Anthony Shostak is a painter, an art educator (21 years as the Bates College Museum of Art ‘s curator of education), a father, a cat owner and a musician many times over.
Among his instruments, Shostak plays the uilleann bagpipes. His words to the wise: When playing, wear pants. And he’s full of other great advice.
Name: Anthony Shostak
Lives: Raised in Lewiston, resides in Greene
Coolest part of your day job: There are many cool aspects. Among them is the fact that I get to hold history and human endeavor in my hands and share that thrill with students of all ages. It’s great to see a kid’s face when I say something like, “No, this is not a picture of a Rembrandt, this is a picture by Rembrandt. He made it with his own hands. He touched this paper.”
You describe your own paintings as metaphysical, philosophical and allegorical. Paint a verbal picture: What’s that look like? Some of the paintings I find most fascinating to look at are from the Northern Renaissance, where the world looks completely convincing down to minute details and yet things also look strangely fake, like stiff porcelain miniatures of the real thing. I am particularly fond of painting forests in a manner inspired by (though not nearly as good as) a Gothic artist known only as The Master of the Embroidered Foliage, whose work I used to see daily when I worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and whose foliage really does look like needlework.
So the paintings are dramatic, with craggy mountains, forests with tiny highlights describing leaves, and soaring clouds in cerulean skies. Sometimes the sky is painted an unnatural, unmodulated red or gilded with leaf — another inspiration from the Gothic era. So, my allegories are fantastical landscapes which look several hundreds of years out of style, with figures and action alluding to classical and Old Testament mythology as a way to comment on more timely issues such as the inexorable merging of biology and technology and today’s military and ideological conflicts.
How’d your artwork get you to Cuba? I worked with a professor whose research area was Latin American history. She saw a couple of my paintings hanging in my office one day and commented that they reminded her of the work of some Cuban artists she knew. The next time I heard from her, she was calling to tell me to expect an invitation from a curator in Havana who was working on a series of exhibitions for the Union of Artists and Writers, which did, indeed arrive a short time later.
So, I was able to travel to Cuba legally on a “cultural ambassador” exemption to our government’s ban on travel there. Many artists warmly welcomed me into their homes and studios, with mojitos all around as soon as the introductions were over. There was fabulous art all over the place — highly accomplished work. Art training in Cuba is very, very good. It was a real honor to exhibit alongside such powerful artists. The curator, Arelys Hernandez, kindly introduced me to some of the artists who run an experimental printmaking studio, and there I was paired with a master printer who helped me make my first lithograph. I stayed up all night working on the preparatory drawing for that, which wasn’t too hard since before every social event broke up at 1 or 2 a.m., everyone drank a cup of espresso to “help you sleep.” Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep, but that just allowed me to pack more into every day. I hope someday I can repay the kindness of some of the artists I met and bring their work here.
You play so many instruments — are you self-taught? Yes, I am pretty much self-taught on 5-string banjo, uilleann pipes and didgeridoo. No doubt the road would have been both smoother and quicker if I had had the sense to find a teacher. I’m now trying to learn accordion and hurdy-gurdy, though I’ve recently been side-tracked by penny-whistle so that I could help my son to learn.
For the uninitiated, what’s an uilleann bagpipe? Uilleann pipes are the most recent and most complex iteration of the bagpipe, dating back only to the 1700s or so. “Uilleann” is the Irish for “elbow”: with a bag held under one arm and a bellows under the other to inflate the bag, a piper’s elbows are constantly in motion. My pipes were made here in Maine by the wonderful craftsman B.C. Childress of Kennebunk. Uilleann pipes are not very loud, being designed for indoor playing. They mix well in your typical Celtic ensemble of fiddles, flutes, harps and such, without overpowering them.
Is there kilt-wearing involved? Well, you play uilleann pipes sitting, with your legs spread a bit, so a kilt could be a bit shocking for the audience! Blue jeans are more the kilt of choice for uilleann pipers. Or a suit; there is definitely a dapper contingent to the uilleann piping community.
More rock stars should rock out with: a) Uilleann bagpipes, b) Didgeridoos, c) Hurdy-gurdies? For a rock band, I would definitely go for the hurdy-gurdy. They are fully chromatic, the notes can be bent with ease, they have all the sustain you could hope for and they are capable of an amazing variety of sounds. And of course, unlike a piper, a hurdy-gurdyist can strut around the stage while playing, which makes for what most fans are likely to find a more dynamic performance. Run your hurdy-gurdy through an amp that goes to 11 and you’ve got all you need to rock out all night long. Or at least until your neighbors ask you to stop.
Advice you wish you’d heard 25 years ago? There was no dearth of good advice. I wish I had been wise enough to heed it.
Your advice to aspiring artists/musicians? Pay attention to the basics. Without them you will forever be frustrated, whereas once you have them, you will possess the necessary foundation with which to realize your vision and find your voice. And remember, learning to do anything isn’t so much a question of aptitude as it is one of attitude.