleff, recalls their early years as a time of change in American academia, in which women were beginning to achieve parity with their male peers.

"This was a seismic shift in American society," Zirinsky said.

As a collector, Zirinsky groups Shurtleff's art with contemporary artists like Robert Longo, Chuck Close and Xu Bing for their polished styles and cultivated artistic visions.

"It's the strength of it, the skill, the originality--it's superb, mature work. I'm told I collect obsessive artists," Zirinsky said.

Shurtleff's perfectionism, as much as her aesthetics and themes, has imprinted itself on hundreds of young art students. Some of them are professional artists today, including Boise State Gallery Director Kirsten Furlong, who described Shurtleff as a mentor.

While Furlong and Shurtleff frequently produce art that deals with natural themes, it was "Magic Power," a 61-inch by 87-inch graphite drawing of letters and graphics which Furlong saw as part of a 1998 Boise Art Museum exhibition of Shurtleff's work, that awakened her to Shurtleff's style. For Furlong, as it is for Zirinsky, it was Shurtleff's ability to focus on something small while producing a large work of art that inspired.

"I was really taken by that work. You almost have to get really close and see things on that smaller scale," Furlong said.