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Stroke of genius: OU graduate transitions from paint to pen to revitalize art career in Australia

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De Shan (copy)

Lisa De Shan showcases her work at her art stall.

Once again, Lisa De Shan left an art gallery feeling deflated, defeated and utterly fed up.

Galleries were not giving her art the time of day. Galleries in Melbourne and Sydney said it was because they considered her an “outsider” in the Australian art scene, despite growing up in Australia. Other times people just did not take art seriously, like in Queensland.

A 1998 OU graduate, De Shan had found success with her work in Oklahoma City’s Paseo Arts District. She faced a difficult reality after moving back to her native Australia in 2008, one that became even more apparent as she stood on the sidewalk outside another art gallery under the intense Australian sun.

“I didn’t know what they liked, I had no idea because, even though it’s another English-speaking country, their taste is completely different to Americans,” De Shan told The Daily May 30.

Adjusting to appeal to a new audience was made more difficult in the middle of the Great Recession. People around the world were not spending money on luxury items like abstract canvas paintings, which De Shan had focused on for a time.

“When I moved back to Australia that’s when the (recession) hit and everything crashed, so making money as an artist was really, really hard,” De Shan said.

Glancing over her shoulder through the gallery’s window, it was clear she wouldn’t break through by doing the same thing as countless other artists.

“I had to change the way I produced art and the way I sold art,” De Shan said.

Luckily, change and perseverance was nothing new, thanks to her experience as an international art student at OU doubling as a bartender and, briefly, an astrophysics student.

A cure for boredom

Years earlier, De Shan’s journey to OU began with a frustrated sigh from her mother, sitting at the desk in her home office, running her hands through her hair. 

She notices she is missing a plethora of supplies most notably, her pens and pencils have once again been ransacked.

She suspects she knows the culprit immediately this is a repeat offense, an almost ritual heist carried out by her four-year-old daughter. Despite her best efforts, she knows she can’t work if her office is continually under siege. Pencils littered on the ground leading to her office door cannot be overlooked any longer.

Joan De Shan had to come up with a plan to keep her daughter busy for a while but likely never expected it would dictate the course of her little girl’s life.

“It’s a funny story actually,” De Shan said. “I was probably about 4 years old and … my mother ran my father’s pipeline business from home. … I had this obsession with brand-new pencils and erasers, sharpeners, new pens and markers, and the smell of a box of crayons, and I would sneak into her office and steal things.”

Since De Shan’s father an Arkansas native, but avid OU football fan who moved to Australia during his career as a pipeline welder was often away from home, her mother was often home alone to watch their children and keep them entertained. One of her mother’s methods sparked De Shan’s interest in art.

“To keep Lisa from being bored … I started just drawing spots on paper, large sheets of paper and telling Lisa to draw them up and make a picture for me,” her mother said.

De Shan’s passion for art grew throughout elementary and high school, with her mother never wavering in her support.

“I didn’t try to stop her from what she wanted to do because I always believed that once they’re grown up or showing signs of their real interests you go along with them,” her mother said, “and encourage them to pursue what they really wanted to do.”

De Shan’s art career did not take off immediately from high school, when she initially studied fashion design for two years before deciding to pursue her art.

The family travelled to the United States with De Shan for the first time in 1988, to meet her father’s relatives. She eventually decided OU was the place to continue chasing her ambitions.

As an undergraduate, De Shan majored in fine arts and painting while working as a bartender throughout college and for some time afterwards at the Full Moon Cafe in Oklahoma City, Nikz at Oklahoma City’s Founder’s Tower, and Deep Fork Grill.

“In my final year of that degree I was invited to join the astrophysics program at OU because I aced the astronomy class, so I thought okay why not, let’s do it,” De Shan said. “I didn’t want to stop doing my art, and at that point I thought maybe I could be the first woman ever to paint in outer space.”

