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Conjuring tricks

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Shelley Masters originally trained as a designer and illustrator in the UK. Now a painter living in Hawkes Bay, Shelley talks to us about seeing Chardin’s work, being alone, and his tricky talent.

How does your childhood influence your work now?

I had an odd childhood, quite lonely and I remember being very affected by my surroundings – house, neighbourhood etc. London in the fifties was a depressing place with visual stimulation hard to find. I learnt to draw comfort and pleasure from small things – sunlight and shadows, reflections – so almost no matter what the space you could find some beauty.

Describe your creative process.

My paintings are meticulously planned – but this merely heralds a huge amount of on canvas alterations where elements, colours, anything can change and sometimes radically. When or if the painting starts asserting itself, other possibilities present themselves, other directions. Being sensitive to that is key.

What role does the artist have in society?

The marvellous critic Robert Hughes said that ‘painting slows down the eye – it’s a rebuker of unfelt experiences’. So in a world where taste has been homogenised by TV and the internet and everything happens at breakneck speed, the artist can create something with which the viewer can directly connect and in so doing provide a cue for memories, aspirations, almost anything. Then you hang it on your wall and contemplate those things at your leisure.

What's the last exhibition that surprised you?

Some time ago I saw an exhibition of Chardin’s work. Having previously only seen reproductions I was taken aback by its controlled intensity. Painting is, amongst other things, about contrast – and reproductions (print or screen) cannot capture that well, and apart from anything else, unless you see the original you cannot appreciate the scale of the piece. It might be minute or huge. The internet and books render them all as one.

How does your work comment on current social or political issues?

Well during lockdown it became clear that many people had never acquired the essential life-skill of being alone. It is a skill just as important as any other – but we are only taught to act as part of the herd. Socialising is where it’s at – being at one with yourself hardly gets a mention. So loneliness, separation; these sorts of issues are a constant theme, not at all precipitated by COVID 19 but nevertheless now hugely relevant. The other interesting point about COVID 19 is that it signals change – in health and circumstances, and points up the difficulty many people have with change of any sort. So in a narrative sense, my paintings are often about that moment when something changes. An ending or a beginning.

Money is no object. Which priceless artwork do you buy?

Carpaccio’s Ambassadors Depart. A beautiful piece of painting, sensational composition – big too (3 metres tall and 2.5 wide), so it would fill my sitting room wall and I would feel as if I was part of the scene. Who needs virtual reality?

What’s something you’ve always wanted to try?

Wood engraving – I even bought a set of burins, but they just sit in the box intimidating me. I’m neither precise nor skilled enough. I admire that ability that engravers have of being able to render a full tonal range in a few lines.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not having been serious enough about painting in my youth and allowing for a career of designing to get in the way.

What’s a talent you have that people wouldn’t guess?

I used to be quite good at conjuring tricks, in fact it was quite a hobby in my teens – and conjuring has turned out to be an important part of painting – not quite the quickness of the hand deceives the eye, but there are certainly lots of tricks involved.

Shelley Masters, Seating arrangement, oil on canvas, 600 x 910

Oil paintings by Shelley Masters are on display in The Distance Between Us at Potocki Paterson Art Gallery until 1 September.

Images - courtesy of the artist and Potocki Paterson

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