November 02, 2022
The Buffalo-based artist works with CIA students while also running a printmaking studio and working on her active studio practice
By Michael C. Butz
One thing Rachel Shelton ’11 appreciates about her time as a Cleveland Institute of Art student was the connections she made. Creative interactions with classmates, wise counsel from faculty members and fresh perspectives from visiting artists all helped shape her CIA experience, which included painting, enameling and ultimately a BFA in Printmaking. That experience also helped her earn an MFA and co-found the fine art printmaking studio Mirabo Press in her hometown of Buffalo, New York.
These days, she returns the favor by working as much as she can with current CIA students.
One example: On October 17, a day after returning to Cleveland from Buffalo to visit Reinberger Gallery’s printmaking pop-up exhibition We Want More, she participated in a critique with Printmaking students.
Following that CIA visit, she spoke to CIA about her time at the College as a student, her present-day artistic practice and the successes of Mirabo Press. In November, Mirabo Press will host the 2022 Screenprint Biennial exhibition and symposium—a free event that she encourages the CIA community to attend.
Please describe your artistic practice. What informs your work? On what themes or topics does it focus? How has it evolved over the years?
My work started as an exploration of how people have become so disconnected from the earth. I was literally making beautiful, dead trees out of enamel and copper, then aluminum plate lithographs from photos of those, and trying to reconcile my love for these materials with my concern for the way we treat the environment. Once I found the answers to some of those early questions, I branched off from the subject. What stuck around was the generative way I learned to work, including past imagery in new pieces to build a consistent visual language.
It became clear that the way I push my work forward is through material exploration, experimentation and process. I leaned on this as I dove into research about archaeology, philosophy and social science. The focus of my work then was on trying to accept the inherent disorder of daily life. I started using etching plates as monotype matrices, rolling them up and drawing reductively into them, playing with negative space, printed repetition, and composition to talk about the roles of chance and purpose. This is a technique I still use.
Looking back at the last 10 years of work, I’ve mentally kept different topics in different boxes and designated certain styles or modes of working to each one. My work of late has involved combining these and unifying the visual vocabulary I’ve been building, because really, none of these relationships I explore (to the planet, to the universe, to ourselves, or each other) exist in a vacuum. They’re simultaneous parts of our lived experience, and a holistic conceptual and technical approach has become my goal. More important than communicating any particular idea, for me, is making work that gives people space to slow down and process what is going on in the world. I guess I’m still trying to situate life in a chaotic universe.
Your work has been in dozens of exhibitions. Which shows do you consider highlights? And, how do you hope people interact with your work when they see it in an exhibition?
Of course certain exhibitions stand out, sometimes for vastly different reasons.
Art in Craft Media at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo was a big one. It’s a biennial survey of contemporary artists working in craft media, and I was honored to have my work included. I felt particularly fond of this experience because of a group that gathers at the museum called Art Moves Me, which is a dance program inspired by visual art for people with Parkinson’s disease. They recorded a beautiful video of their members dancing in a group around my birch sculptures. It was incredible to see the responses they had to the work expressed through movement.
Lately, I have had work in a few traveling exhibitions of portfolio exchanges, and while these are large group shows, they have been a truly wonderful community building experience. One of those is Printmakers Connect, which is a portfolio exchange I co-organized with David Wischer to make tangible a year of weekly clubhouse meetings with printmakers from all over the world. This meeting became a virtual printmaking support network and grew many lasting friendships during the quarantine pandemic era. Now, I have the pleasure of showing my work with these folks in galleries around the world, including in our space at Mirabo Press.
One that is sure to make the highlights is an upcoming show at the BPAC in December. The three of us who run Mirabo Press will show a wide array of our individual works at the museum as well as a selection of work our shop has printed for other artists. It’ll be a great way to connect the practices and skills we each have with the way we facilitate other artists' work and I’m very much looking forward to it.
As for the way people interact with my work, my greatest hope is that it encourages viewers to take a calming moment to really explore a thought or image in the age of constant hustle. I always include what I think of as “rewards” for this kind of slow looking—bits of image or material that repeat from work to work to reveal a broader context and language when viewed comparatively.
Your connection to CIA seems strong. Not only did you participate in a critique with CIA students, but you also provided Printmaking students a virtual tour of Mirabo Press via Zoom during the pandemic. What's the foundation of your relationship with CIA?
CIA was the best place I could have landed for college. It was just a great fit for me, and that has created a lasting connection. I loved the facilities and studios and getting to work and learn in this little bubble of creative energy, but what really rooted me there and keeps me coming back are the people. I feel exceptionally lucky to have had the mentors and teachers I had, specifically but not exclusively (Printmaking Department chair) Maggie Denk-Leigh, (Craft + Design professor) Gretchen Goss and Karen Beckwith ’87. Their dedication to giving as much to their students as the students would put the time into learning is unique, and it’s for that reason that I’m always eager to come back and share what I can with current students.
What do you remember most fondly about your time as a student here? And, how did your creativity or creative thinking evolve while a student at CIA?
My fondest memories are all in the studio—whether during class or after hours. There’s nothing like that collective environment of exploration and the excitement of everyone starting to understand their work. Our brains were always exploding with possibilities, and you just can’t beat that feeling. I particularly loved late nights in the shop with my cohort blasting music, talking to each other about what we were making, comparing process experiments, and having those early—probably totally self-righteous—conversations about art.
