I have to admit it has been a long time since I’ve seen art that moved me. Over the years I can honestly say that, although I have seen many works of art that I liked, and some of it I liked a great deal, I don’t remember feeling a strong connection to a piece of art, the works of Vincent Van Gogh excepted.
So I was completely caught off guard when, upon entering the Alton Mill studio of CJ Shelton, I literally stopped in my tracks, overwhelmed by the immediate connection that I felt to a number of the pieces that adorned her walls.
Whether it was the circular form of her Mandalas, the frequent appearance of trees, or the lifelike horse images that seemed to be asking me to touch them, this was art that spoke to me.
I initially wanted to interview CJ because of her wonderful reputation for teaching drawing to, not just the experienced artist, but even to the almost-unteachable. Her classes are structured to include the never-have-drawn before crowd, to the age 10-13 perfect-timing-for-youth group, and to the expert painters who have hit a wall (pun intended) and for whom perfecting their drawing skills is what can get them to the next level.
“In art, drawing is the basis for everything” CJ says. “I’m not interested in turning out clones of myself however. I’m interested in helping people uncover their own style and then perfect it.”
Her classes are small enough that you can get lots of individual attention and are pay-as-you-go, purchased in blocks of 4, which takes the anxiety over perhaps missing a class out of the equation.
Sunday mornings are set aside for that young aged 10 to 13 group. “It’s the perfect timing for them” she reiterates. “Before that they are just having fun. Around age 10 or 11 they start to become unsatisfied with that. They want more. Catch them then and you can really help them develop, before they possibly lose interest.” A very believable theory coming from a woman who “knew I wanted to be an artist from the moment I could use a pencil” and who had been employed by a real estate agent at age 15 to do house portraits as gifts for her clients.
Adult classes, newbie to advanced, are on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. And like the youth classes they are continuous intake and pay-as-you-go.
How did she land at the Alton Mill? “When my dad retired my parents moved from Etobicoke to the Forks of the Credit. I started to become familiar with the area and fell in love with it. Then friends from Orangeville invited me to the Alton Mill and I knew I just had to be here. When studio space became available I had just started Dancing Moon Designs and it all clicked. I felt like I had come full circle.”
That was my opening to ask about the Mandalas, the circular art that I found so intriguing. “Mandala is a sanskrit word that means magic circle or sacred circle” CJ explains. “The circular form being a container for something to happen, or to express something. You see it everywhere in nature.” “We as humans resonate with the circle” she continues. “We are made up of atoms and molecules, which are round. We live on a circular planet. We follow the rhythms of the sun and the moon, or at least ancient people did, now we tend to be out of sync with that.”
‘The circle shows up in virtually every culture in some form. For example, if you believe in the eastern tradition of reincarnation you believe we have a life cycle. We are born, we live, we die, we are reborn.”
“I believe my art helps people get back to nature. I use it like a lens to explore subject matter.” She goes on to explain that she especially likes looking at the intersections between nature, science, art and spirituality, “because they are all important.”
“Your Mandalas seem to represent completeness to me” I admit.
“That makes a lot of sense” comes the reply. “A circle represents wholeness. A child is born whole and complete. As we age pieces of the circle get knocked out, reformed, we bury things, we shut things off. Then middle-to-later in life there is a craving to get back to wholeness and we work to get that completeness back, we start reclaiming our circle. A Mandala is a wonderful tool for bringing back balance. Indigenous people use the medicine wheel as a model for living, so simple yet so complex. It’s all about being in balance, about being in harmony with nature.”
“Many of your Mandalas incorporate trees” I observe.
“Virtually everyone resonates with trees” she confirms. “Humans and trees are similar, except they are rooted in place and we’re mobile” she smiles. “We have such an affinity for trees. The seasons, the life cycle. And of course we are as strong as the roots we come from.”
Finally I ask about the moon. It appears in many of her Mandalas as well.
“It also represents that continuous cycle” she says. “Ancient cultures revered both the sun and the moon, again something we have sort of lost touch with. If you pay attention you can start to feel the moon’s pull again. It pulls at the water in our bodies just as it pulls at the tides of the earth. In cultures, such as First Nations and Celtic for example, that are more aligned with nature, they pay close attention to that. They honour the rhythms of nature.”
It’s clear to me that CJ’s work does just that, and very well.
If you would like to see her work first hand, or get information about her classes and seasonal workshops, at Caledon’s beautiful historic Alton Mill visit DancingMoonDesigns.ca