Alexandra Sheldon: A Month in Brittany
March 5 through March 28, 2021
By VITTORIA BENZINE, March 2021
Cambridge-based artist Alexandra Sheldon began her forty year career at age fifteen. March 5th opens Sheldon’s latest solo show, ‘A Month in Brittany,’ at the Bromfield Gallery in Boston’s South End. The exhibition showcases, for the first time, this full collection of works completed by Sheldon in 2017.
“This work was made in a month in Brittany,” Sheldon explained. “I was involved in a project called Ex-Libris Exchange in which twelve artists from the US and twelve artists from France were asked to respond to an 18th century illustrated journal created by a young soldier named Georg Daniel Flohr.” This young soldier was from Strasbourg, Boston’s sister city, who enlisted in the American cause during the Revolutionary War. Sheldon and her colleagues responded to the journal he kept at this time, documenting his experiences. “A lot of it was his writing about seeing people and seeing the landscape,” she recounted.
‘A Month in Brittany’ encapsulates the best of the artist’s abilities. At first blush, they radiate like idyllic landscapes draped in sophisticated script. In other places, nature falls away from itself, dissolving into luscious abstraction. Only after dedicated examination does the viewer divine the many moving pieces at play.
Sheldon studied her craft at three different schools, settling at last in Boston. She learned the value of technical ability from early teachers. While her colleagues were emulating de Kooning, Sheldon leaned more toward Edward Hopper. More recently, she noted, “I’m not satisfied completely with realism, but I'm not satisfied completely with abstraction alone. I really like mixing them.”
Therefore, this upcoming exhibition culminates contemplations that have taken place over the course of her entire career, marked by catapulting periods of ‘integration,’ as Sheldon put it. Her month in Brittany proved one such instance. The artist explained, “Every once in a while I get some creative opportunity to work all the time.” She and her husband spent that March in the French countryside, completing renovations on a ruin. “The only reason I could produce so much was because my husband did all the cooking and he was working on the house,” she elaborated. “Six, seven hours a day I was drawing and painting.”
Synergy defined her experience. Sheldon noted the dichotomies between herself and her muse, Mr. Flohr--their conflicting eras, ages, landscapes, and genders, all weighted evenly against each other. However, the immense beauty of Brittany in springtime came against traits innate to Sheldon’s own personal life at that moment. “I was grieving my stepfather who died three weeks before,” she said. “I went to his funeral, and we got on a plane a week later.”
She found France laden with new nuances. “As we're leaving the airport, we got on this highway,” she remembered. “There had been all these farmers doing these protests and burning tires in the middle of the road… we had to go around burning tires. And then we'd see a gas station that was abandoned, completely covered with graffiti and smoking from having been lit on fire.”
Once settled in Brittany, Sheldon established a daily routine, taking long walks for inspiration. As time wore on, she found peace with the coexisting beauty and sadness present throughout the country. “I would step out of our door, and there'd be forty cows going down the road,” she said. “ I’d go down this huge hill and see all these hills in the distance. And then you’d keep walking and you'd see this beautiful river. There was nobody there--just cows, a few farmers. I would walk and I wouldn't see anything modern, I'd see old houses and stone walls. I felt a strong affinity with George Flohr. I felt like I could have been in the 1700s.”
She channeled this spirit into her work. Sheldon had practiced Flohr’s handwriting prior to the trip, enamored of his script. The resulting words, rendered in sepia ink alongside rich landscapes and dreamy abstraction, mimic Flohr’s hand but read specifically of Sheldon’s mind. “I was in a really raw time,” Sheldon said. Much of the script is illegible, written in a subconscious code. In brief flashes, their contents shine through, aching phrases like, “I had children. And then they grew up. And then they went away.”
“A lot about death, actually,” she noted. “I was struggling a lot. It almost hurts to look at these paintings. But then, my way to cure myself and heal myself is to paint.”
Oftentimes, great pain precedes great change. After all her years emulating the technical art of realism, Sheldon vividly recalls the precise moment abstraction made its big stand. At 32 years old, her father died while she was pregnant with her son Adrien. “I tried to keep working in the same way,” Sheldon said. “I had set up still lives with my father's shirt, and things that belonged to him. But I was in a complete crossroads, I was in a huge artistic transition in my life.”
Meanwhile, she’d recently won a month-long art retreat in Virginia. “I drove down there in my little car with my big tummy getting stuck behind the wheel, because I was almost five months pregnant,” she said. “I tried to set up a still life and paint the way I usually paint, and I couldn't do it.”
New patterns and new knowledge wrecked her former routine--Sheldon was growing attuned to cruel truths in the human condition. Cells were dividing in her own body to create new life, but cells had divided in her father’s body to end his. “I started doing all these drawings of cells and death and life,” she continued. The experience solidified abstraction’s role in her coming work.
She’s come to accept that most experiences are neither solely good or bad, but some balance of the two. Even though she visited Brittany in the wake of her stepfather’s death, she still fostered precious memories and joy, like a friendship with a horse who she would bring apples and carrots to. “I think there was deep happiness and deep grief,” she said. “I don't know how I can tell you, but it’s actually something you have to learn to live with. It's not really either/or. We hold both.”
Objectively, ‘A Month in Brittany’ is gorgeous. Viewing these works yields emotions we often superficially seek from art--sensuality, peace, intrigue. However, a moment’s notice of Sheldon’s words, the deeper story at play, speaks to the true significance of art in its ability to convey incommunicable facets of the human condition. Sheldon’s sensitivity, paired with all the experiences life has brought her, render her an apt conductor to passively transmit these lessons. “I have sometimes in my life felt like a feather,” she admitted. “Somebody was blowing it, and I was being blown around.”
Sheldon’s website features sketchbooks of similar images from Weston, Cambridge, and Martha’s Vineyard. Plein air has habitually served the playing field for her explorations. She’s come to favor a measure of cohesion, mixing realism and abstraction through landscape. “I'm getting feedback that what people like the most that I make are these compilations, combining things,” Sheldon said. “Maybe that's when I'm the most emotional, because they're pretty emotional.”
The artist has been mixing media since childhood, when she wrote her first book, titled ‘Mr. Bubbles.’ “I always journaled, always wrote, and everybody thought I was a writer,” she stated. “I think my art is like writing. These are kind of like pages.” Even at 16 x 20 inches, each work in this series fits together into a greater whole. “There's something bookish about them. They are visual stories.” Learn more about the riveting tale of Alexandra Sheldon through ‘A Month in Brittany,’ on view at the Bromfield Gallery in Boston through March 28th. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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