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Professor Profile: Exploring New Mediums, From Melted Plastic To Masterpiece

Published: Sunday, October 20, 2013

Updated: Sunday, October 20, 2013 23:10

She takes her students on fieldtrips to laser routing sites, she’s spent two years living in Africa, and her secret talent is instantly locating four-leaf clovers. These are just some of the eccentric qualities of Sheila Gallagher, associate professor of fine arts at Boston College. To Gallagher, art is a question of passion and dedication, both of which she wholeheartedly embodies.

Outside the classroom, Gallagher is also a renowned multimedia artist with unique and breathtaking art featured in galleries all across New England. Gallagher’s approach to art is all about making connections. Not only does she connect her unique choices of media with her profound artistic inspirations, but she also connects her art to history, religion, and spiritual undertakings. Whoever thought it’d be impossible to convey sacred eros through melted plastic recycling mounted on armature has clearly never experienced Gallagher’s artwork. Using modern media such as melted recycling, cigarette butts, and smoke, Gallagher connects religious imagery, symbols, and mystic eroticism from Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. According to the Dodge Gallery press release previewing Gallagher’s upcoming show, “the resulting ‘iconomash’ is a representation of the desire for spiritual experience to intersect with contemporary secular culture.” Through modern media, Gallagher “challenges the stand-off between contemporary art and religion.”

Gallagher grew up in New Vernon, N.J., in a devout household with very little supervision. “My childhood combination of freedom, nature, and exposure to religion created a perfect breeding ground for the artist I am today,” she said. Gallagher attended Milton Academy followed by Connecticut College, where she majored in fine arts and European history, with a concentration in East African colonialism. She then went on to receive her MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Though Gallagher admits she almost went for a Ph.D. in history, she followed her heart and decided to pursue her art. “I realized that art could accommodate my love of all disciplines, but all other disciplines could not accommodate my love for art,” Gallagher said.  

Having said that, Gallagher has not once neglected her love of history throughout her artistic career. “Being trained as a historian—that kind of research practice—completely defines the way I go about my work,” she said. “I’ve done first-hand research in India studying images, visiting temples—I’ve read books and scholarly texts in both theology and philosophy. I am constantly surfing the web for source materials.” Gallagher laughs as she explained that, “to paint one picture of a cow, I might look at 1,500 images of cows”—she does strive to put an immense amount of dedication and research into her works.

“Any work of art is first and foremost an expression of its medium,” Gallagher said. “What the piece is made out of is the artwork’s first identity.” At her studio in Jamaica Plain, Gallagher spends hours washing and sorting through recycled plastic, cutting it up into different shapes that reflect brush strokes, melting it all with a blow torch, and artfully arranging it to create a brilliant landscape. Or perhaps you might find Gallagher working with digital media, making images out of smoke, or positioning fresh flowers to create brilliant images. “I love media exploration,” she said. “My choice of media always depends on the theme of my subject matter.” On the surface, Gallagher’s melted trash landscapes are fascinating technically, but on a deeper level they conjure messages of modern culture and issues of environmental degradation. Gallagher intends for her art to provide a “layered associative experience.”

In regard to teaching art, Gallagher loves nothing more. She has been teaching art at BC for 10 years now, and has previously taught at Wellesley College, the Art Institute of Boston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Museum of Fine Arts. “There is nothing more satisfying than acting as a midwife to someone else’s creativity,” Gallagher said. “There’s a lot of cheerleading and pulling teeth, but it’s extremely rewarding.” Gallagher teaches multiple different art courses here at BC, in addition to co-directing the minor program and running the minor’s projects. Gallagher teaches the cornerstone studio art class, “Issues and Approaches to Studio Art,” which “enables students to develop skills and ideas by exploring objective, subjective, and conceptual approaches to a variety of media.” New this semester, Gallagher has introduced the class “Drawing Connections,” which exemplifies Gallagher’s own artistic style of connecting art with a variety of disciplines. “Drawing Connections seeks to make connections with other disciplines, so I’ve been collaborating with other departments.” Just last week, Gallagher brought in a graffiti artist to work with her class, and plans to introduce units such as “drawing and history,” “drawing and philosophy,” and even “drawing and yoga.”

Currently, Gallagher is gearing up for her Nov. 2 opening at the Dodge Gallery in New York City. The collection is entitled, Ravishing Far/Near, a collection of art that “blends thinking and form across images and objects, and uses religious tropes and aesthetic pleasures as opportunities for interpretation.”

Gallagher’s final advice for any aspiring artists: “Have no fear! Art is really a question of passion, experimentation, and constant revision.”

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