Asheville Art Talk: Intimacy and solitude in Heather Shirin’s latest collection

WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND?: "When people questioned whether my subjects were lesbians, and when they seemed to have an issue with that, it made me think I should show more love in my work,” says artist Heather Shirin.
WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND?: "When people questioned whether my subjects were lesbians, and when they seemed to have an issue with that, it made me think I should show more love in my work,” says artist Heather Shirin. Image courtesy of Shirin

Asheville artist Heather Shirin credits Saturday morning cartoons and a certain famed PBS artist as her initiation into the world of illustration and painting. “I was in elementary school and before ‘Transformers’ and ‘G.I. Joe,’ came on, I’d watch Bob Ross paint,” she says. “He was probably one of my biggest inspirations.”

By the time she entered college at the University of Massachusetts, Shirin discovered art nouveau. She describes the style and the overall movement as one of natural grace and swooping curves. While in school, Shirin developed a particular interest in the late 19th and early 20th century works of Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt. “There are a lot of spirals in art nouveau,” she says. “Alphonse Mucha really brought that particular look to the forefront. … Klimt worked with kind of an impressionistic style.”

In her latest exhibition, Following the Stars to Freedom, Shirin draws on inspiration from both artists. The collection will be on display at London District Studios Friday, April 14, through Tuesday, May 9.

Women are the main focus in Shirin’s series. Her subjects are painted on raw wood surfaces with acrylics. Often, the paint soaks through the panel, adding further texture to the piece. Shirin also incorporates various fine art papers, such as gold leaf, into her works to create an otherworldly feel.

Thematically, many of Shirin’s paintings capture moments of serenity and rest. “I seek peace and quiet constantly, so you see a lot of that reflected in my artwork,” she says.

Of greater interest, however, is female relationships. This topic has evolved over time and responses to some of her earlier works have varied. “Each person [sees] a different story,” she says. Some identify the subjects as siblings, or mother and daughter, while a few, the artist notes, have been “upset that it might be homosexual in nature.”

PEACEFUL RETREAT: "I seek peace and quite constantly," says artist Heather Shirin. "So you see a lot of reflection in that in my artwork."
PEACEFUL RETREAT: “I seek peace and quite constantly,” says Shirin. “So you see a lot of reflection in that in my artwork.”

Rather than shy away from the latter interpretation, Shirin continued her exploration. What began as an interest in capturing the relationships between sisters, friends, mothers and co-workers gradually evolved into the more intimate. “When people questioned whether my subjects were lesbians, and when they seemed to have an issue with that, it made me think I should show more love in my work,” she says, “because it has people think harder about that particular topic.”

It was because of these reactions, says Shirin, that her own involvement in activism began. “You don’t see many gay paintings in museums,” she says. “One of my goals is to change that. We shouldn’t shy away from it. We should be proud.”

Along with bringing the topic to the forefront of her collection, Shirin is donating 10 percent of the proceeds from her sales during the Following the Stars to Freedom to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization.

“The purpose of all art, besides being incredibly moving, should be to make you think about your own position in life and in society,” Shirin says. “As artists we have a responsibility in shaping society in the way that it should be.”

WHAT: Following the Stars to Freedom
WHERE: London District Studios, 8 London Road. heathershirin.com
WHEN: Opening reception Friday, April. 14, 5-10 p.m. The exhibit will remain on view through Tuesday, May 9. Free

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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