Art does not have to be a passive piece of work hanging on a wall or sitting on a pedestal. It can inspire action and change in the world surrounding it. My work focuses on the tension between the synthetic and natural realms. It begins with the current scientific understanding of the natural world and my own observations of human society and the systems that spring from it. Each piece I create shows a different aspect of the relationship between the two different types of order. The goal is not to condemn our every action as harmful to all other life forms but to emphasize the connections between human society and our surroundings. I hope to effect a change in how we live by illustrating that we are not outside of the natural system but part of it. Our future, which right now includes global climate change, drought and crop failure in many areas, can improve only if we can bring the human to nature equation back into equilibrium.
My inspiration is rooted in my history in biology and my interest in patterns. One recent addition is my growing interest in systems thinking. This type of thinking goes against the traditional scientific method in which one element is isolated in a controlled environment and studied in conjunction with one variable factor. The scientific method is still good for getting a thorough understanding of that one element, but at some point it has to get plugged back into its environment. When that happens it will not behave the same way it did in isolation because it has new rules to follow guiding how it will interact with its surroundings. This concept first entered my work through natural patterns. In several pieces biological forms are bound together visually so that they cannot be separated. In other pieces man-made and natural patterns merge to demonstrate how difficult it can be to separate our world from nature.
Different pieces focus on different aspects of the relationship between the natural world and our society. A few depict a balanced system, but most focus on imbalance. An imbalanced system has had some normally limiting factor removed, allowing for unchecked growth. For example, microphones screech because the system is out of balance. The microphone picks up its own sound played from the speakers, sending the system into a loop of amplification until it is overloaded. A biological equivalent would be an algal bloom. Some of my work illustrates the system tipped too heavily towards the synthetic end. They show our comfort with nature, but only as long as it stays where we want it, in the paved squares along the street and concrete planters. Natural systems are complicated, so it’s easier to separate ourselves from them than to try to understand them. Other pieces show the equation out of balance in the other direction. Nature overcoming what we have built has many examples. It can be seen in any number of barns left to rot throughout the Midwest. There is nothing we build that cannot be thrown down, no mark we make that cannot be washed or scoured away. The impermanence of things we mean to be permanent is another reason we are uncomfortable with much of the natural world.
The main goal of my work is to change how we interact with our natural surroundings. My paintings and drawings illustrate how interconnected human society is with the natural world. Synthetic and natural systems can complement each other, but we cannot continue to pretend that we are separate. Our actions have an impact beyond what we can easily see. With 7 billion people on the planet one individual’s actions are magnified many times over. If the earth is to continue to support our growing population, we have to find more sustainable ways to live.
Ashley Shellhause is a contemporary artist working in painting and drawing. Born as Ashley Hughes in Columbus, Ohio, she currently lives in London, Ohio. She received her BA from Otterbein College in 2008 with concentrations in painting and visual communications, and a minor in biology. In the spring of 2010 she completed her MFA in painting at Miami University. She was also a recipient of the 2010 Joan Mitchell MFA Grant. Since graduating she has been accepted into numerous exhibitions and has completed several mural and commission pieces.