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Seeking Balance: Elaine DeBuhr and Tawni Shuler

The title of the exhibit, “Seeking Balance,” called for some questions. What balance? What did these two artists mean? Was this a reference to Carl Jung or Alexander Calder? How was this going to work?

I was apprehensive. As the show was installed, though, I began to see the enigma of the title take shape. Together, the artists’ works are both polarizing and harmonizing; each collection strives for the same thing in a world that is itself trying to understand balance. Side-by-side the two bodies of work played to the title oh so well.

I hadn’t anticipated how this show would engage me as a human being.

Tawni Shuler’s work is a balance of the emotional and the biological, or, perhaps the spiritual. Every image is a tossing of color and patterns and shapes. The individual elements convey nothing coherent until manipulated into visual symmetry. Seeing those elements in place, they vibrate; as though they might come apart.

Shuler’s​ ​work​ ​is​ ​personal. ​It​ ​is​ ​made​ ​up​ ​of​ ​shapes​ ​that​ ​are​ ​familiar​ ​but​ ​evasive ​as​ ​in​ ​dreams. Perhaps​ ​that​ ​is​ ​a​ ​weed … maybe​ ​a​ ​flower​ ​or​ ​seed ​danced​ ​by. ​Looking​ ​at​ ​her​ ​pieces, ​I​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​I have​ ​found​ ​Shuler​ ​amongst​ ​the​ ​linens​ ​at​ ​Goodwill trying to make sense of all the possibilities; trying to create that perfect “dance with me all night” dress out of hundreds of scraps. Shuler’s assembled pieces must begin from a large selection of materials. I imagine she surveys an array of options and creates balance by being selective. Maybe her process of seeking is one of energetic elimination rather than quiet formulation. This​ ​window​ ​that​ ​lets​ ​me​ ​peek​ ​in​ at her inner ticks ​makes​ ​me melt​ ​a​ ​little. ​​That is not to say her work is that of a magnified insecurity. ​In all of Shuler’s ​works​ ​you​ ​see​ ​the same​ ​bravado. These compositions cut from paper display a swagger​ ​that​ ​an​ ​artist​ ​needs​ ​to​ ​expose​ ​her​ ​own​ ​struggles. ​They​ ​are​ ​made​ ​by​ ​an​ ​artist who​ ​is​ ​not​ ​afraid​ ​to​ ​ask hard questions of herself.

​I​ ​can’t​ ​help​ ​but​ ​feel​ as though​ Shuler ​is​ ​just​ ​as​ ​flummoxed​ ​by​ ​these​ ​untameable​ ​visions​ ​as​ ​we​ ​are. The elements of each piece are depicted​ ​skillfully​ ​within​ ​the​ ​composition. The patterns and colors are intentional. But the image as a whole is about searching out the unknowable. ​

Tawni Shuler “Love and Its Necessary Wildness” Acrylic, gouache, charcoal, pen and collage on felt, 8” x 8” 2016 (Tawni Shuler)

“Love​ ​and​ ​Its​ ​Necessary​ ​Wildness”​ ​places​ ​an illustration​ ​of​ ​a​ ​black​ ​bear​ ​amongst​ ​hearts​ ​enclosed​ ​like​ ​eggs, plants, ​and​ ​ovarian​ ​seed​ ​shapes, ​on​ ​a​ ​​black​-and​-​white faux​ ​velvet​, ​framed​ ​within​ ​a​ ​white​ ​shadow​ ​box. On​ ​the​ ​wall​ ​this​ ​small​ ​box​ ​of​ ​symmetry​ ​is​ ​displayed​ ​in​ ​line​ ​with​ ​3​ ​others,​ ​all​ ​four​ ​rhyme​.​ ​All​ ​are​ ​made​ ​of​ ​cut​ ​paper​ ​that​ ​is​ ​curled​ ​and​ ​snipped​ ​and​ ​glued​ ​into​ ​place.​ ​​All​ ​speak to​ ​desire,​ ​need ​and​ ​function.​ ​The​ ​emanations​ ​of​ ​levity​ and ​deep​ ​longing​ ​pull​ ​us​ ​and​ ​we settle​ ​in​ ​for​ ​a story.​ ​

