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Jim Shirley Returns
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I was drawing before I could talk. I remember my mother taking me to Saturday classes for parents and children at the Museum of Modern Art. After the class, we would see movies at the Museum of Modern Art’s film theatre. I also played piano and sang for most of my early life with a variety of groups, from church choirs to the doo-wop groups who traveled and sang in communities around the city. All of that is gone now, but the images still haunt me. I am privileged to have the gift of my art to bring that time back in a tangible form that sustains its magic and mystery.
My formal education in art began at the High School of Music and Art, New York. Eventually I went on to study at Pratt institute. It was at Pratt that I met some of the remarkable individuals who influenced much of my creative growth. I also had a strong fascination with Dada and Surrealist art. Early on, the works of Duchamp and Joseph Cornell intrigued me with their evocations of the mysteriousness of common experiences. I also looked at the works of artists whose primary concern was the unexpected connections between objects, symbols and meanings: artists such as Balthus, Magritte, and my good friend the Brooklyn artist Steven Samet. My major influences also include artists who were strong in landscape – Corot, Degas, and Cézanne. Landscape has been an important artistic preoccupation for me from the beginning.
As an Afro-American born in an inner-city environment, I am particularly aware of the connection between people and their surroundings. The foundation of my own cultural experience was the way in which my people celebrated their coming to terms with often extremely difficult material circumstances. Canada also has been an important learning ground for me. I came to Canada from New York in 1972. I bought a farm in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where I lived until I moved to Halifax. I have always had a strong association with the land in spite of (or because of) my being born and raised in an inner city environment where the ownership of land was an unattainable goal of almost mythical proportions.
I have been privileged, over the last thirty years, to have joined in the celebration of the spirit of several cultures and peoples. For the past 21 years I have lived in what is now called Nunavut, a predominantly Inuit region which is the most recently created territory of Canada. I have shared experience with Inuit artists for most of the time that I have lived in the North. Inuit have a strong tradition of artistic skills—skills which many maintain are derived from their close association with the unforgiving northern landscape. Though I came from an urban setting, I share with them the same longing for harmony between myself and my surroundings. In this harmony we find self-sufficiency; a peace and freedom that nurtures the growth of our intuitiveness and creativity. In both instances, creativity is a necessity for survival.
Surrounded as we are by materialisms of all sorts, what we see is only a fragment of what is there. Within the layers of reality that comprise our consciousness, there are vistas which do not change; which are not compromised by our ambitions or our expectations. These are metaphoric landscapes without boundaries; places in which time seems to fold back upon itself, strewn with moments; episodes beyond comprehension which flow endlessly from the most primordial sources.
Here, the synergy of matter and time is visible. In these landscapes, knowledge and harmony displace uncertainty and suffering.