ACE Artist Award winner: 'I'm just doing what I want to do'

ACE Artist Award winner: 'I'm just doing what I want to do'

CHAMPAIGN — A few weeks ago, Peggy Shaw was feeling restless. Time to take another one of her impromptu road trips.

It was mainly an excuse to have a moment and think with the winding highway ahead of her, and also capture an interesting sound, find a creepy tree to photograph and shoot video of sand dunes in the wind along the way.

But like much of the art she produces, it needed a piece of her. The dunes needed to be her sand dunes, the ones she went to in northern Michigan as a kid.

Only in that way can Shaw's art command a level of intimacy that instantly draws you in and immerses you in her life story.

"Usually, something gets my attention, and it stays with me for so long that it makes me feel like I have to pay more attention," said Shaw, who will be honored with the Artist ACE Award at 40 North's annual celebration next week. "And usually when you're afraid or something, or something breaks your heart, it's something you need to pay attention to."

As an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, Shaw did art by the book: "You did painting for painting class, drawing for drawing class and photos for photo class."

But her foray into the multimedia, interdisciplinary approach that's so key to her artwork today came when she found out her grandmother passed away in the middle of finals week.

"I couldn't go home for her funeral," Shaw said. "And so I was just trying to process how to say goodbye and let go of somebody when you don't get to have those stages of grief. There's a process of grief, and I didn't get to do that."

So as she worked on her final projects in the middle of the night, frustrated in trying to be a true artist, she said, "Screw it."

"I'm just doing what I want to do," she said. "And I took these 4-by-5 negatives from my advanced photo class, and I just started painting into them and scratching into the emulsion and colliding everything. I took all I knew as an artist and just mashed it together. And when I was done, I said, 'Oh, everything's different now.'"

She realized then that she could use anything to talk about what she wanted to talk about. Now, most of her work is a collage of video, sound and photography often projected on a wall — like her piece "The Compass of Bone and Stars."

"I go through the world, and I collect things — pieces of sound and pieces of moving light," she said. "I did a whole project from my iPhone 4. I just use whatever I got. I have my camera with me, my phone and I take notes all the time. Then I go to my studio and figure it out."

To this day, Shaw said, she has moments of doubt that make her work process long, but leave her happy in the end.

"The most recent piece I did, I just couldn't get it to work," Shaw said. Her busy week meant she could only work on the piece during the weekend, but she was stuck.

Between 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. the Sunday before this year's Boneyard Arts Festival, she only managed to stare at the work.

"But I just worked on it and worked on it, and at 1 a.m., I came up with a very simple idea of what would make it better, and boom, it just worked," Shaw said. "So I say that because if this is what you really want to do, I think you should do it and it will probably lead to something that will lead into something else.

"You just follow those nudges of what you want to do. Because the saddest thing, from my point of view in life, is the people I know that didn't do what they wanted, or what they felt a calling for, and then they're my age and regret they never gave it a chance."

Honor roll

40 North will honor seven people or businesses at its annual ACE (Arts, Culture, Education) awards celebration Thursday in Champaign. The honorees, whose stories we'll tell between now and then:

Advocate Award: Kelly Hieronymus

Artist Award: Peggy Shaw

Volunteer Award: Jim O'Brien

Business Award: Exile on Main Street

Teacher Award: Brandon T. Washington

Student Award: Natalie Wakefield

Lifetime Award: Dorothy Martirano

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