In 1994 I wrote a cover story for a now defunct magazine on artist Don Shearer after a studio visit that floored me and has haunted me ever since. Shearer was the first artist to move in to the Espanola Way Art Center, another storied place that has been devoured by developers but was a seminal part of the early art scene in Miami’s South Beach. The Center was a hive of activity with pioneering artists who braved the crack and crime plagued streets and alleys of the ice cream colored Art Deco hood.
Don Shearer was a particularly rare bird, his spectral spooky studio with darkened windows and candles burning 24/7 mirrored his art – angels and skulls and sinewy creatures graced windows, tables, chairs and even rugs. It was as enveloping an environment as I had ever been in, the art matched the studio matched the artist himself. Shearer has an unworldly quality about him – his darkened glasses and beat headgear and painted clothes are entirely his.
He has made art that made headlines, such as the Positive Heart painting, a simple heart with a cross inside in a gilded frame. The kicker is that the heart is painted with HIV positive blood.
Don Shearer had a solo show at a private club in Madison Square Garden, been fawned over by supermodels, collected by actors, plasteredcities with activist art stickers, curated his own short lived museum and is now having a retrospective called “of” at The Box Gallery in West Palm Beach that I am curating which opens October 14th. As an artist Don works really fast and wickedly sees the art in everything.
“As an artist I plead insanity, to experience everything in life at the deepest level of fascination, to be the only one just like me, yet rhyme with everyone.As a human being, I arrive feeling human yet strive on being. Leave something behind,” he says. “Your mark to say you were here, something you write, draw, sing, create means to extend it, it’s not important that you reveal it while you are here, that may dilute your expression from fear. You will also be judged, critiqued, you may want to hide it all away in some protected vault or in a wicker steam trunk chest in your barn… but that you leave a simple stain, a shadow, some impression of your experience here may shift the magnetic field or evolve humanity in some vulnerable force.”
On his technique Don Shearer says: “I paint by candle light to focus on line rather than color. When I paint on glass the image is reverse of how it will be viewed. Using this method leaves judgment of direction out of the equation. The image comes thru me and not so much from my head. Seldom do I know what I am attempting to create; it rather forms itself in the subconscious. When the finished image is still unclear, I refer to it as an abstract. I do consider my abstracts complete when I can hang them in any direction and feel interested. I never force myself to paint. I wait for days when it feels natural. Then it comes with ease. I have painted my whole life, and know that I will continue. Complex painting is not connected to me emotionally. Most paintings take 30 minutes – to a few hours for me to finished, it has become my deepest form of meditation, clear from thought. The silhouettes and dripping halos inherent in my work are only shadows of angels, guardians of our true spiritually. In this haunted humanity of commercialism, my pallet bleeds from neutral to synthetic color with my painting SPIRITS. Color was a distraction to me early as a painter, wanting to exercise freedom of thought. Impressionism is my interest not realism, I find that when the viewer is left to create their own meaning, it becomes a personal experience.”
Cosmic musings from someone who has lived a life that has at times been threadbare and reclusive. He once lived in a basement in NYC he called the hole. “[the hole] as we called it was the basement of an old cast iron district building… the iron steps made a clang sound when people would step into the dark and ask me ‘what is this place a club a bar…do you live here?
It was cold in the summer because it was a basement and in the winter warm from the heat pipes covering the ceiling from the 20 floors above. I would leave the iron cellar doors open to the snow flaking down and warm from the heated pipes. Everyone would say ‘I have not seen anyone living like this in the city since the 70s – borrowing electricity from the above couple through a hole in the ceiling… a 45 watt bulb was enough light, there were always candles burning as well and a bar of blue neon buzzing also illuminated the place. I met a lot of important people down there… it seemed to attract the poor and wealthy, but always interesting characters not afraid to enter. i would latch the doors shut from the inside and sleep mostly in the day. I was truly living like a vampire and my paintings reflected that. I sold a lot of work those years, people related to it. I think people want something real.”
In addition to the Positive Heart painting, Don Shearer made another strong piece in reaction to the AIDS crisis. [ HELP ] was the second HIV+ blood painting that I did in 1993 with help from a nurse friend, Brenda, she drew blood from a willing donor. I remember the blood had to be used FAST it coagulates quickly. I decided to paint it on a torn bedsheet it measured about 8 feet x 4 feet… I called this piece [MESSAGE TO GOD ] it was included in SHEETS a show in NEW YORK CITY at Club USA a show in which all works had to be on bed sheets, it was also included in the article on Page Six of the New York Post.
Don remembers his time on South Beach as a wild west of clubs and art. “Before it was SOUTH BEACH it was fascinating queers, drag queens, vagabonds and Hasidic Jews, most club kids kept to their apartments above and below 5th street. Rent was cheap. sex was everywhere. and when two or three clubs were resurrected from the Art Deco district it was magic, everyone felt alive. I mostly remember riding in velvet lined taxis, going places very secret and faded neonsigns mostly dark blue buzzing out.”
If you visit, The Box Gallery is located at 811 Belvedere Road in West Palm Beach.