Liz Shepherd is an Ashland-based international artist who is an expert in the Sumi-e ink method of Zen painting. For 20 years, she has been evolving her process in relation to this form. She studied under Shozo Sato, a globally renowned master of Zen arts, for many years. Shepherd's work, while minimalist, is extremely specific and detailed, and can currently be seen as part of the Schneider Museum Summer Exhibitions program.
JG: Tell us about your artistic and academic background.
LS: I’ve been painting since I was 7, selling since age 12, with six years of art school, but I think my t’ai chi teacher taught me to experience space and movement with my body.
Each week she’d say, "this is the secret of t’ai chi" … and each week, of course, it was something different. Big success in the 1980s left me out of touch with the internal source of the work, which I feel in my chest.
I’d lost my most precious treasure. I hoped to never be seduced by (that kind of damaging success) again. Studying with my main mentor, Zen Master Shozo Sato, who was called the "Sacred Treasure of Japan," in the 1990s was the opportunity to have both the art skills and their connection with deeper experiences shown to me. In 2010, he began to slow down into retirement. I saw that it was time for me to find my authentic creative voice, which I had since realized could never be Japanese.
JG: You are an expert at Zen painting, how did you come to discover this work as your passion?
LS: During school, I had to drop art and do Latin, so I began painting constantly at home. I read and painted my way through the History of Art, trying each form for myself. Working on paintings of my own feelings of distress — Expressionism — it was clear that by the end of the day I felt more deeply distressed. Later, when I began to work with the quietness and stillness of this form of Sumi-e ink painting, I found that, as I worked, my own calmness would get deeper and deeper. That was a feeling I really treasured and continue to treasure. Hopefully some of the paintings can impart that feeling of ease to someone looking at the work, or living with it. For me they act like a tuning fork to the feelings that gave rise to the work, their quietness, on and on. I love them!
JG: How do you approach a new artwork?
LS: A new painting arises in a "moment of seeing” — a scene or something — and experiencing a deep connection. It’s as though what I’m seeing, and what I’m feeling, in that moment, are the same. Often, I don’t understand the nature of that harmony until later. What is important to add is that the subject of the painting is that feeling. The trees, or mountain, are only the vehicle that carry the subject. Recently the vehicle itself, the trees, etc. are almost an intrusion into the (overall) ambience. Both the "feeling subject" and the scene suggest the appropriate choices of size, materials and technical approach. Often, I'll do hours and hours of experiments to find what materials and methods will naturally offer up the qualities that I’m looking for. Sometimes I’ll discover a physical material and immediately know what it will make possible atmospherically. This happened with Daniel Smith’s ground pigment paints, called Primatek. They are ground Lapis Lazuli, Amethyst, Jade, etc. They lift off perfectly, making ideas that had been in my mind’s eye for years, simple and effortless to actually (make a reality).
JG: What was it about Ashland, creatively, that made you decide to live here?
LS: The wonderful thing about living in Ashland, with a view of the stream, and surrounded by woods, and the waterhole, is that everything I love to paint, in all it’s seasons, is right outside the door. I’ve never felt more at home, or more free to be my authentic self, than in this village of so many like-minded people.
"Liz Shepherd, East-West: Two Streams Merging" is on exhibition at the Schneider Museum of Art from June 14 through Sept. 9.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.