Words from a friend

In a warm but firm rejoinder to a world addicted to spectacle, Shelley Zentner’s landscapes quietly insist that the most majestic power on Earth is not born of human effort, but instead resides in what the poet Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” She discovers that force in endless guises in her home territory of the South Lake Tahoe basin — in everything from a pinpoint of sunlight on a leaf to a rainbow of shades in what to a less curious eye is otherwise a nondescript gray rock — and brings it forth in charcoal and oils.

She is a Seer in a very real sense, a painter who both discerns with the eye of a shaman and expertly translates for us Nature’s “language” as it governs both the creative and — inevitably — destructive cycles of the forest realm.

Proof of the latter cycle arrived recently in the devastating Caldor Fire of summer 2021, which charred both sides of the valley surrounding Shelley’s home. In the aftermath of the fire, Shelley took to long periods of contemplation/creation en plein air, sifting through the ashes in search of meaning, beauty, redemption.

The result is “Call and Response.”

Who calls, and who responds? The fire is one call, certainly, to which the forest must respond. From another angle, Nature’s drama represents the call to which the artist responds. But we might also conclude, after some time gazing at Shelley’s paintings, that the answer doesn’t really matter, because in Nature at least, the conversation is ongoing, creating a background hum that is relentlessly alive: The life of a forest begins to rebound within days or even hours of its being scoured by fire. Its scorched remains fertilize new growth, and provides for those seeds that only a flame’s touch can quicken. Its charcoal becomes a medium in the hands of a skilled Seer with a keen interest in using its wisdom to bring forth beauty from darkness.

All this from a painting? Stand silently before one and see if you don’t agree.

Shelley and I have been friends for a long time, and I told her recently that what I love most about her work is the way it dances with — and glories in — subtle details of color and light that I might not have noticed had I walked through the same landscape on my own. She laughed and cited Welsh artist Peter Prendergast, a teacher from whom she once took a class in “intuitive drawing” in her native Wales.

“I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me,” she said with obvious affection. “But he used to yell at us all the time, ‘You’re not looking hard enough; LOOK HARDER.’ And to this day, I do.”

These paintings are evidence that the advice stuck, because they exude a Presence that transcends mere technical skill. As you contemplate them, perhaps you too can feel the hum of “Life’s longing for itself,” as poet Kahlil Gibran called it.

Regardless of who responds, the response is always this: Life. Beauty. Expansion. Love. Although there are no people nor animals present in Shelley’s scenes, we can’t help but sense from the forest the same longing normally associated with human or animal sentience: Trees nod their crowns in mutual affection. Water doesn’t just sparkle among rocks, it reveals or softly seduces them. Wind chases; light worships. A sprinkling of yellow leaves transcends mere seasonal decay, and becomes a gesture of surrender, deeply felt.

The result is an intimacy with object and moment that grows ever deeper the longer we look, until perhaps we intuit that the web of longing her works describe exists in ourselves, as well. If we peer deeper still, we may even discover that the nameless thing for which we long is exactly that which leaps forth from each of these forest scenes, whether as a shower of unexpected color or the dynamism of light and shadow birthed by a lump of charcoal — a tree whose remains have become the messenger. Therein we find the object of all longing, and that power which renders even the most lauded human effort secondary: the victorious voice of Nature as she renews herself yet again, forever and ever, Amen.

Rishika Kathleen Stebbins
El Sargento, BCS, Mexico
January, 2022

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