A cut above: Shawna Khalily's woodcuts and figure drawings reveal a punk aesthetic [Visual art]

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This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

Shawna Khalily glances down at the broken heart printed on her tank top. “That’s appropriate,” she says with a smile that is part grimace. This morning her favorite dog, Angus — who would comfort her with a paw on the knee when she was stressed — died. Now he’s buried in the yard. It’s raining.

Khalily has taken refuge in the studio behind her home. Once a gardening shed, the expanded studio is full of art instruments and the many influences that fuel Khalily’s creative process: A printing press the size of a table. Twenty trays of colored pencils. Hand tools. A hatchet. Everywhere on the walls and ceiling and roof beams are posters of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Warhol, Patti Smith, Obama and Radiohead, plus Käthe Kollwitz prints.

These fit what has been described as Khalily’s punk aesthetic, a characterization she appreciates. She favors black boots and jeans and has one of Kollwitz’s pieces as a tattoo. Khalily relates her artistic ambition to music. “I want to make a print the way Fiona Apple writes a song,” she says. “I want people to get the same experience seeing these as listening to R.E.M.’s ‘E-Bow the Letter.’”

She considers music the most powerful art and decided early that “if I couldn’t be a rock star, I wanted to be an art star.”

In the past year she has had three shows — two of her woodcut prints and one of her figure drawings — at Gallery Ex Voto, which she directs, on East Market Street. In that time she sold approximately two dozen framed prints for $400 to $800 each.

Her work captures attention. People look at it a bit longer. They may be thinking of all the tiny cuts that go into a woodblock, cuts that don’t allow for erasure, or of how Khalily has to carve in reverse before she transfers paint to paper. (“That big mirror isn’t for vanity,” she notes.)

Or they may be thinking of something they once saw in a church or read in a story or felt in a full moment as they look at a piece like Khalily’s Christina the Astonishing — part of her x-ray series — in which the central figure is carrying under one arm an impossibly large heart. It’s not a cute Valentine’s heart, but a bulging blue-veined organ that will no longer tuck inside her rib cage.

This is why, upon returning from Iraq, a soldier felt compelled to write Khalily a long personal letter about the love he saw packed into her work — “the anguish and the emotions,” she recalls. “That emotional giant is what I’m after.” Her art starts with an intense personal feeling, she says, that she then attempts to relate to a wider and deeper world.

Khalily, 44, started drawing figures on the walls of her room as a child. She studied painting and printmaking at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where she grew up. She then moved to Louisville when her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, took a residency here. They fell in love with the city and, after a few years back in Cincinnati, returned in 2003.

While raising two children, Khalily would steal nights to work on her art. “I’m not a talented person. I’ve worked really hard at this,” she says, describing the years and years she practiced drawing figures to get them right — to “see through the skin to the structure of the body” — and how frequently she used to cut and bloody her hands.

Khalily works mostly in woodcut prints. She sketches, carves and then hand-colors the prints like incredibly detailed pages from a massive adult coloring book. “They are all individual. I don’t do editions,” she says. “I am trying to elevate the print to painting or to bring them both together.”

Khalily carves in maple and mahogany. But her favorite wood is cherry, the pleasures of which she discovered when her father-in-law remodeled his kitchen and gave her the old cabinet doors. Posed over a cherry plank, in a taut stance that recalls the gymnast she used to be, Khalily seats a gouge in her palm and starts tracing her pencil sketch, the wood shavings curling and falling to the table. “The wood is all different,” she says, her eyes fixed on the plank. “You have to learn each one.”

César Perez-Ribas has known Khalily since they were art students together in Cincinnati. They became close friends when they both moved to Louisville. He helps manage Gallery Ex Voto, an artist collective gallery that will likely close soon or relocate to a smaller studio space on Bardstown Road. When Khalily needs an honest critic she goes to him.

Not many artists work in woodcuts, Perez-Ribas says. He talks about the difficulty of the medium and the quality of Khalily’s technique, how a small line or gesture can carry so much weight. And there is the emotional quality, he adds. “A lot of what she’s struggling with, all of the conflicts in her life — which aren’t necessarily personal but the concerns that we all have — those all come out in the work.”

There is a strong sense of the sacred and the allegorical in Khalily’s prints. It’s not a surprise to see Dante among the books on her studio shelves or to learn that she based a series on the poetry of Rilke. Perez-Ribas talks about how Khalily’s influences filter through her. There is often a duality within her work, he says, in twin figures, the captor and captive, “the lightness and darkness of things.”

Khalily sees herself as working with and through these influences and others that surround her in her studio. “It always starts from a feeling,” she says. “Then it becomes a collaboration with whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment.”

As she says this, her teenage children come to check on her and give her a hug. They’re sorry about Angus. The family’s recently adopted puppy slips in and bounds across the floor toward the woodcut planks stacked against a wall. There is angst in her work, Khalily says before leaving her studio for the afternoon, but, equally, love.

Photo: John Nation

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