In March, Shawn Vermette's exhibit, "The First Viewing," took people completely off guard. Here was an artist with zero social media or Internet presence showing his work to the world for the first time. We offered the first glimpse into a body of work which Shawn has been creating, away from the modern world, for over thirty years. The response was enthusiastic, though not surprising considering the scope, scale, and beauty of the art itself. It took a bit of time, but we were finally able to (with the help of technology and a good friend in Massachusetts) pin Shawn down for a quick interview. He's an intelligent, humble man who is quick to laugh, but seemingly wary of going too deep into his thoughts publicly. We talk briefly about his background and his approach to art…hopefully it will provide a bit of insight into this incredible artist.

Hyaena: this year, Hyaena Gallery hosted the first ever solo art exhibit of your work. It was quite successful for a first time showing from a virtually unknown artist. As interest in the work increased, people were also asking about the artist, himself. What would you like people to know about you?

Shawn: Well, if it were up to me, the less they know about me the better…that way they focus more on the art than the person.

Hyaena: But people always want to get deeper. I think knowing a bit about the artist helps you understand where the art comes from. Tell me a little about your background. How did you discover your love for art, or that you even had artistic talent?

Shawn: Let's see...From a very young age, I lived in a fantasy world. And that world led me directly into the art world. My love for horror movies has had an impact on my art.

Hyaena: I've heard statements like that from several artists whose work I love (Mark Bode, for example), where they could get lost in the art realms they created instead of what was around them. Is that similar for you? Is it therapeutic? Transformative?

Shawn: It was more of an escape when I was younger. Now I'm much more interested in communicating.

Hyaena: I've painted this picture of you as a sort of recluse. How accurate is that?

Shawn: It is very accurate. But it's also something that I didn't want for myself, because I am also very gregarious.

Hyaena: How did it come about? Was it self-imposed, or were there other factors?

Shawn: It was a combination of the two. My life style of culture seemed to have an automatic way of separating me from people my own age. My father had a Master's degree in fine art and my mother was also very cultural. She was very into poetry and constantly reading. This atmosphere of culture around the blue collar people (of Springfield) did not always blend well.

Hyaena: The thing I'm most often asked about, regarding you, is how you have managed to go without the technology which is so prominent and connective in today's world. No computer, no cell is this possible?

Shawn: First of all, the tech of technology was evolving…it was a repulsive thing to me, so it was natural to state away from it. It was just a natural reflex action. And my whole family felt like this, so we avoided it. The way I'm living now is a necessity. I know no other way.

Hyaena: It certainly makes communication more difficult in the modern era. Have you ever felt like not being connected was ostracizing to you...or a hindrance at all?

Shawn: Very much so, and that brings us back to your original question where you asked if I am an introvert. I like talking and being with people and this, not having a cell phone or computer, makes a problem in my life…I feel disconnected. I don't want to be disconnected, but I feel it's been thrust upon me because I don't subscribe to the technology.

Hyaena: Do you feel this is changing for you at all now?

Shawn: Not yet... heh heh. I have philosophical reasons, even though it's been thrust upon me. When I see people looking at their phones 24 hours a day, I'm reminded that tech has taken us in a direction which is not an improvement in humanity.

Hyaena: Where did you get your art education?

Shawn: Didn't have one...I am self taught with a little help from my father. It comes mostly from looking at books and watching movies.

Hyaena: Who/what were your main influences?

Shawn: Horor movies...British horror films and earlier black and white ones…Picture books from when I was a kid, like "Where the Wild Things Are" …Fine art books that my father collected. We had a library of our own at home. I didn't really like public libraries, as I found the atmosphere a little too austere.

Hyaena: I definitely see Sendek, Goya, Gorey, and Munch references in your work. What I like so much about your art is that you can see influences but the final piece transcends the influence.

Shawn: I want to say that you have a very good eye. That's actually what I want people to see. I am a bit eclectic in my art. My goal has always been to merge fine art with illustration. They are not separate entities, they are one thing. They have always been one thing. But certainly, I don't think I'm stating anything new. It seems to me that people are too in the habit of categorizing things. The springboard for me is symbolist art. Symbolist art is one of the arts that has been swept under the rug by modern art, but in it you find everything you could desire…illustration, storytelling and fine art all in one thing.

Hyaena: You mainly work in ink and colored pencil. What makes you use these as opposed to other traditional media?

Shawn: They're easier and less expensive. I've tried other media when I was younger. Oil takes a long time to dry. Acrylic dries fast, but I never obtained the level of professionalism and detail from acrylic that I could from my pencils.

