Two different sides of museum art

Dec. 06, 2012 @ 04:01 PM

“Cher Shaffer,” Outsiders Art and Collectibles, 718-C Iredell St., Durham, through Dec. 31. “Gayle Stott Lowry: Exploring the Edges, Paintings of Ireland,” Tyndall Galleries, University Mall, Chapel Hill, through Dec. 22.

Cher Shaffer, a 70-year-old from western North Carolina is an Outsider Artist of a different stripe; she is white and female. African-Americans outnumber white Americans in the genre we call Outsider Art; women are almost non-existent. Outsider artists are those who are self-taught and draw upon their life stories, their religion and popular culture to make highly personal objects.
Shaffer’s mother was part Native American and her father was German, a descendant of Martin Luther and a practicing Baptist. The combination gave her a deep respect for nature and its creator.
She paints moon face people, like “Cullen.” She also creates fantastic creatures. They all come out of her imagination. Sometimes, like in “Cullen,” who may be autistic, she does what we could call a portrait, and his eyes might tell his story. Cover one side of his face and his eye belongs to that of a perfectly normal face; cover the other side and you see an exceptional face. Shaffer has a way of capturing the essence with a few strokes of her pens or pencils. Among her fantastical creatures, there is the turtle boy who talks to a wormy creature and a chicken with a face perched on its back.
The artist began painting in 1978, with no formal training, as a way to deal with the loss of her mother. Her early paintings were traditional folk art scenes that morphed into fantastical interpretations. In 1985 she became ill and her heart failed. This near-death experience changed the world she drew. Now her mind and dreams are filled with magical creatures; some are ghostly images, others are moon face people and even witches appear now and again.
The debate as to whether this should even be considered art is now a moot point.
Outsider art has reached museum status; witness a major exhibition of outsider art which will open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in April, 2013. For Shaffer, however, making museum quality art is not her objective. She makes art because she has to; it answers a psychological need. She is obsessed, driven. She uses crayons, pens, markers, collage, paper and canvas in her paintings. She also makes three-dimensional objects, using wood, stone and mixed media and she is a natural when it comes to teaching all sorts of people how to experience the joy of making art.
Pam Gutlon, director of Outsiders Art & Collectibles, invited Shaffer to be her guest artist for the gallery’s third anniversary. Shaffer was here for a week as Durham’s community artist and gave workshops to the elderly, to those with limited mobility, to men who are mentally ill and to Montessori children. Gutlon said each class was different. The students were enthralled with Shaffer and the results were amazing.
At Tyndall Galleries in Chapel Hill, Gayle Stott Lowry paints traditional landscapes in oil on board or canvas. She is one of Raleigh’s first-rate artists and has a major painting in the N.C. Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
Should Shaffer’s work be considered beside Lowry’s? Of course. There is no longer a debate about an invisible velvet rope separating museum art. The important question, asked by Deborah Solomon, (New York Times, “Drawing the Line and Crossing It,” Nov. 20, 2012) is whether the art will endure.
Lowry’s paintings are about the vast rugged landscapes of Ireland and some of the isolated houses dotted on the lonely cliffs by the sea. In “Walking on Edge,” one of the smaller paintings in the show, we look up at a sheer cliff realized in oil and wax so textured we feel the rocks, the water below and the harsh ground leading us to the edge. It is a painting that expresses awe at the majesty of nature and its dominance over humankind.
In this series, we also see the occasional Irish cross scattered over the land and sometimes a cemetery filled with them as in “Between Two Worlds.” Jane Tyndall, director of the gallery, said these paintings are from the western coast of Ireland where Lowry visited for 10 days this summer. Tyndall said she uses both sketches and photographs as memory aids. This time, however, it was photographs because the visit was too brief.
Her focus is on the grandeur of nature; humans can make roads, but they are only tiny cuts across a world we cannot control. For example, our eyes enter “The Journey” at the far right corner onto a road, framed by low stone walls, and move toward a shrine marking an intersection. In the past, these shrines were protection for the traveler who had to decide on the right direction. One choice points to the right and out of the painting; the other disappears as we round the curve where the ocean pokes into a sandy cove and then widens as our eyes move up into the hills toward the low mountains. The format of the painting is a slim horizontal. Her slate greys, moss greens and deep browns make a believable place in a believable world.
A real surprise and a good one is Jane Tyndall is returning. She said she really missed the collectors and her artists, and the mall owners were wonderful to work with, so Tyndall Galleries, in its old location, is back in business. Check her website for hours.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.