Beth Ward on the art of Laura Shull
In the world of Laura Shull’s paintings, snowy mounds of decadent icing spill out from the corners of open mouths. Cake crumbles in the palm of a hand, frosting coats fingertips. Viewers catch iridescent bubbles as they float, candy-colored macarons perched in porcelain dishes, ripe fruit waiting to be bitten.
Hers is a sumptuous landscape, one winking to the Rococo, decorated not only with billows of silk and taffeta fabrics, but with desire. Indulgence, femininity, and delightful defiance reign here, a kind of sweet, pink hedonism.
In her artist statement, Shull tells us her paintings “primarily feature women unabashedly indulging in moments of delight.” In a world that tells us a woman’s pleasure is suspect, even dangerous, this is not innocuous.
Shull’s studio space, located just outside of Atlanta, is the where these ideas and dreams first begin to swirl, take shape. Glass prisms hang in tall windows, sending tiny rainbows dancing across the walls. A rack of vintage dresses here, lifelike desserts hand-made of clay there, piles of gilded frames stacked next to nests of paint brushes.
She creates intimate worlds in this room, and she was kind of enough to invite me in and tell me a bit about her work.
Beth Ward: What was most compelling to you as a child, when you were first discovering your own tastes and talents? What did you like to draw and doodle and paint and make as a kid?
Laura Shull: I’ve always really enjoyed drawing people, trying to capture their unique features. One time, in the 1st grade, I drew the back of my classmate’s head because her hair style was so interesting to me. She got upset, but I was so proud of my little drawing and all the detail I was able to achieve.
Another time, I drew a picture of either my mom or the teacher for an assignment and included some of their shiny, silver hairs. Side note: apparently it’s not polite to point out that a Southern lady’s roots are showing.
When I got a little older, my parents would get me these large hardcover sketchbooks, and I would copy the paintings from an Erté alphabet book and change them up a bit.
We had this computer program called Flying Colors where you could choose a background scene and add various pieces of clip art. Everything was really detailed and beautifully rendered, and you could go in with a paintbrush and customize things. They had man and woman characters that had different outfits. My favorite were the medieval-style costumes. I guess I’ve always been drawn to different periods in history and theatrical imagery.
BW: Do you see any of those things in your work now?
LS: Yes, definitely! Most of my work features people, and painting faces and clothing is always my favorite part. It’s interesting to see how faces change as you work on a piece… sometimes moving a brushstroke a couple millimeters can change an expression completely. And fabric is endlessly fun, but also challenging to work on. There are so many undulating layers, and each little fold captures the light in a unique way.
BW: You describe your work as featuring "women unabashedly indulging in moments of delight." What does the idea of delight mean for you these days? How does that show up in your art?
LS: For a person with my delightful disposition (shy, reserved, hyper-aware of myself), delight is the absence of self-consciousness. I guess making art about women not giving a damn, and just enjoying themselves without any inkling of shame, is an outlet for me, since that feeling so often alludes me. It’s fun to celebrate that, seeing as how we can feel constantly scrutinized for whatever choices we might make.
BW: I love this feeling that comes across in some of your paintings of a woman relishing her own desire. That's not something we get to see enough. What about this idea most compels you?
LS: I appreciate that and love your description! Most of the time I don’t know what’s happening under the surface in my own pieces until I’ve had a long time to reflect on them. For whatever reason, I tend to repress my own emotions and feel out of touch with what I truly want.
The idea of being comfortable enough with yourself to express your desires without fear, whether they be carnal or otherwise, sounds like freedom.
BW: The textures and colors in your paintings feel so sumptuous. I look at them and want to reach out and touch the cake or the fabric. Can you share a bit of your process in terms of making a painting come alive in that way?
LS: How flattering to hear! I think the characteristics of what I’m painting dictate the way I apply paint to the canvas. Fluffy things such as hair, voluminous silks, and soft cakes are such a joyful thing to try and replicate.
It’s important for me to try and recreate a lifelike feeling to my work, especially if I’m working from a photograph, so I try to visualize the subject three-dimensionally and give it the feeling of movement with quick, immediate brushstrokes.
I also love collecting things that might be used in a piece. I fancy myself a very small-time set designer for my own little art department. My next dream is to paint a gigantic scenery backdrop that I can hang up behind multiple figures, maybe using a king size bedsheet or two?
BW: What are you working on now? What new ideas are you playing with, and what old ones are you letting go of? How are you seeing your work change as time passes?
LS: I’m looking forward to playing around more with the vintage photographs and going in a less detailed, more free approach. That moment before birthday cake candles are blown out, suspended in time, or just a joyful moment set apart from whatever drudgery or difficulties are happening otherwise… that’s what I would love to capture.
I want to, at least temporarily, get away from the very planned out scenes I’ve been working on, and be able to just dive into a painting without the forethought.
I feel like I want to get less and less serious in subject matter as time goes on, but there’s always something deeper there beneath even the most light-hearted scene.
BW: Lover’s Eye Press is all about the things that obsess us, that we pine over. To end our conversation, can you share what’s obsessing you these days? What can you not get enough of?
LS: These days, I’ve been enjoying collecting décor books from the 80s and 90s, visiting eccentric estate sales, giving myself bad haircuts, and playing Stardew Valley. I love seeing what the artists Rebecca Léveillé, Jana Brike, and Dorielle Caimi are up to. I’ve also really been enjoying listening to Tropicália music from the 60s and 70s, and dancing badly when I need a break from painting.
And chocolate. Always chocolate.
Laura Shull is an oil painter working in the metro Atlanta area. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts with a specialty in drawing and painting from Kennesaw State University in 2014 and has since then been exhibiting her work locally and in various shows around the Southeast.
She is currently working on original oil paintings, creating custom pieces for clients, and selling prints of her work online and in local shops. On most days she can be found working in her studio, meandering around antique stores, or hanging out with her cat, Mister Otis, in their little farm house.
Beth Ward is an Atlanta-based writer and editor writing primarily about books, art, magic, and the American South. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Rumpus, BUST, Atlas Obscura, Pigeon Pages Literary Journal, The Bitter Southerner, Hyperallergic, Cunning Folk Magazine, Suspira Magazine, and elsewhere. Visit her online at https://www.bethwardwriting.com.