shawn.gilheeney (at)

Essay by

Jacqui De Cormier

A historian studies the narrative of events and repercussions that ensue as a myriad of myths and facts blend together over time. A scientist analyzes the systematic processes occurring in nature. For Shawn Gilheeney the two come together as the artist explores the intricate duality between what is natural and manmade. Gilheeney perceives nature’s organic processes as stories unto themselves. And integral to every good story is a relationship between the central characters. Gilheeney finds beauty in relationships that emerge when organic processes in perpetual fluctuation confront manmade structures.

It is through analyzing the layers that the story unfolds and true beauty is found.  His devotion to understanding how ruins come into existence has prompted him to further explore the influence of basic natural processes through art. What has most captivated him is the “theory of entropy, [and how] things are constantly de-evolving.”1 Because he respects ruins as inevitable natural occurrences, he refrains from describing his art as a form of preservation that counters these de-evolutionary processes. Rather his artwork is meant to draw out the natural beauty that is the changing object, serving more as an expression of the story, as opposed to an alternate ending.

Gilheeney’s involvement in skateboarding and experimentation with graffiti as a young adult fostered an interest in transforming abandoned and decaying areas into pleasurable spaces. His travels along the West Coast after high school further deepened his appreciation for environments in which artificial structures and nature meet. The buildings, barely affected by nature, contrasted with his memory of the fragmented landscape left in the wake of the Industrial Revolution on the East Coast.2 Gilheeney began to recognize time’s role as the primary determinant that decides how intricate and enthralling the story of “man versus nature” can be.3 After five years, Gilheeney moved back East to study art and investigate the inverse relationships formed as manmade buildings acquiesced to the incremental pervasion of nature.4

Working in a print shop out West5 influenced the “stencil based graffiti type art” identified in his earlier works. He has since developed a more elemental approach, now intuitively trusting the “medium [to inform] the graphics.”6 Examining “conflicting forces,” he uses his creative process to translate “what is organic and geometric… organic versus manmade7 in a literal way.  In Combustion, he applied a homemade mixture of acid and graffiti ink onto the steel; he scorched the steel panel of Fire Damage to replicate the natural effects of a fire. Gilheeney pulls forth beauty from the essence of industrial landscapes by reducing them to simple abstract forms and incorporating organic elements into the artistic process.

Yet as harsh and destructive as his technique may be, there is an apparent ease in the way his artworks elicit an environment’s inherent beauty. Gilheeney prefers his paintings to begin on new, as opposed to found, material so as to control how and which elements are used in the transformation process. His concern is that he cannot properly “recycle the image”8 if the artistic process is complicated with unassociated organic elements.

Gilheeney is cautious, too, in using color. Artists are perceived as fervent manipulators of color, who do so to express esoteric concepts or unnatural aesthetic combinations. While Gilheeney adheres to the fundamentals of color and form, he does not want to dictate an end product that “is no longer based on [natural] beauty.”9 For Gilheeney it is not the responsibility of his art to reach a target audience. The repercussions would entail a betrayal to his creative process and a denial of his own form of spirituality.10

Gilheeney has been vigilant in isolating himself from theories and trends that could influence his creative process, thereby affecting his “practice of non-certainty.”11 His motives, though, parallel those of the alchemist, as both attempt to convert basic substances into meaningful objects. The simple colors which Gilheeney adheres to- black, white, and yellow- are indicative of three of the four stages of the alchemist’s magnum opus, the event in which transformation in form or significance successfully occurs. They signify nigredo (corruption), albedo (purification), and citrinitas (enlightenment).12 Symbolically, they help Gilheeney realize his goal of “’creat[ing] new information out of something that is being destroyed.’”13 Gilheeney uses these colors as avenues for transformation to elevate his materials beyond basic perceptions as negative substances of deterioration. The three artworks in this show, Combustion, Cleansing, and Fire Damage, place decaying environments within the context of this magnum opus, simultaneously deconstructing and extolling their beauty.

Currently, Gilheeney is further exploring the role of organic elements in his artistic process. A pervading desire to express more honestly the story surrounding science and beauty drives him to incorporate purer forms of earth, wind, fire, and air into his art. He is investigating how to allow the medium to more directly influence the image,14 such as replacing store-bought paint for natural pigments from the earth. Gilheeney wants to explore how uninhibited his art can become, experimenting with the basic science of his process and merging it with free-thought, to achieve a more raw expression of beauty.

Shawn Gilheeney was born in 1980 and currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He received his BFA in printmaking from Rhode Island College in 2008. He has worked for Dave Cole as a sculpture installation assistant at both his Bergen, Norway (2007) and Melbourne Australia, (2009) satellite galleries and as a studio assistant in Providence, R.I. (2008). He has been featured in Providence Monthly (March 2007) and Art New England (February/March 2008). Shawn Gilheeney first exhibited his work in 2005 at Dew Art Gallery (New London, CT) in the show Nice Box. Since then he has participated in a group show, Decaydence at Unsmoke Systems, Braddock, PA (2009) and in de/construct at 150 Chestnut, Providence, RI (2009). He was most recently exhibited in Looks like a bad sign in Providence, RI (2010) at Steel Yard. Shawn Gilheeney has an upcoming exhibition at Chazan Gallery in Providence, RI in 2011. His works are in the collection of Meditech in Fall River, MA and Westwood, MA.


shawn.gilheeney (at)