By: Karla Jensen
BDAAA – Beaver Dam, WI
Engaging. Mysterious. Innovative. It’s how I like my fiction and often, how I like my artists. If I had to choose one artist to cast as a main character in a book, my vote would go to the unassuming, versatile and never predictable Shannon Kelly. At the Beaver Dam Area Arts Association (BDAAA), we kindly call her Miss Shannon. Shannon is a prime candidate as my protagonist because she is human and flawed, but somehow overcomes obstacles to win every time in the world of art.
The first time I met Shannon, I convinced myself she wasn’t American, but European. I was wrong, but not entirely. Daughter of an Air Force serviceman, Shannon lived abroad during her youth. While she spoke of those bygone but tumultuous days, I followed her eyes around Europe to England, Greece and Italy. I rode those ferries with her across channels, wound my way up castle steps and stood with her at the top of ancient hillsides. I wanted to be this lucky artist. I could see how Europe fostered her love of art, which she carried proudly back to the states. I wished that our own country could cultivate her kind of passion for art. It’s the reason Shannon is a leading lady among artists in our community.
Besides starting the longstanding Youth Art program at BDAAA, organizing a monthly artist social and introducing the popular Artist Trading Cards to area youth and adults, Shannon Kelly is a community builder at heart. “Being a social artist, I wanted to create a program where kids and families could art together and enjoy wonderful social interaction and build on community ties,” she explained. Shannon feeds the creative spirit like Paula Dean on the Food Network uses butter – liberally and with zeal. Shannon has captured hearts at the after-school programs at the Lincoln/Jefferson Junction, shepherded home-schooled groups, hosted classes at both the Beaver Dam and Horicon libraries, given shape to BDAAA’s Week of Art and captivated budding artists at Artdrenoline Youth Art and Sport Camp.
Miss Shannon approaches each art venue with her bag of tricks, a magician ready to pull a rabbit out of a hat, willing to create some obscure art project or illusion that can knock the socks off any participant watching. She transforms almost-nothing into something. Shannon is clearly intent on broadening the artistic horizons of children with art educational opportunities. Also, she encourages average adults to run wild on the playground of art and culture, convincing us that we can each produce our own brand of exceptional art if we just give it a try and believe in ourselves.
When I approached Shannon for this interview, she said, “I want you to read my artist’s statement.” I presumed it would illustrate centuries of art history, theory and globetrotting terminology that I would have to wade through before I found her tucked deep inside it. Shannon intimidates but never flaunts me with her vast knowledge of eminent artists, museums, obscure techniques and art supplies. She’s a walking index of art, albeit eccentric and English, with a cup of tea at her side.
Instead, Shannon’s statement sounded simple, prolific and personal. “We are hardwired for creativity. This is in our makeup – the need to have creative self-expression. Feelings become words, color and form, and it’s cathartic. Art is Community. It binds us together through events and groups. When we art together – we create synergy.”
I picture her sorting her tool box to find just the right implement to assemble her statement. Her oil paints, feather quills, ink wells, knitting needles, wool spools, foils, gold leaf, vellum, fancy papers and so many other components go hand in hand with Shannon’s fine and folk art. She is our Mary Poppins of art, whom everyone adores, toting bags of art magic. Yet at home, she is the average every woman, who is a single parent striving to raise a responsible son. She adores gardening, tinkers with her fixer-upper home, and putzes around the house along with her two cats. Shannon is as comfortable as your favorite pair of bedroom slippers. She fell in love with the Midwest and has made Beaver Dam her home.
Shannon does have a dark side. It is not every day I want an art instructor to make participants cry, but Shannon has moved students to tears. She led the PAVE art therapy groups at the Seippel Center last year. Through mindfulness journaling and other art projects, abused women learned to address and cope with their feelings. Shannon shared her own struggles with broken family, abuse, chronic pain and its side effects. As I entered a room full of wet eyes, I immediately knew Miss Shannon had made an impact in that class. Since that day, to me, wet eyes in an art class is like wet paint, damp clay or moist adhesive – signaling something not quite complete, something still under construction, still evolving into that which we are meant to become.
I peeked at Shannon’s personal Mindfulness Art journal. No ordinary journal, this was a time machine, a kaleidoscope of intimate struggles, defeats and past hurts, along with examples of perseverance, fulfilled dreams and hopes for healing. Art for Shannon, for PAVE women and other art class participants has become not just a Band-Aid, but therapy, rehab, a resolution, a replacement, perhaps even a new lease on life. My eyes were wet from witnessing this art–bringing forth reminders of my own shortcomings along with moments of forgiveness, struggles and triumphs. Art brings life into focus, just as Shannon had done on those beautiful pages.
Shannon told me a story of realizing her artistic talent as a proud youth who excelled in math. Bored from having completed her assignment, a teacher handed her paper on which to draw. When she completed a masterpiece, which hung in the school’s office for years thereafter, his response was, “If I had known your talent, I would have given you better paper.” Shannon gives students better paper every time she leads a group. She teaches how to see the world with renewed vision and expects great things through her dynamic inspiration and gentle guidance.
Shannon is an artist who gets art, and in most every genre. “Maybe I don’t get poetry yet,” she admitted. “That’s ok,” I whispered. “I don’t get math.” “The connection between our heads and our hearts can’t always produce an expression for our feelings and experiences about life, but art is an excellent venue that can,” shares Shannon. As in good fiction, I can’t predict the plot twists and turns that lead me to respect and love my favorite protagonists. For Shannon Kelly, her innovation, her next grand idea and her future triumphs makes me long to study her character and watch from the wings as she soars as one of BDAAA’s most versatile artists.