The artist, who received a B.A. in art history from the University of Kansas and an MFA from New York’s Pratt Institute, has enjoyed a successful career that includes dozens of solo and group exhibitions, both national and worldwide. In May, McAdams and Milwaukee artist Keith Nelson opened Real Tinsel Gallery at 1013 W. Mitchell Street. McAdams splits his time between Cedarburg and Brooklyn, New York.
During a recent telephone interview, Milwaukee Magazine asked the artist a few questions about his work, living in New York City, and teaching.
Name: Shane McAdams
Hometown: Born in Emporia, Kansas, lived in various cities in the southwest, including Gallup, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas
Occupation: Professional artist and owner of Tinsel Gallery in Milwaukee; instructor at Marion College in Fond du Lac
You spent part of your childhood in remote parts of the Southwest. How did the area’s location and geography later impact your art?
I lived on a Navajo Indian reservation in northern Arizona, and then in Gallop, New Mexico. In the early 1980s, it was a very depressing place. In 1982, when you were remote you were remote — my family didn’t have cable TV or the Internet or anything like that. I was in the middle of nowhere. I just loved breaking open pieces of petrified wood to see crystallized rocks inside, smashing sandstone blocks with a hammer, and excavating minerals from the sides of cliffs. That’s what I did. It was fun.
You work with a variety of unconventional media — tree bark and Elmer’s glue, for example. How do you decide which media to work with?
I started using less orthodox art materials around 2002, while I was at Pratt College in New York — pretty much cheap materials, like Elmer’s Glue, that were widely available. I’d do things like take a ballpoint pen apart and blow on the ink. I liked that, compared to other pigments, pen ink was more transparent, more unstable. When you’re young and experiment with new things, it’s wild.
The school I attended had a very good Industrial Design program, and when those students would graduate, me and fellow artists would pillage their lockers. Students left lots of materials behind, interesting materials, such as resin, which I still use in my work today.
With art, I like to let things happen. I set up the system that makes itself, like putting paint on a canvas and putting it against a fan. I know how to make a mess and shift through the mess, and see the form and logic. I want people to say, “What’s happened there?” I like leaving a clue behind, like a footprint.
Your landscapes appear to have an otherworldly quality to them — mountains and streams set against vibrant rainbow-colored backgrounds, for example. What’s your inspiration behind these?
I feel that the idea of a landscape in art — painting a realistic picture of a mountain or a canyon — is too conventional. I think of what a landscape could be.
I remember a professor of mine once said something like “There’s nothing less real than a trompe l’oeil painting, because it’s an illusion.” But reality is based on an individual’s perception. That’s where ideas like this start — trying to answer the questions “what is more real?” and “what is natural versus what is artificial?”
Besides being an artist, I’m also a writer. In my work, I try to create visual poetry. I’m very interested in how language, shaped by so many different perceptions, affects us. I like to think about how nature and culture come together.
You’ve moved around quite a bit in your life. You grew up in the southwest, then attended college in Kansas, and later, New York. What brought you to Wisconsin?
My wife is from Cedarburg. After our first child, Gladys, was born, we decided to leave New York and move back to Cedarburg. We wanted our daughter to grow up around family.
Besides working as a professional artist and gallery owner, you also teach. How has that experience been for you?
I like teaching. I first taught in 2009, as an adjunct instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design, so this marks a decade of me corrupting the youth (laughs). At a smaller school like Marion, I get to teach contemporary art history classes, which I love, and drawing. I wouldn’t have this opportunity to teach art history at a larger school, such as UW-Madison—those classes are taught by PhDs.