There is something special about viewing an artist’s work in-progress. The raw, intimate glimpse of a temporary existence, an image in flux of both content and time. For Sharon Wegner-Larsen, this type of documentation is simply a part of her creative process; each piece seems to be painstakingly documented, and generously offered to the public in an engaging way. Talking to Sharon, you can tell she is a natural born teacher, someone who values the dedication and discipline attached to strengthening a craft.
Much like her marriage of painting, illustration and design, Sharon combines her love of science and art to create vivid, detailed explorations of life on earth and the space above. Seeking to create a dialogue between the two, her pieces celebrate exploration, and the wonder of the natural world. Read on to find the inspiration behind her work, how she keeps herself on task, and how she has watched the Sioux Falls art community grow. ~Amy
So, if you just want to start with the path that’s led you to where you are today.
Well, like most kids, I think, or most artists, I grew up drawing like crazy every chance I got. That pure joy of creating. My dad would bring home the big reams of the computer paper and I would put it across the table and just keep drawing; I’d have a room length piece.
Do you still have any of those?
I do, yeah. Dolphins, penguins, dinosaurs, lots of animals. I taught myself to draw by looking at animal and science books, and then was eventually obsessed with stuff like Lisa Frank and My Little Pony and Care Bears. Through junior high and high school I really thought that I was going to go into something in the sciences. It took me a while to figure out that my way of exploring the world was really through drawing, even though I was always thinking about science, it’s like I wasn’t actually doing any science, nor was I very good at it. I was just making things inspired by that. So, I did decide to go into painting when I went off to college at USD.
How did you discover that? That you weren’t going to be a scientist.
It had a lot to do with my math skills. Unfortunately there is that kind of accepted stereotype, I guess, that creative-types are not good at math. I honestly think that if I would have worked harder at it when I was younger, I would’ve been completely fine, but I used it as an excuse, I think like a lot of people do. I was just like, I can’t learn this, so I’m not going to learn this.
But even in college I was taking…you know, there’s a certain amount of required science you have to take, and I took a lot of extra. At the time I wasn’t thinking about those student loans or any of the practicalities. I took the base Earth Science courses, loved them. I took a course on climate change and a couple other geology courses, and stuff like that. I was taking those alongside my painting classes. It was all kind of feeding each other, I guess.
So, you were at USD.
Mhm. I was at USD…this is kind of a long, winding road of my art career, but I was in school as a painting major for four years, had some health problems and dropped out. I worked for about two years and eventually realized I needed to be back in school. I always knew that I would go back, but the reality of money and loans and stuff like that didn’t fully hit probably, but hit enough that I decided to change my major to graphic design when I went back to USD. So, I went for a couple more years for graphic design and had enough credits to choose if I wanted to say I was a painting or a graphic design emphasis. That was a difficult choice, but I thought if I was ever applying for a job, I’d probably want it to say graphic design. But really it’s like a double-major, painting and graphic design.
Did you have any mentors or anyone that you worked with when you were in school?
Gosh. Well, I really looked up to all my professors. Jeff Freeman was the painting professor at the time; there were several grad students when I was in painting that were just amazing…all these names I’m not going to fully remember, but I just adored all of them and soaked up everything they had to say. Then when I was going back for graphic design, YoungAe [Kim] is just an amazing designer. So, I really consider her a mentor at the time, too. I guess I wouldn’t necessarily say mentored, but all the students around me; extremely inspiring to be in that kind of a creative bubble, when you’re on campus surrounded by other art students. That was probably the best thing about being in school, just having so many creative people around to learn from and exchange ideas and everything.
On your blog, you provide pretty technical process shots and information about your work. Do you feel like you’ve taken on a mentor role to anyone?
I hope so. At least that’s my long-term goal. It was a very long road, like it is for most artists, and there’s this kind of belief, at least in the general public, that it’s just this magical thing that you’re born with. That idea is especially toxic to young artists, because they think that they should just be able to sit down and magically make something appear. The reality is, it’s a skill in a lot of ways like any other and you’ve gotta practice every day, and your painting…or whatever you’re working on…is probably going to go through a lot of really ugly phases where you want to give up on it. So, I think it’s important to show that process. I still really don’t like showing pieces that I’ve abandoned. I should probably do more just for that kind of reality, but I at least like people to see behind the scenes of how it develops. It’s like a very rough pencil sketch and how I take that idea to each next level and the stages where it looks like complete garbage and, finally, hopefully, it comes out to something beautiful or appealing, or interesting in the end.
Do you want to talk about your technical process a little bit more for people that aren’t familiar with your work?
I spend a lot of time, I guess, I’d call it doodling, in sketchbooks. I’ll be listening to NPR or doing something else and I get an idea. Something will pop in and I’ll jot down even just a word, or I’ll quickly look up an image that will remind me of what I’m thinking about. So, I have a big store of ideas to pull from. When I’m thinking about larger concepts to do a painting, just paging through and pulling out things like…oh, this meteorological symbol looks really interesting with this fossil; random stuff like that.
