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Meet Shirley Wagner

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shirley Wagner.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Shirley. So, let’s start at the beginning, and we can move on from there.
I graduated with a fine art degree from Youngstown University in Ohio. I moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1983 and found my voice as an artist. The light, the shadows and the vast spaces beckoned me to fulfill my life’s purpose. Tucked away in my Catalina foothills studio amidst an array of power tools and found objects, I fabricate wall sculptures, installations, body adornment and sculpture drawings.

My story is full of twists and turns along the way as I forged my career as an artist. My first art related job in Tucson was with Tucson Unified School District. I developed art lessons which interfaced visual art with science. I took this opportunity to inspire students as only an artist would. It lead to creative freedom in the classroom and abundant self-expression. Working with young minds also left a lasting impression on me and my professional work.

I eventually left public education and returned full time to my art studio. I was always intrigued by texture, form and relief. Once in the studio, I brought parts and pieces together to build wall sculptures inspired by aerial views. Influenced by the art of Louise Nevelson, my early wall sculptures remain the backbone of my work. I develop form in my sculptures from found objects and discovered materials, working primarily in wood. Eventually, I expanded by material list to include recycled metal, earth materials and artifacts.

I vividly recall an experience several years ago in my studio. After a long day of whirling power tools and humming air filtration systems, I sat back at my work table. Removing my cumbersome respirator, I peered at parts and pieces scattered about. Feeling playful, I made a mini sculpture from the random assortment of remnants. Holding this mini sculpture in the palm of my hand, I quickly recognized it as body adornment. From that single experience, I began constructing art jewelry.

It is affirming to realize how one area of my work informs the next, but I was not prepared for what happened most recently. I received a call from the University of Arizona School of Art Advisory Board asking me to participate in a live-model drawing Atelier. Working from a live model in front of a live audience, I constructed the human form from found materials. Referring to my sculpture drawings as Human Architecture, this experience culminated in the creation of six life-sized images. The series was recently presented to Tucson Medical Center’s Healing Art Program and is now in their permanent collection.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Just as things seemed to be going well, I had a personal tragedy. I lost my husband, Marius to glioblastoma or brain cancer. For a long while, I could not enter my studio. When I finally returned, I questioned my intent as an artist. In the corner of the studio sat the thermoplastic mask my husband wore while undergoing radiation treatment. The mask was perforated and had a translucent pearl -white finish. I had to respond to my personal loss with my artist’s voice.

Day after day I stared at the mask. At first, it appeared alien-like and disconcerting. After a period of time, I finally had the courage to lift the mask to my face. Looking in a mirror, I could see my own image peering through the perforated surface. This was a defining moment for me. I would create a seven foot long installation …not about cancer but about humanity. I will move away from fear. I will focus on the human spirit and acknowledge the life force that lives deep inside all of us.

At this writing, plans are being made for my seven-foot installation to be permanently installed in the Ben and Catherine Ivy Brain Tumor Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Their mission is to find a cure for brain cancer. It is my hope that my work will inspire professionals in the field to look beyond the mask and focus on the life force deep inside all of us.

We’d love to hear more about what you do.
Technically, I am an “assemblage” artist. I bring parts and pieces together to build form. My process is additive, not subtractive. Whether it is my fabricated wall pieces, installations, constructed art jewelry or sculpture drawings , my approach is always the same. It begins as a playful process of sorting through piles of found materials.This may include wood, metal, translucent plastic, earth materials or artifacts. Much like an archaeologist, I discover the inherent character and subtle nuances of each finding. I bring these parts and pieces together to build form. As the parts and pieces inch closer together, they form connections and begin to dialogue. At that moment, I know a new work is born.

Sculpture and art jewelry are represented by Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona. Art jewelry collections can be seen at Yun Gee Park Gallery and Atelier, Canyon Ranch Resort and Tucson Museum of Art. Select jewelry pieces can be viewed at Hacienda del Sol Resort and Limited Additions.

What were you like growing up?
Growing up, I lived in an imaginary world. I enjoyed creating make believe towns from materials found laying about the house. My favorite memory was making cities from tiny hand-made paper boxes, miniature marshmallows and toothpicks. I once built a whole village of imaginary structures and arranged them on a table. I made stick figures out of wire that played amongst the structures. Being an artist herself, my mother understood my need to create and encouraged this imaginary play. She was my audience and allowed me to dwell in my imaginary world.  I still do.

Contact Info:

  • Website: shirleywagnerartist.com
  • Email: shirley@shirleywagnerartist.com
  • Instagram: shirleywagnerartist
  • Facebook: Shirley Wagner


Image Credit:

Robin Stancliff Photography, Tucson, Arizona

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