In Conversation With: Bronson Shonk

Bronson Shonk is a multidisciplinary artist based in Seattle. After a career in analytics, Shonk became a full-time artist creating bodies of work that explore the nature of growth and the relationships between structure and freedom.  

Shonk currently works on both canvas and layers of plexiglass. The latter are bonded together to become free-standing 3D paintings. Both the paintings and sculptures are developed through a time-intensive process of engraving and staining layers of intricate line work. The result is a unique riff on the sgraffito technique, a vibrant blend of drawing and painting. 

Emerald Arguelles: Can you discuss your introduction to the arts. Is there a first memory you can recall? 

Bronson Shonk: I don’t even remember making it, but the first work I did was of a little bird and a nice sunset. I thought it was the best piece I’d ever made. I have no idea how old I was. I got introduced to art in your typical art classes in middle school and high school. I really latched onto one of my teachers, who approached me about doing the IB program that we had, which is a two-year intensive program to build your portfolio. That was where I really dove into art and got the chance to do it every day, think about it every day. There was a sense of freedom that eventually influenced my practice now. 

EA: Was painting the first thing you gravitated towards or were there other mediums you dabbled in?

BS: No, I really was always interested in drawing. We had to do this art notebook in IB that I would have opened inside my textbook in other classes, pretending to listen. That had a lot of line work and it sort of evolved from that. So I was always really interested in minimal pattern making. I think that’s where it started. I didn’t really start painting until I started working in a studio here.

EA: So what were you doing before?

BS: So I went up to Vermont. I studied environmental science with an art minor as well. Then I came out here to Seattle, and I worked in analytics for a couple of years. I went from obsessing over making and creating things in high school to taking what I would call a hiatus in college. When I came out here and I started working, I saw a couple art shows and I had this realization that everything I had been doing in high school I hadn’t quite finished. So I grabbed some paper and a pen, and I started drawing again. I started drawing in the mornings before work, and then after work, and then a couple of times at work. I was like, maybe I should explore this a little more. So it developed from there. I wondered, what would happen if I gave myself all day, every day to do this? What would happen if I actually gave it that focus? So my whole practice was really driven by curiosity. 

EA: That’s a huge leap to make, to do it all day, every day. Then you’re counting on yourself and your own productivity for your livelihood. How did the elements of growth, structure, and freedom come about in your work?

BS: I’ll put those in two different categories. The first one, growth, really comes from an interest in seeing how things move and change over time. A lot of art is this attempt to take abstract ideas and then make them tangible. Imagine looking at a tree. You know a tree is growing and it’s moving, but you don’t actually see it. You could sit it all day and watch it and it’s not going to change. But if you slice it at the trunk, and you look at the tree rings, you can actually see evidence that it’s changed over time. We do the same thing with our parents marking our height against the wall as we’re growing up each month. Now you’ve created this thing that is tangible. Now we can see the change over time. That idea is what I think my interest stems from. The forms I’m painting are meant to be these branching forms that are based on long exposure images. If you were to take this branching form, which sort of gives the illusion of a flower, and you paint it once at a certain stage, and you paint it again at another stage, and again at another stage, you start stacking it on top of itself until it creates a long exposure image. So you’re not looking at something in a singular moment. You’re looking at a bunch of dance moves blurring together, and it creates those gestural movements. That’s the element of growth that I’m interested in. 

EA: Is that where the plexiglass came about?

BS: The plexiglass actually started in high school. I was making these layered drawings and I started to wonder how you actually create layers. Well, you have a background, foreground, and middle ground, and I thought I could separate those with pieces of plexiglass. So I started a plexiglass where I depicted a concert, where you have the people on the stage, you have the people in the audience, and you have the people and the lights in the background, so I could separate them onto pieces of plexiglass. That’s where that started.

When I came out here and I was working and painting in the studio full time, I started to think about it as an unfinished idea I really wanted to pursue. So it grew from there. In terms of how it relates to growth and layering, plexiglass naturally works really well. It allows me to have physical layers I can paint on. A lot of paintings give the illusion of 3D, but I actually create that 3D experience. 

EA: How does the element of freedom come about? Is that something that’s more personal, or more freedom and flexibility within what you do as an artist?

BS: I think it stems from my personality and how I approach things. I’m a very structured, analytical person. I was working only in pen, and it was usually just lines and hash marks. When you’re working with a pen, things are very much in your control. Everything is very exact and predictable. 

Then I was given the advice that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and I should learn to paint. So I started messing with paint, and it’s the complete opposite of a pen. It doesn’t create an exact line, it doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do. It spreads and moves and dries slowly. All those things were extremely frustrating. 

So I developed this way of painting which allows me to create lines where I etch into the canvas and then stain it. As I go through the painting, I move from these structured, really exact movements into this organic place. If you think about the life of a flower or a tree, it sort of starts with structure, it builds up a root structure, it has a trunk, it branches, it has flowers, and eventually it blooms. It’s that moment where the paint sort of comes alive, and color comes into the painting. It gets a little more crazy. I’m using my hands a lot more. It’s messy. I think about all this in terms of how paintings progress and the movement from structure to non-structure? I think anything that grows often takes that form as well.

EA: How do you start going into a new piece and what’s your process like? 

BS: I often work in series. I usually take a couple ideas, researching other artists’ paintings that I like, images that I like, anything that inspires me, whether it be color, composition, or form. I usually bring all that into a series, but I’m not really planning out what I’m doing. This idea of growth continues throughout all my work. How do you grow a painting? For me, that means not planning it out from the beginning. It’s really starting with maybe one form. I pick a place to start it, and then the next form is based on that first form, and then the next one is based on the previous, and it grows out from there. Like I said, it starts in a place of structure, and I go to the canvas with Exacto knives and pottery tools to create the linework. Then it moves into paint, and then it becomes more fluid. 

My studio practice sort of jumps around different mediums. I usually start the day with some pen drawings to get warmed up. Then I’ll move into paintings, and maybe then I’ll move into sculpture and back and forth. What I’m finding is that as you go from one medium to the next, you find something you really like, like these pen drawings, for instance. I really like this combination of the watercolor washes and the linework on top of them.

I started thinking about how to put that in a canvas, but watercolor doesn’t translate exactly to canvas. So there’s this translation problem, and then you figure out how to translate it. Sometimes it comes out the way you expect, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it creates something new. Taking these ideas and going from one to the next, there’s always something that translates well or something that’s lost in translation. Either way, I think that’s how ideas get formed. 

EA: Coming from Atlanta and now being in Seattle, has that environment changed or inspired the work that you create now? 

BS: It’s been so long since I actually lived in Atlanta. There’s some obvious things like out here we get really grey weather, and in Atlanta you get much brighter sunlight. The same goes for New Hampshire, where my family is mostly now, and I spend a lot of time. So there’s those obvious things, and I think that probably affects the colors that I’m interested in, or maybe my mood in general. But when I think about going from Atlanta to Seattle or back and forth between Seattle and New Hampshire, it’s a branching out experience. 

I’m coming back to this idea of how things grow. Growing up in Atlanta, I was probably set on much more of a conventional path and it’s a path I went on. I moved to Vermont and then eventually Seattle. Like the stem of a branch, I was growing further from the root structure. I think that distance allowed me some freedom to take risks. Maybe I would have stayed on a more conventional path if I had not moved West. 

EA: Do you have any inspirations? Did anyone inspire you when you first started? 

BS: There’s been some people who have really stuck with me the entire time. I remember first being super drawn to Joan Mitchell and her way of weaving colors and paint and different marks together and creating this kind of fabric. I was always drawn to her work, and I think that’s something I’ve continued to try and figure out how to do in my own work. Obviously another big name like Cy Twombly, and the way he weaves together so many different marks and colors to create his paintings. Those are two who are definitely top of mind because I’m trying to get some more inspiration for my work right now and I often come back to them. 

Hokusai is a Japanese artist who I’ve really been drawn to. He’s got this wide array of different styles that he’s created with printmaking and watercolors. I think I’ve always been drawn to the  Japanese aesthetic of Sumi ink and the lines it’s able to create. It translates really well into what I like to paint in terms of my line work. 

Then there’s plenty of other, more contemporary artists who I’ve really been drawn to, Like Kathy Moss, who’s an East Coast painter. Betsy Eby, who actually works in Georgia, and I think she might work up in Maine as well. Ethan Murrow, who does really intricate drawings. So that’s the array of people I’m interested in, at least at the moment, because it always changes.

EA: What do you want readers and viewers to take away from your work?

BS: That’s always a hard one. I think I am open to them taking what they want. What I’m always after is something that’s really hard to describe. Like when I go look at a Joan Mitchell painting, I just want to sit in front of it; it has an effect on me I can’t really describe. Beyond that, I want to try and figure out how she did it because it’s complex, like the weaving that she did. So at the very foundation, I’d like to strike some sort of reaction, something that draws you in, makes you want to get closer to the work, and then hopefully stays with you. 

EA: I think allowing people to take in the work and then to evoke something for themselves is extremely powerful. I think that’s the intent of every artist. 

BS: Yeah. I guess I’m a bit selfish because I make a lot of it for my own interest and hopefully it works out for other people. 

EA: Aside from the work that you’re doing in the studio, are there any other hobbies that inspire you to create the work that you make?

BS: I spend a lot of time outside. I ski and surf. Spending a lot of time out in places that have really mind blowing views and being in places where it’s snowing or raining or big waves coming through—they’re always inspiring. You get on the top of the mountain and you look at a view and it affects you in some way. That’s the same thing that I see when I see a Joan Mitchell painting. So, certainly it all has an effect. 

EA: Did the pandemic affect your process at all? 

BS: Yeah, it helped. I removed everything, I had no distractions, I was really focused. I have a studio, so I would bike here in this desolate landscape where nobody was out. I locked myself in the studio all day long. So I had a lot of time to really focus on the work and put more hours in.

To view more of Bronson Shonk’s work please visit their website.