It’s just a mess of sketchbooks. I have all different sizes. A little square one, a full-size, whatever I have handy. I’ll keep drawing on the same page and sometimes things will emerge, even though it’s completely separate ideas from different days. Sometimes when I’m painting, I will have thought about the concept for a long time, and am doing really careful drawings and trying to translate that to a painting. And sometimes, I’ll pull out a canvas and just start, just fill it with abstract, washy paint and then go back to my sketchbooks and pull something out that seems to be working with it. To me, it’s easy to look at the paintings and be like, oh, this one’s really tight and cloistered. That must be one of the ones that I was planning too much from the beginning. And then the ones that are kind of loose and more fun and flowing, those are usually the ones where I just let myself paint and pull out whatever ideas later.
My instinct is always to be extremely technical, and even have the title of the piece done before I’ve started, and have this set idea…But I’m slowly recognizing the fact that the paintings almost always turn out better if I don’t think about it, and just let it flow, and it’s more instinct…
Because you’ve been doing it for so long.
Yeah. And still using all that knowledge and things that I want to express or get out, but in a more fun or loose way.
So, how are you challenging yourself to keep developing? I mean, you work in so many different mediums.
I’m always trying something new and sometimes I feel like I’m using that as a crutch almost, because when something gets too difficult then I just switch to something else. It does keep things fresh, I think. So, like the paintings that I’m doing now I don’t think I could’ve done if I hadn’t gone back to school for design, for example. Thinking about things in really different ways. I don’t know how to explain it, but – the design work feeds the painting work and the painting work feeds the design work. Sometimes it can be really hard switching back and forth, but I think it does push me to go different directions than I would otherwise. When I’m doing something really technical and tight, like in Illustrator, then I’m more inclined to do something really loose while I’m painting. Sometimes it’s conscious that I’m pushing myself to grow like that, and sometimes it’s not, it’s just kind of like I’m sick of doing this particular thing, so I’m gonna mix it up.
Another way I’ve challenged myself is going to a lot more art events and local shows and really paying attention to what other artists are doing. Going to critique and trying to get in the heads of other artists that I know; picking things up from them, learning from them, and being able to push each other as a community, too.
Almost like a continuing education.
Yeah, exactly. It fills the void of once you’re out of school, just floundering around like what am I supposed to do now?
We’re really blessed with our community.
I agree. When I dropped out of school the first time I really tried to make art during that gap of time, it was roughly two years. I really didn’t have a community of artists at all. I had to ask myself a lot of questions like…why do I create? Am I actually going to keep doing this? What is the point? All those awful nagging doubts. One of the biggest differences is having that community now. I think I am more driven now than I have ever been, but I could not do it without that little bit of push from anyone caring about what I’m doing.
Was your subject matter different in the two years that you were out of school?
I think…maybe there was less science-y illustration. It seems like there’s some other more domestic things going on or something.[laughter] I never really thought about that before.
Where did you go to high school?
Hurley, it’s out by Parker and Viborg, if you know where that is.
Davis? The Davis/Hurley exit?
Yep. Yep. Exactly. [laughter] I was born in the south, but my mom was originally from Hurley. She grew up there on a farm. Eventually, I was in fourth grade we moved back to South Dakota. So, I consider South Dakota to be my home and roots. But yeah… I lived in Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia.
What caused you to move around so much? I’m sorry, that’s such a rude question.
Believe it or not, my dad was a meteorologist, like a TV meteorologist.
Oooh, it’s all making sense.
Actually that’s the reason I was born in Georgia. Because I was born in 1982, and the Weather Channel was founded in 1982. My dad moved down there to help. He was one of the meteorologists when it first went on air.
That’s pretty stinkin’ cool. So, what is a typical day like for you when you’re creating? Do you have a routine?
I absolutely do. The routine has been everything in actually getting things done. When I was younger, I would just create when I felt like it, and kind of brood over it the rest of the time, and it was not a healthy way of working at all. So, I work afternoons at my day job, which is the Book Shop, which I love. That’s good advice to any aspiring artist, is find a day job that you can learn from, and that you don’t hate.
I get up in the morning, on a good morning, around eight, and go straight to the studio…still in my pajamas… and just start noodling around. Sometimes it’s sketching absent-mindedly, sometimes it’s very pointed, just dive into the painting that I left off on. Then I get ready for work, eat lunch, go to work, come home, and on a good day, I get to work in the evening, too. Just depends on what’s going on. But morning is… I used to hate mornings. I still am not great with mornings, but in my opinion there’s really something to be said for doing art first thing in the day. It just makes your day so much better. My parents laugh when I say this…’cause I’m so not a morning person. Just a beast in the morning. I’m so crabby. [laughter] But making art in the morning, it’s a good thing. You know, before something crappy is gonna happen to you in your day.
