A Winston-Salem iconoclast’s life work in review

by Jordan Green


Seated in a wheelchair in the recesses of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Anne Kesler Shields greeted her many fans in the Winston-Salem arts community.

It was a good place to be: To get to the artist, visitors at the opening reception for Shield’s 50 Year Retrospective exhibit were required to work through one or another strand of her evolving practice — traditional portraits or abstract explorations of light and color — to reach the full bloom of her artistic vision: a provocative series of collages displaying a strong social conscience, a sharp critique of how women are portrayed in mass media and searching questions about the intertwined forces of militarism and religion.

Shields’ smile stood out like a beacon in the crowded gallery, but visitors had to lean down to hear her fragile voice. She has been struggling with cancer and is not currently able to work. Following a private gathering and about 45 minutes into the public opening last Friday, Shields’ husband, Howard, said his wife was feeling tired, and they would be heading home soon. She stopped to pose for some pictures with her grandchildren, and then they were off.

A retrospective might seem like a diversion from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, or SECCA’s mission, considering its obvious focus on the cutting edge. But Shields, who received a classical-arts training and graduated from Hollins College in Roanoke Va. in 1954, has relentlessly sifted through different art styles to refine her personal vision and continuously worked to refine her craft, even while raising a family. She also served on the founding board of SECCA, which formed as the Winston-Salem Gallery of Fine Arts in 1956, said Steven Matijcio, the center’s curator of contemporary art.

“Both on the canvas and behind the canvas she was a pivotal figure in organizing the larger ecology of art in Winston-Salem and, really, the region,” he said.

But it’s Shields’ art itself, not her role in promoting the arts that is the focus of a retrospective curated by Tom Patterson not only at SECCA and but also at the Mary Davis Holt Gallery at Salem College and, beginning on Oct. 22, at the Charlotte & Philip Hanes Art Gallery at Wake Forest University.

“What’s immediately apparent about her work is that it’s surveying the ‘new’ or unheralded in a pan-historical way,” Matijcio said. “And what’s different about Anne Kesler Shields is that she gets increasingly provocative and transgressive as her career progresses. You usually see the opposite — that artists begin by rebelling and then gradually mellow.”

Shields’ prodigious output defies summation or categorization, but the arc of her career reveals an artist who busted out of the confinements of her own experience and class identity. The 1953 self-portrait using classical techniques to illustrate a young woman on the cusp of adulthood gives way to impressionistic landscapes and formal abstract experiments with light and color. Later, supermodel Cindy Crawford makes an appearance superimposed over Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.”

Shields post-Sept. 11, 2001 work includes over-sized collages such as “Towers 9-11 to Abu Ghraib,” whose juxtaposition of images explores the nature of atrocity, national mobilization and religious passion. Other pieces related to the Sept. 11 attacks are by turns provocative and emotionally affecting, including a photograph of the New York City skyline that shows the towers as an absence; “Prayer Towers,” which superimposes Islamic prayers towers in the void of the World Trade Center; and “Split,” which slices up a picture of a bare-chested supermodel with the towers-in-absence motif.

Patterson, an independent curator who also freelances as an art critic for the Winston-Salem Journal, first encountered Shields’ work in the late 1980s. He approached SECCA with a proposal to curate the exhibit.

“As she was in her late seventies, and such an accomplished artist, I thought she deserved a retrospective and the community deserved to see it,” he said. “Nobody else seemed to be doing it.”

For her part, Shields said she is pleased to see her life’s work recognized in a retrospective. But it’s clear that the process of making art has been her real satisfaction.

“I realized I was an artist,” she said. “If you’re an artist, you need to work at it.”


Anne Kesler Shields: 50-Year Retrospective runs through Jan. 6 at the Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art, located at 750 Marguerite Drive in Winston-Salem. A companion exhibit, Anne Kesler Shields, 60 Years: Portraits and Appropriated Images, is on display at the Mary Davis Holt Gallery in the Elberson Fine Arts Center on the campus of Salem College through Dec. 15. A third retrospective exhibit of Shields’ work opens at the Charlotte & Philip Hanes Art Gallery on the campus of Wake Forest University on Oct. 22.