Shelley Vanderbyl

Artist Statement

With my work I’m building a material language of hope.  Hope remains the undercurrent propelling me to create. Fueled by hope, I’m led to take risks and experiment with my work, trying things that could potentially ruin the work, in order to keep growing myself as an artist, and to keep expanding the boundaries of my painting practice.  Each layer I apply is a risk which must be taken.  My material language draws from the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi, which celebrates the beauty of imperfect things - chips, marks, and signs of wear only adding to their beauty.

Time and Memory are recurring themes as I create. I’ve ventured back to a time when I felt neither nurtured, nor comforted - a time when I worked in dusty, abrasive environments as a drywall taper to make a living.  When I think of plaster, whenever I touch it, I can’t escape the history I have with it. For years I survived by it. I was covered in it.  In dangerous and highly emotional situations I worked with it, and the harsh environment gave me even more of a reason to concentrate deeply on the plaster’s responses to my tools.  After years of using plaster to create only smooth textures, and knowing all the mistakes to avoid, in my studio I began to revisit those “mistakes,” discovering their inherent potential. It felt as if all that hard time was being restored to me; it’s been difficult, there has been expense, sacrifice, problems to solve, and there was so much time when I felt I had nothing to show for all the work, except for the knowledge I needed to make the next thing.  

My artistic practice is a layered rather than linear process.  Some of these layers are created through discoveries of hope, in being able to mine something good out of difficulty.  The physical materials I utilize often add more layers of meaning to my work.  I collected river clay in the summer months which I can add to my plaster; in the dead of winter, I am comforted by having access to this warm, malleable earth, not frozen solid under snow… My paintings have also come to include marks from the charred branches of my beloved apple tree which got a disease; I had been using its growth to keep track of the precious stable years our family has spent in one home, without being uprooted by my partner’s military career.  Although I can’t use the tree in the way I had planned, I’ve reclaimed the ash and it creates pleasing variations in the textures of my paintings.

Images that have emerged in my work range from the abstract, to landscapes, and to figures.  The landscapes I paint are inspired by the various places I’ve lived and travelled, specifically across North America and Western Europe, and many are informed by stories from my husband, a Search and Rescue pilot.  I was moved by the tales of rescue in remote landscapes, and I now paint my views of skies and clouds to represent the expectancy of help coming to us.  Likewise, signal fires appear in my paintings, flames signifying the concept of reaching out to others and the desire to be “found,” or to let oneself be seen.

My paintings have this roughness about them; they’ve had trauma too.  But there’s something about the beauty in those chips and marks and wear - it makes you reconsider your failures, your scars, your mistakes.  So much of the media we are surrounded with bombards us with messages of fear, and as anxiety disorders rise, I want my work to offer messages of hope and assurance.


This is my life’s work: to heal, and to inspire.