And you’re still fresh. I don’t know, it just works well. I mean, I like working anytime of day but…
It gives you a reason to get out of bed.
Yeah, exactly. Instead of dreading whatever it is, you’re just going to work without thinking about it. Then my days off, I try to assemble random things to get done – cleaning, and whatever else, but I always try to reserve at least a few hours, a good block of time to get something done. I used to always dismiss small windows of time, thinking it wasn’t worth it. I’m finding more and more that even if I know I have one hour, and I just get in there and go to it, sometimes I can get more done in that one hour than can if I have like five hours.
Have you shown anywhere outside of South Dakota?
I just started trying to expand. I’ve had a piece down in the Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, TX. I’ve had stuff in their gift shop there for a while, but I’ve just noticed that they started doing juried shows on a certain subject matter. So, this most recent one was on climate change, there’s a lot of my pieces that are kind of dealing with climate and those ideas. So, I entered one thinking nothing would come of it, and right now it’s down there being shown, so…
Very exciting. Very exciting. I’ve definitely spent a lot of time online looking at different galleries and stuff, like where I think my work would be a good fit, but have not really heavily pursued it yet. I hope to as I’m building the amount of work that I have. I hope to enter more shows.
Do you find those just by researching online?
Usually… well with the Art.Science.Gallery I already had some online acquaintances that were making science-y kind of art- it’s a fairly small community -so that led me to them right as they were opening. Usually I’ll see someone’s work that I like, so I’ll follow them on Instagram, or twitter, or wherever. Some of them just happen to be from Kansas City or Minneapolis, so I’ll notice that they’re in a group show. I’ll check out what gallery it is. Does this look like work that I love and might fit in with? That kind of thing. Kind of hard to keep track of. I mean, it’s not like it’s easy to find, but there’s an argument to be made for killing too much time on social media.
I don’t have enough experience to really know how to get into different galleries in different states and stuff, but I’m learning, or I’m trying to learn.
That business aspect of it is a whole new realm.
Yeah. As if the creative part of it isn’t hard enough. I know we talked about some stuff in college, but nothing could prepare me. We never talked about commissioned work, or other ways of making money. Or even much about relationships with galleries or anything like that. So, that’s something really valuable that I got from going back to school for graphic design. It was YoungAe’s attitude that not only is it okay to make money on art, you should be making money on your art. This can be your livelihood. You can enjoy it and make a living from it. I had to do a complete readjusting of my attitude, because when I went into painting I was 18 years old and hook line and sinker bought that “high art.” It’s easy to be that way when you’re in the school bubble, but then you go out into the real world it’s like, what now?
Everybody’s different. Who are some local artists that we should keep an eye out for?
Oh, gosh. Man, I could just list everyone that I know here in town, because they’re all so inspiring to me. Exposure at its first location was just kind of dawning, and Zach [DeBoer] came to me about showing some work. I was feeling pretty lost at the time. I really hadn’t found the community locally, yet. A little bit, but not really. Getting in there, I was so nervous, but I reconnected with a lot of the people I had gone to school with. I met all these new artists from all different places and went to school at SDSU and Augustana. Just extremely inspired by everyone I’ve met. I would say meeting Marc Wagner was really big for me, ‘cause at the time I still wasn’t necessarily fully embracing illustration, and especially building a “brand.” Seeing how he’s kind of built his… empire. Looking at how prolific he is and what a kind human being he is, and so genuine. Understanding that you can actually make some money on your art and not be or act like a sellout in any way. Just be a great person. So, that was really inspiring to meet him. And then Solomon [Carlson], love a lot of what he’s doing. There is some overlap in science fiction inspiration there, embracing illustration and that kind of thing. Gosh, I just feel like I’m going to leave everyone out if I mention anyone else.
What would you like to see happen in the Sioux Falls Arts Community?
Well, for many years I used to think that I would just have to move away, because I felt like there was just nothing happening. You know, there was a coffee shop here and there that would let you hang stuff up, but… Either I’ve changed or the scene’s changed that much in that amount of time. I didn’t feel like there was anything here for me. I don’t know what exactly happened, if we just finally got enough people who have a passion for art?
I think one of the things that we have been missing that JAM has kind of filled is… what’s the word… I’m going to use the word reporting, and that’s not the right word… but like reporting on art events, and creating a buzz around things going on. I spend a lot of time listening to MPR, and they have the Art Hounds that talk about different upcoming art shows and stuff like that in the Twin Cities.
Just giving it the coverage.
Reporting after it’s happened, because lots of times there’ll be a lot of promotion [leading] up to an event, but then they just drop it. Having photos that actually show, like look at all the people, look at all of the art. Just creating some kind of excitement. We need more promotion. More publicity. Some of the community art projects have been great. Like the street murals. Just some way to draw the general public in.
If you’re a young artist, just keep working. It’s all about persistence and patience. And hard work.
Find Sharon’s work here: