Although there is a distinct botanical quality to all of Bronson Shonk’s paintings, they could never be mistaken for still lifes. “I don’t care about depicting flowers in a literal way—as posed or inert objects,” says Seattle-based Shonk. “I’m obsessed with describing what goes on beneath the surface.”
A former data analyst, Shonk studied art seriously in high school and minored in it at college. As he found himself poring over his drawing pad, he made the decision to pursue art full time. To hear him tell it, the two professions are not incompatible. “I like to have a lot of control,” explains Shonk, whose original medium was intricate pen-and-ink drawings.
In order to work with paint, which is less predictable, the artist developed a method that uses the rigor of his line work to harness the color and expressiveness of acrylic pigments. Whether working on canvas or plexiglass, Shonk borrows a technique from the ceramic world called sgraffito (Italian for “scratched”). Using an X-Acto blade or other sharp tool, he etches an outline into a prepped surface and applies color with a brush, foam or his hands. As he works, paint settles into the engraved areas. “My compositions evolve over days and weeks, and it’s exciting to watch these little branches, leaves and seeds begin to emerge,” Shonk says.
Although his approach is similar on both canvas and plexiglass, the three-dimensional sculptures allow the artist to layer multiple images and create the illusion of movement. In a painstaking process, Shonk engraves and paints both sides of up to 30 layers of plexiglass before bonding them together and smoothing the edges. At first glance, the freestanding sculptures call to mind flowers suspended in resin. But far from being static, the abstracted florals seem to undulate, fulfilling his vision of creating a kind of stop-motion photography: “They are meant to be like long exposures,” Shonk affirms. “As if they are in the process of opening up and reaching toward the sun or beginning to fray and decay.”
Shonk doesn’t embark with a finished composition in mind, but trusts it to evolve. With his balance of control and riffing, he’s like a jazz musician whose technique keeps him both tethered and free to improvise. “Ultimately, I’m interested in capturing that elusive thing we can’t see on a daily basis, like the growth of a child or the life of a plant,” he explains. “It only emerges over time, and that’s what intrigues me.”