Summing up how my practice and thinking evolved is almost impossible. Those years saw rapid change and growth, and at the end of the day, what I think made the biggest difference was learning to use a set of techniques extremely proficiently, learning how to think in a discerning but expansive way, and understanding how to apply those skills to any circumstance. Like Foundation professor Christian Wulffen used to drill into our heads during drawing class, “portable skills, portable skills, portable skills.”
Whether a skill honed in the classroom/studio or counsel provided by a faculty member, what lessons learned at CIA have contributed to your success as a fine artist and printmaker?
Both the Printmaking and Enamel programs had a heavy focus on learning to problem solve by understanding the variables in any given situation. That’s probably the skill set I use most often both in the planning and execution of my work and the work I print for others. Knowing that I have that mode of processing in my pocket gives me the confidence to try lots of new things.
What do you enjoy most about coming back to CIA and working with current students? Is doing so important to you, and if so, why?
During school, I found that I gained a lot from the feedback and fresh eyes of guest artists and am happy to provide that perspective to current students. I also love being back in the academic setting where, to the students, every idea is new and exciting. There’s nothing quite like the electricity surrounding that much potential. During my October 17 visit, I was impressed with how thoughtful the students’ descriptions of their work were. They asked interesting questions and pushed each other in lovely, supportive ways. It was great to be back in that setting.
You were subsequently accepted into the master's program at State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, where in 2017 you earned an MFA in Studio Art. How did your work evolve from this experience, and what advice might you offer to CIA students who are considering pursuing an MFA?
I spent most of my time in graduate school taking courses in archaeology and doing independent studies for my studio credits. This worked for me. I was able to answer questions I’d been researching and making work about for years and move on to other topics, which my professors provided excellent research recommendations for.
My thoughts on graduate school are mixed. In my experience, it’s great to have a couple years dedicated mostly to studio work but students often need to be quite self-motivated and have a fairly developed conceptual and technical practice to get the most out of it. This usually means taking time off to independently make work between undergraduate and graduate programs. Many people incorrectly assume they need to get this degree to succeed while, in reality, not all professional work requires it. All in all, I’d give the same advice that was given to me: getting an MFA is generally a good idea but don’t do it if the school isn’t going to cover your tuition.
In 2018, you co-founded the fine art printmaking studio Mirabo Press in Buffalo. How did Mirabo come to be? Also, what does it offer Buffalo artists and what role does it play in the community?
I’d wanted to run my own shop since I started printmaking, and as I was wrapping up grad school, I mentioned this to one of the University of Buffalo (UB) community shop members, Bob Fleming, who’s now my business partner. He happened to have a similar dream, and together with another member of my cohort, Mizin Shin, we decided to try to make it happen.
We each started with different visions for our shop and have landed on a hybrid operating model. We focus on artist residencies and contract printing while also having a gallery space and offering educational programming. At the heart of all our endeavors is a desire for collaboration and innovation. We work with artists from Buffalo and elsewhere, as well as local and international institutions, to help expand the practices of individual artists, develop new modes of working in print-based media, and bring exciting new artwork and opportunities to our community.
What's been your biggest success at Mirabo thus far? What's been your biggest challenge?
As far as success goes, I’ll just gesture toward the wonderful group of artists and galleries/museums we’ve been fortunate to work with. For example, we recently joined forces with the Albright Knox, now the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, to make a series of prints with the incredible mural artist, Bunnie Reiss. Another recent project was a collaboration with Torn Space, a fantastically inventive avant-garde theater group. We helped them develop a print-based performance last spring and just finished producing a print series to commemorate the past several years of TST productions. We have a nice, large space full of large equipment, but Mirabo is really made by the folks who come to print with us.
I’ll momentarily ignore the fact that the pandemic hit just as we were gaining momentum and say that our biggest challenge was defining what it is that we can and should offer. There isn’t another regional press that does quite the same things we do, so figuring out which spaces to fill and which services we don’t have the bandwidth for took a little while. That’s how we decided to concentrate on artist residencies and collaborative printing, programs I am very excited to keep building.
Mirabo will host the 2022 Screenprint Biennial exhibition and symposium in November. Congratulations! Please share why this is a pretty big deal. And, why should CIA students, alumni, faculty and staff consider making the short three-hour drive to attend?
Thank you! This is certainly something we are very proud to be doing. The Screenprint Biennial, founded by Nathan Meltz, is a juried survey of cutting-edge screenprint work. The exhibition is always full of tremendous artwork made by artists all over the world. Bringing this highly inclusive variety of work to Buffalo and the surrounding areas is quite important to us.
Please consider the short drive. We’ll host an opening reception for the exhibition Friday, November 4 at Mirabo on, where the work will be on view through mid-December, and a two-day, free symposium on November 11–12. During the symposium, there will be a demonstration at the UB Department of Art Print Media program, a tour of the UB Anderson Gallery print collection, a tour and demo at Red Disk wallpaper printing studio, and a day of open portfolio sessions and more demonstrations by visiting artists at Mirabo. See our website for the full details. I hope to see some of you there!
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