Hyaena: Nothing in your work looks easy at all. Your use of colored pencil is astounding. I've never seen anyone use the media quite like you do. Can you talk a little about your technique?

Shawn: Hmmm…I use Prismacolor pencil which is wax based. It makes for easy mixing of colors. That said, I'm an emotional person. I feel before I think. I put the pencil color down and just mix it, and that's it.

Hyaena: Every time I stand in front of one of your pieces, I am just in awe of the work. You create so much texture and depth, it brings a real life to the work that you don't see often. The colors, too, are extremely vibrant and almost resemble paint until you get close to the work.

Shawn: I notice how other people work with color pencil and they are too tentative. When you work naturally like I do, the colors come out more naturally in my pictures. The application of the color itself is emotional but a lot of thinking goes into the arrangement of the composition. I was never one for perspective, so my perspective would be more surreal than real.

Hyaena: Can you walk us through your creative process? Maybe talk about the steps you go through to create one of your extremely large pieces?

Shawn: Well, first I have to have an idea, which can come from a number of sources...movies, books. Today when I work on an art piece it's because I want to communicate a message to the world. So, I will then take various symbols from different sources and put them together into one story. That's the first step. The second step is the actual execution which is extremely annoying. This has to do with the composition and if it doesn't work, you have crap no matter how well intended the idea. Sometimes I will find that a composition doesn't work and some of the symbols need to be changed. Once I've determined the final composition that I want, and symbols are in place, then I try to think of a color scheme. Depending on the message, the colors can be bright and playful, or dark and moody. Or, I might decide to do something in black and white. After that it's all donkey work. I will complete a small section entirely before moving on to the next area. So when I'm finished it's a surprise as to how the final picture will look.

Hyaena: Do you go through a process of studies before tackling the large work?

Shawn: I don't do a lot of thumbnails. I might draw a rough drawing, 9x12, regular pencil, just to get a feel for the composition. If I'm satisfied I'll move on to the larger picture.

Hyaena: And how long does this take, normally, to complete one of the larger pieces?

Shawn: Roughly three months or so. It depends on how depressed I am and how many interruptions I have…heh heh.

Hyaena: The artwork that you've created...what were your intentions as far as sharing it with others?

Shawn: I can't say this for all the pieces in your show, but some have more important social messages. Some are more decorative and emotional. The ones such as "High Society," obviously I intended to communicate something more definitive.

Hyaena: And how did you find Hyaena? Most people don't know that we've actually known each other for a very long time...but you said you didn't know I had an art gallery?

Shawn: It was out of necessity. My neighbor found your gallery on his computer.

Hyaena: I still don't quite understand that. Do you realize how random that is?

Shawn: Yes. heh heh

Hyaena: Do you know what he searched for?

Shawn: He was looking at galleries in general, stuff that would show off weird art. Your name came up and I took it from there.

Hyaena: I just think it's incredible that you recognized me and wrote me that letter. It was the first hand written letter I've received in years.

Shawn: This brings us to one of our first questions about the lack of humanity in the world, where something totally natural, like a letter, has become unnatural.

Hyaena: It's crazy, but it's what we've become. We've just had, what I would say is, a very successful solo exhibit here...your first. What are your thought on the exhibit and the overall reaction from folks?

Shawn: I'm excited about the response, and the enthusiasm from everyone. When you go into something like this for the first time you never know what to expect. I am very happy about the whole experience, especially seeing the work reach a larger audience.

Hyaena: You've been exposed a bit more to the Internet now. What is your impression of social media and the Internet as a resource?

Shawn: As a resource, I suppose the benefits cannot be denied. But as you know, I am between two worlds. You can say it's hard for me to put into words. In terms of business, I appreciate the way that computers make things a lot easier. But talking about technology on a more universal note, I have to say that it's led us down a very dark road.

Hyaena: What are you working on now and what can we hope to see from you in the future? Final thoughts?

Shawn: Right now, I'm working on my own comic book and a children's book with Michael Kelleher. The comic book has been an ongoing project for many years, and is an attempt to discuss much the philosophy as we've touched upon in this interview. Also, hopefully, there will be some prints of my larger work available soon.

I just want to say "thank you" to everybody for paying attention to me, I guess.

A page from Shawn's comic book, hand colored by Shawn.
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The same page from Shawn's comic book, digitally colored by Michael Kellerher as an experiment.
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Another page from Shawn's comic book, hand colored by Shawn.
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A preliminary drawing for the children's book Shawn is working on.
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Progress shot of the above drawing for the children's book.
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The finished drawing for the children's book.
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