The eternal student

In teaching her students about artists, Wendy Shalen became one.

The old saying that teachers learn from their students might apply doubly to Wendy Shalen.

In the course of a long career as an art teacher, she has learned a variety of artistic techniques that she could pass along and/or discuss with her charges in studio art and art history classes. So adept was she that at some point the balance tipped and her avocation became her vocation. Today, Shalen is an artist first and foremost, though she still teaches figurative and landscape drawing and painting on Sundays at The Art Students League of New York in Manhattan, where she once studied.

While the figure is a Shalen specialty — consider the pensive nobility in her mixed media drawing of a “Roman Marble Statue of a Bearded Hercules,” created at The Metropolitan Museum of Art last year — many of her finest works are landscapes inspired by her Waccabuc home overlooking Whatmore’s Lake. 

“It’s just spectacular,” she says of the lake in an easy phone conversation punctuated by laughter. “I look outside and I’m always trying to figure out what to paint. …I’m always looking at how to capture the light and colors on the water. …It’s breathtaking.”

Over time, her landscapes have moved from crisply representational pastels to more abstract works, including those made of wax paints on wood panels, and pigmented cotton or paper pulp. Recently, she began working with glass panels that are either sandblasted, drawn on, glazed and fired in a glass kiln; or painted with glass powder and fused in the kiln.

“I’m getting a whole new education,” Shalen says of her work on glass.

Though the landscapes may be impressionistic, the titles, refined draftsmanship and shimmering colors more than hint at Whatmore’s Lake through the seasons. “Fall Reflections” (2016), made of pigmented paper pulp and vinyl, offers the viewer a mirage of the lake’s distant shore, bordered by test batches of the colors used in the work that create almost a stained-glass effect. The same is true of “Lake Reflections II”  (2017), with the watercolor swatches and handmade pigmented abaca and cotton pulp on cotton HMP adding a delicacy reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Such painting also inspired “Lake Whatmore II” (2006), a round watercolor on white silk.

Shalen grew up on Long Island watching her father, an avocational painter who was in the textile business. Her mother would take her to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In those days, however, her response to art was not to try to replicate it but to tell others about it.

“I had this desire to communicate to others things that inspired me,” she says. And though she did photography in high school and at Northwestern University, which she attended for the first two years of college, she didn’t draw or paint seriously until she was 25. By that time, she had spent her junior year in Paris studying art history and French as part of a Hamilton College program and graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she wrote theses on Greek vases and Roman frescoes.

“I loved the gorgeous thin, brown line of the Achilles painter,” Shalen says of the ancient Greek vase painter famed for his white-ground and red-figure lekythoi, olive oil vessels. (He is so named after an identifying amphora in the Vatican Museums that offers a pensive portrait of Achilles, Greek mythology’s greatest warrior.)

That thin, brown line would follow her from Massachusetts (where her future husband Stephen, whom she met when they were both camp counselors, was studying at Harvard University and Harvard Law School) to New York as she taught studio art and art history. One of her signature accomplishments occurred at what is now The Birch Wathen Lenox School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where she created a humanities course that fused studio art and art history. In order to better educate her students, she immersed herself not only in studying art but making it.

“I was basically fascinated by learning new techniques,” Shalen says. 

Ultimately, she studied with painter Daniel Greene and Robert Beverly Hale at The Art Students League, Harvey Dinnerstein at The National Academy and painter Burton Silverman privately. Those studies have led to her work being featured in galleries, museums and private collections, ranging from the Katonah Museum of Art to the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport, the Silvermine Galleries in New Canaan and the Cavalier Galleries in Greenwich. Shalen is a member of the cooperative Prince Street Gallery in Manhattan, where she will be having another solo show from April 21 through May 16.

Painting, however, is not all that takes up her artistic time. Through the Katonah Museums Artists’ Association, she has helped organize the rotating exhibits that grace Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco since 2003.

Whether she is curating, creating or teaching art, though, she remains a student herself:

“Especially during these times, I am lucky to live in such a peaceful place, to have the time to respond to nature, to always experiment and to share my love of making and enjoying art with others.”

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