by Robert K. Wallace (submitted for the May 2014 issue of AEQAI)
I first met Shawn as a journalist. In February 2011 she covered a lecture by the French artist Claire Illouz for The Northerner, NKU’s student newspaper. Illouz visited our campus on the way back from the Codex Book Fair in Berkeley, California, where the works she displayed included The Whiteness, an artist book inspired by “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, of which there are only twenty-five copies in the world. NKU had acquired one of those copies and preserves it as part of the Steely Library Archives and Special Collections. Illouz discussed the creative process that led to the creation of that book in a lecture entitled “Why Artist Books?” on the evening of a February 1 ice storm.
Shawn Buckenmeyer reviewed the lecture in a story entitled “The White Whale fuels artistic expression” (February 9, p. 10). Her review was a model of journalistic exposition, explaining that The Whiteness “focuses on the idea of color or the absence of color in Moby-Dick” and quoting the artist’s observation that her “meditation about whiteness is uneasy and extremely anguished.” Realizing that many of her readers would be unfamiliar with the medium in which Illouz was working, Shawn explained that “an artist book is an artwork in book form with special attention given to the typset used, the binding, and the quality of paper materials.”
I next met Shawn during the Fall 2013 semester in my graduate class on Moby-Dick and the Arts in our English department’s M. A. program. Shawn was somewhat shy, and did not enter into class discussion as often as some of her fellow students. But the journal she kept in response to our reading of Moby-Dick during the first month of the course was exceptionally perceptive. So were the papers in which she presented to the class her interpretations of Moby-Dick artwork by Robert Del Tredici and Matt Kish. Shawn contributed more and more to class discussions after each of these required presentations and she also embraced two extra-credit opportunities: she attended a performance of Orson Welles’s Moby-Dick—Rehearsed by the NKU theater department and she watched the PBS Great Performances broadcast of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera. All of this prepared her for the final project she presented to the class at the end of the semester, a painting she called An Idea of I and Q. This is a joyous painting in acrylic, ink, and pen markers on canvas in which Ishmael and Queequeg are presented as loving females whose heart-shape embrace is accompanied by a bright, white whale and surrounded by joyous, abstract, and irregular colors and shapes.
Shawn’s artist statement for this painting explained that, “as a female artist who has been creating for the last fourteen years, it’s been my artistic mission to explore themes and concepts in relation to the female perspective.” For her, the “the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg” is “the purest and one of the more telling aspects of Moby-Dick because it focuses on a love that removes race from the picture.” This relationship “contains a message of hope for humanity” in its dynamic of “acceptance.” In this spirit, she has “taken two male characters and replaced them with women. The women face each other in open acceptance and love. Their bright blue hair, the color of the ocean that serves as their only vehicle of travel together, joins together in order to create a shape that resembles a broken heart. My intention was to create a piece that reflects the hope and joy present during the time when their relationship is forming. I focused on using bright, bold colors to reflect the positive emotion I felt when I read those passages.”
Shawn has placed Moby Dick “directly behind the two female figures, vibrantly painted in white, defiantly giving the reader the tail view, almost as if to challenge those who would hunt him. I kept the whale white because I loved the chapter ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ and the ideas explored in it. I outlined the whale in black to emphasize the whiteness even more. Running down one side of the whale is a lightning-shaped scar (reminiscent of Ahab’s scar). Directly above the whale is a black spear-like object outlined in yellow with the letter A in the arrow position. I wanted to include these elements of Ahab in the painting to remind the viewer that even though things look joyful on the surface there is still a darkness of corruptness that crawls underneath the surface. But I intentionally made these elements small. Even though things end badly in the novel, there is still something beautiful that came out of all the obsession, madness, and revenge, and that would be I & Q’s love for each other.”
