Tarrytown Painter Takes Long Road on Her Artistic Journey

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Arts & Entertainment

by Rich Monetti – 

Clara Shen was sitting in her Tarrytown studio a few years ago and had the impetus to go for a ride. Instead, the Chinese immigrant began splattering an easel with the scene of a colorful sports car taking a road trip alongside the ocean. At the same time, the death of a friend’s dog provided further inspiration, so a four-legged creature signaled a joyful yelp at shotgun. But, despite a multilevel artistic kaleidoscope call across species—which screams for a buyer—Shen still sees deficiencies and the pull of perfectionism.

“I’m trying to ditch that, but it’s not easy,” Shen said.

On the other hand, she has mastered the throwaway in a process that often slowly brings her pieces to an end. “I didn’t know where it was going and just left it,” she said. “Many of my pieces are just like that.”

So, with multiple unfinished works on hand, Shen simply rotates her easel. “Whatever inspires me on a different day, I will work on those ideas on different days,” she revealed.

Shen had a definite artistic starting point as a child in China. “I was always drawing since I was little,” she said.

Eventually, the Beijing native enrolled at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and got her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2005. But the turned tassel didn’t situate the graduate to just set up on a street corner and sell her art. “I worked as a graphic designer in a small company,” Shen recalled.

A living being made and the subsequent professional life didn’t agree with Shen, though. The competitive nature and strict deadlines changed her in a way that she was forced to acknowledge. “I couldn’t relax, and I was very short with everyone,” Shen said. “I didn’t want my life to be like that.”

Fortunately for Shen, it took a fellow traveler from the business world to define a more fitting future. “I met my husband,” she said of the artificial intelligence (AI) programmer. “He encouraged me to go back to school and continue painting.”

She eventually got her MFA from the Academy of Art University and moved East with her husband to put her in a much less limiting environment. This transformation didn’t stop at the Statue of Liberty. “I went to a program in Italy for six weeks,” Shen said. “And, that changed my career.”

In a master class at the Jerusalem Studio School in Italy, she was ensconced among a variety of painters and artists. There, Shen was schooled on leaving behind the strict standards of academia. “They told me everything you learned in school was useless,” Shen asserted.

This freeing realization took her on a new journey. “It was really a turnaround, and I began my search for full expression,” said Shen.

Eight years later, her home studio helps chart the discovery. “I like to paint in my comfort zone,” said Shen.

Of course, her husband and three-year-old son do, at times, gain studio access and are checked at the door. “They’re allowed in, but will be ushered out promptly,” Shen joked.

Either way, Shen was once pretty shy about showing off her work. “I used to be afraid,” she lamented.

Then there was exposure at shows such as the 2014 Group Exhibition in Asheville, North Carolina and the 2016 Annual Exhibition at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York. But a lack of any return was self-defeating for Shen. “I was kind of depressed,” she said. “It took me a while to get out of that mode.”

Eventually, she simply got back to the basics. “I just try to work on my craft and get better,” said Shen.

Motherhood helps alleviate the weight of her artistic conundrum. “I like the routine,” she said. “After I drop off my son at daycare, I come home and paint. Then I pick him up after a day of work. It’s a nice balance.”

Her mind now more at ease, the business prospects have progressed. Shen has connected with a group called zeuxis.us, and recently had her work exhibited at the First Street Gallery in New York City.

A show in Alabama is next in August. But she’s quick to assert that the cascade she’s currently riding on doesn’t necessarily give financial remuneration and finds the final journey a mystery. “Where this boat is going, I have no idea,” she concluded with bemused pride.

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