De Shan said she enjoys “right-brained” subjects, but said a possible motivation for entering the astrophysics program was something some of her art professors had encouraged their students to do have a backup plan.

After two years in the astrophysics program, De Shan decided to return to art. She graduated with a master’s degree in printmaking in 1998, and worked to establish herself in Oklahoma City’s Paseo Arts District, helped by a series of quirky works inspired by an unfortunate loss.

“I had a black labrador retriever dog and his name was Hank, and somebody stole my dog,” De Shan said. “I had him for five years and I was so upset when I lost my dog that it became the impetus for a number of years’ worth of paintings of this dog.”

Hank’s disappearance became an inspiration for a series of stories told through her paintings, De Shan said.

“I created in my mind a bunch of different stories about how Hank ran away to join the circus in Russia, to become a corn farmer in Nebraska,” De Shan said, “so Hank the dog (had) a plethora of different occupations in many different parts of the world.”

De Shan also worked as an artist-in-residence in Oklahoma. She participated in a program that sent art teachers for one month to schools that had defunded fine arts, doing most of her teaching in Lawton.

Finding a niche

In 2008, De Shan’s mother asked her to return to Australia after De Shan’s brother and only other sibling moved to the United States. Her mother also said De Shan was at a point in her life where she was needing emotional support.

Despite early struggles after returning home, De Shan began to carve out her own niche by displaying her art in open-air markets including the Eumundi Markets, a large-scale market featuring over 600 stalls and 1.6 million visitors annually.

De Shan said she changed both where she took her art to display and what type of art she produced, from more abstract paintings on canvas to more sustainable and affordable ink drawings of pop culture icons.

She began receiving requests to draw pop-culture icon in her “signature big-eyes style,” De Shan said, and now mostly takes requests from people interested in her art.

With this style, De Shan has established herself in Australia, selling her art in both tourist-heavy open markets and in other, more local markets.

Tourists from around the world enjoy her art because the characters she depicts are beloved worldwide, De Shan said, and said her art is likely in “every corner of the world by now.”

“It’s international. I find that people from all around the world know them and love them,” De Shan said. “It is an international language, which is really beautiful because I find people from Japan and people from Hungary and Czechoslovakia come to my booth in Queensland and their facial expressions just say it all. They get these great big smiles and go ‘oh my god, look!’ and they rush over and start flipping through.”

De Shan said pushing her pop-culture art outside of galleries has made her a “low-brow” artist, but she and much of the art community has embraced the style.

“You don’t hang these in expensive homes. If your grandmother frowns on it, then it’s probably low-brow,” De Shan said.

This approach has helped make her art more accessible, De Shan said, an important aspect of her work.

“I believe that art should be obtainable by everyone, not just the elite,” De Shan said. “I think that anyone should be able to afford a piece of art, especially when it’s pop-culture because everyone has a favorite character from something.”

Although she originally shifted to pen and ink pop-culture art out of necessity, De Shan said she has come to enjoy the drawings and style.

“It was a happy accident. Of course I dug my heels in at first because I didn’t want to stop doing the fine art, I didn’t want to be a mass-produced artist,” De Shan said. “I find more and more as I travel down to some of those more cultured areas … I’ve got a huge fanbase down there.”

In May, De Shan returned to Oklahoma for the first time in eleven years, displaying pieces of art at Oklahoma City’s Paseo Arts Festival, the community she was a part of a decade before.

The festival was enjoyable, De Shan said, and she hopes to return “more often than once every 11 years.”

De Shan said she hopes her story of success after several shifts in style, moving across continents, bartending for years to make ends meet and struggling to get her art into galleries will inspire others to persevere and be confident.

“Oh gosh, there were so many doubts,” De Shan said. “When you’re first starting a business you always have doubts, you don’t think you’re good enough … and it’s a bit of a worry. You have to put yourself out there and people start buying, then you start getting that positive reinforcement and you think … ‘People like this and I’m gonna make it.’”

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