Shawn’s final project strongly impressed her classmates. In the final exam I invite students to comment on each other’s final presentations. Four of the twelve students found Shawn’s I & Q to be the most impressive of all the projects. One classmate “loved her use of feminism and sexuality.” Another wrote that “the gender switch really made the audience think.” Shawn’s painting inspired one student to “re-live the novel trying to visualize it from a feminist perspective. It really made me understand Melville’s intent to demonstrate the barbarity of an all-male world.” For another classmate, I & Q simply “blew my mind. All the colors, intricacies, and symbolism was astounding and very cool. I even asked her if I could take a picture of it so I could show people. Everyone I showed was as blown away as I was.”
Shawn wrote about her own presentation that she “really enjoyed the Q&A format. I loved it when students thought of interpretations I hadn’t thought of. Because of this project, which I enjoyed immensely, I’m seriously considering interpreting another literary source via the Fine Arts.” Shawn, typically, was very appreciative of what her classmates had themselves presented. She was impressed that so many of the students “stepped out of their comfort zones and decided to creatively experiment in how to interpret Melville’s Moby-Dick. As the only artist with training. I was so excited to see the students experiment with creative tools. It reminded me of why I create: to experiment. I’m always seeking the next creative thrill and I was happy to see so many students mirroring that excitement and joy involved in creating something new.”
Shawn had mentioned more than once to me how shy she was about speaking out in class. So I asked if she was willing to be nominated to make an oral presentation about I & Q at NKU’s Celebration of Student Research and Creativity in April. She gave this a little thought and then answered yes. She gave a wonderful presentation along with three other female artists who had created powerful artworks in response to Moby-Dick. She called her presentation “The Marriage of Word and Paint in I & Q.” She wrote in her abstract that Melville’s novel is “a painter’s paradise because it invites multiple interpretations.” After summarizing her reasons for “reimagining” Ishmael and Queequeg “in female form,” she concluded by saying that “combining words and paint is my way of illustrating the beauty and universality of Moby-Dick.” As you can see from the photo I took of Shawn at the Celebration event, she dressed beautifully to match her painting. Submerging that shyness, she stood proudly next to her creation.
The last time I saw Shawn was three days later. On April 17, 2014, the Marta Hewett Gallery hosted a fund-raiser for AEQAI, the digital art journal in Cincinnati for which Shawn served expertly as an assistant to the editor. The event was very well attended, and I had an opportunity to spend some quality time with Shawn and her mother Suzzanna, whom I had never met. I learned a lot that night about Shawn’s early life, and I was especially happy to hear about the plans she and Chuck Heffner had for their honeymoon in Italy immediately after the wedding they had scheduled for the end of May. We also talked about some new Moby-Dick artwork she might like to create in advance of the Cincinnati Opera production of Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick scheduled for June 2016. Shawn had donated one of her paintings for that evening’s auction to benefit AEQAI, and I was surprised to see the artist’s name listed as Shawn Daniell; this was the first time I had learned of her maiden name. I was delighted when Laura Hobson, who was taking photos for AEQAI that evening, asked if she could take the photo of Shawn and me, near Shawn’s painting, that is reproduced here.
On the weekend of April 25-27 I traveled to the Mystic Seaport Museum, not far from Shawn’s birthplace in Groton, Connecticut, for the Training Day on the whale ship on which I will be sailing in June. A day or two before leaving, I had received the beautiful invitation for Shawn’s marriage to Chuck. I had looked forward to answering it when I got home, but upon my return I opened an email from her mother informing me that Shawn had suddenly died. I could hardly believe it, and I still can’t. Such a humble, caring, transformative person no longer with us. Taken from us at the ascending peak of her personal and creative life.
Shawn was deeply loved by her fellow students and faculty in our graduate program at NKU. A special tribute to her at our Graduate Student Colloquium on May 3 featured a reading from her story “Live Scars,” a harrowing account of a sensitive girl being cruelly hazed by her classmates. This superb story was part of the capstone project with which Shawn would have completed her degree in Creative Writing. The focus will return to her visual art on Saturday, May 24, when Shawn’s mother and Chuck will host a Memorial Art Show at the York Street Café in Newport from 6-10 p.m. Join us if you can in celebrating all Shawn has meant to those who knew her.