Elaine DeBuhr, holding down her side of the conversation, practices the balance of the physical. She looks at the aesthetics and the formalities. It seems that, for DeBuhr, balance is found through removing the extraneous, the glitz, and the illusions. In this work “seeking” is to start at the basic forms, the epitome of the vessel. Then begin layering — quiet layers; until balance is achieved…then hold it. For me, the holding of such subtlety on our delicate scales of imagination is the hard part. How do we keep from wanting? A slash of scarlet or a tiny little lid with a tiny little handle? Or, even just the barest sheen or pebble of a soda firing? But the satisfaction gained from savoring the clean lines, thoughtful negative spaces, and rich matte colors is worth it. This work is soothing. It is tactile. It is balanced.

Elain DeBuhr “Assorted Forms” earthenware with terra sigillata and glaze, various sizes (Elaine DeBuhr)

There​ ​are​ ​no​ ​titles.​ ​There​ ​are​ ​twenty-six​​​ ​jars,​ ​vases​ ​and​ ​pots​ ​in​ ​black,​ ​white,​ ​terra​ ​cotta​ ​red and​ ​pale​ ​green.​ ​The​ ​collection​ ​was​ ​low​-fired​ ​and​ ​glazed​ ​with​ ​terra​ ​sigillata,​ ​a​ ​technique​ ​using ultra-refined​ ​clay​ ​slip​ ​that​ ​results​ ​in​ ​a​ ​velvety​ ​soft​ ​finish.​ DeBuhr grouped these vessels into​ ​still​ ​lifes,​ ​referring​ ​to​ ​the​ ​painter​ ​Giorgio​ ​Morandi.​ ​In​ ​an​ ​essay, “Giorgio​ ​Morandi:​ ​Resistance​ ​and​ ​Persistence,” ​Sean​ ​Scully​ ​described​ ​one​ ​of​ ​Morandi’s paintings:​ ​”I​t​ ​will​ ​not​ ​reach​ ​across​ ​space​ ​to​ ​communicate​ ​visual​ ​power,​ ​but​ ​makes​ ​you​ ​reach across​ ​space​ ​toward​ ​it.​ ​We​ ​do​ ​the​ ​walking.​ ​The​ ​painting​ ​does​ ​the​ ​waiting.”​ ​We​ ​certainly​ ​feel​ ​this journey​ ​of​ ​balance​ ​in​ ​DeBuhr’s​ ​work.

The satisfaction comes in savoring the simple formal qualities. In DeBuhr’s placement of her vessels the negative spaces enhance the solidity of the vessels themselves. The colors, all warm and matte, except for a few pale greens, embody the rule of unity and variety. The round curved shoulders or straight bodies of the vessels intersect deliberately. That word — deliberate — describes DeBuhr’s process of seeking. I am struck by envy at how unflinching she is in making this work.

These two oppositional ways of approaching both making and seeking tell the same story. One strips​ ​away​ ​unnecessary​ ​glamour; the other​ ​successfully pieces​ ​together​ ​oddities​. ​

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Shuler​ is a Wyoming native and ​was​ ​a​ ​student​ ​at​ ​Northwest College ​just​ ​before​ ​DeBuhr​ ​began​ ​teaching​ ​there. ​Despite this near miss in the classroom, these two women have been engaged together in artistic and community pursuits. They both have strong commitments to learning and teaching. They​ ​both​ ​have​ ​strong​ ​ties​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Wyoming​ ​environment. ​If​ ​ever​ ​there​ ​was​ ​a place​ ​that​ ​exemplified​ ​seeking​ ​balance, ​the​ ​high​ ​desert​ ​plains​ ​of​ ​our​ ​state​ ​is​ ​it. Wyoming is certainly a state for the brave soul who is determined to look hard, and look long. ​Aesthetically, geologically, ​spiritually, ​observing​ ​the​ ​world​ ​around​ ​us​ ​we​ ​see​ ​balance​ ​rediscovered​ ​every​ ​day.

Seeking Balance is on exhibit at Gestalt Studios at the Polar Plant in Powell through Nov. 2.

Rebecca Weed is an artist and the gallery coordinator at Gestalt Studios at the Polar Plant in Powell.

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