Teaching Art as an Experience

Ben Shamback knew he was destined be an artist. But what kind of artist wasn’t entirely clear until, as a master of fine arts student in St. Louis, he saw the oil on copper painting “Danaë” by Baroque artist Artemesia Gentileschi.

Now, unlike just about every other painter in the United States, Shamback, a professor in South’s Department of Visual Arts since 2001, paints solely on copper rather than on a canvas.

“As far as I know there are only two of us in the world who are seriously working on copper,” says Shamback, who earned his M.F.A. from Fontbonne University in St. Louis and his bachelor’s in illustration from Central Connecticut State University. “Lots of painters try copper out for a painting or two, but we are the only ones doing it all the time.”

Shamback’s paintings have been included in more than 150 national and regional competitions throughout the United States. He has had 18 solo exhibitions in the past 14 years and has been featured in Manifest International Painting Annuals 1, 2, 4 and 5. He was awarded the Faber Birren Color Award in 2003 and the Gold Medal of Honor for Oil Painting from the Allied Artists of America in 2004.

His paintings of flowers are in the realist mode, and he says the flora is inherently beautiful and provides a good way to make the painting instantly accessible.

“A painting only works well when it has visual tension,” he says. “In paintings like mine, that tension is built through the constant comparison between the imagery and the abstraction that makes the image. After all, a painting is nothing but a bunch of different colors, shapes and paint strokes. This is the classic dichotomy that exists in painting inherently: the painting as an object to be looked at and the painting as an object to be looked through. When these forces work off of each other properly, the painting is worth looking at.”

How to create paintings that inspire others, and how artists find their voice and medium, are lessons that Shamback imparts to the aspiring artists in his classes.

“The one thing we can’t teach in art is experience,” he says. “Students have to get that on their own, but if they gather experience that hinders their understanding or makes the process of painting unnecessarily difficult, that experience isn’t useful. A big part of what I do as a teacher is helping the students manage their experiences so they can make the most of their materials and their time, maximizing what they learn from painting and drawing.”

Attending the Maxfield Parrish Retrospective exhibition in 1996 helped Shamback decide to become a painter. He lists the representational painting by eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and his nineteenth-century countryman Henri Fantin-Latour as other significant influences. In his day, Chardin was attacked for his still-life paintings, yet, he gets, in Shamback’s words, “the last laugh, because he has more works in the Louvre Museum than any other artist.”

Shamback knows that painting, for him, is not only a way of continuing to grow and evolve as an artist, but also a way he can grow and evolve as a teacher.

“Continuing to paint every day keeps me connected to what the students need on a daily basis,” he says, “so they can reach their potential as artists.”

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