‘Archaic’ art form ignites OU graduate's passion for printmaking
Sam Higgins, The Oklahoma Daily
It’s easy to tell Thomas Shahan is the kind of person who does something interesting just by looking at him. The wildness in his large, somewhat unkempt beard is matched only by the passion in his eyes, magnified through the thickness of his glasses.
He speaks about woodcutting and the insects he photographs with the fire-like intensity.
Shahan graduated from OU in December with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art, specializing in printmaking.
“A hundred years ago, printmaking was not an art form,” Shahan said.
Shahan explains the history of printmaking as a practical application.
“Let’s say there’s a guy who paints a landscape,” he said. “He paints the Appalachian Mountains or something, and if they wanted the image in a newspaper, say in 1859, there was no chemical process to reproduce that.”
An engraver reproduced the painting, but the painter was solely credited with the artistic work, he said.
Shahan describes himself as someone more interested in the history of wood engraving than actually participating in the craft, which he only picked up three years ago. He gets excited talking about a dollar bill and the fine engraved lines used to create the portraits.
“It’s mesmerizing that somebody could cut that with their hands,” he said. “I thought it was just amazing, and I thought, ‘Why isn’t this a fine art form? Why don’t you go to a gallery and see wood engravings?’”
Because technology has changed, some forms of art are seen as archaic, he said.
“It takes expensive equipment, it takes a lot of time, and it takes a fair amount of understanding about what you’re doing,” he said.
His prints range in price from $14 to $388, and are available on his Etsy shop, Thomas Shahan Art.
Shahan said he got into the right art school because of the etching press and letter press available in the Fred Jones Junior School of Art and Art History.
Curtis Jones, the studio art professor who taught screen printing to Shahan, explained how determined Shahan can be in learning new art forms.
“He’ll use his professors or whatever he has available to him to get him as far as he can,” Jones said. “And if we can’t get him as far as he wants to go, he’ll just keep trying.
“He’s one of those students you learn just as much from as you teach.”
Though Shahan is passionate about printmaking, he also is known for his macro photography of insects. Shahan’s photographs, which have been featured in National Geographic, come from his passion for insects.
It is a means of communicating what he finds important, Shahan said.
“There are these awesome, amazingly detailed, intricate, beautiful animals in Oklahoma,” he said.
But taking photos of creatures on this scale isn’t easy.
“90 percent of the shots I take are nothing,” he said.
This is because of having to get so close with his reverse mounted lens at the end of a series of extension tubes, allowing his camera to capture photographs that are fractions of a meter in length.
“I might go weeks or months without taking a photograph of a single thing that is recognizable,” Shahan said.
Shahan said he has a great affinity for the Phidippus audax, commonly known as a jumping spider. To him, these spiders have reached an evolutionary plateau of perfection.
“They’re very smart, they’re very quick and they just don’t lose,” he said. “They destroy everything.”
Some of Shahan’s woodcuts are on display in the Student Gallery on the lower level of Oklahoma Memorial Union. Next spring, the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History will host an exhibit on arthropods in Oklahoma, which will feature some of his photographs.
Although Shahan may be gaining recognition for his art skills, he said he doesn’t consider himself an artist.
“I have nothing against the art world, but I feel a little disillusioned with the art community,” he said. “I have these different things I like doing, but they have goals outside of expressing myself.
“The process for me is more exciting than the actual outcome.”
Shahan's full range of work can be found on his website.