Spotlight Artist November 2020: Kirsten Shanks

For our new series “Spotlight Artist of the Month”, the Art Gate team will interview emerging artists to get to know better their career path, give an insight on their type of work and talk about their views on the art world in general. The aim of this series is to give the opportunity to young artists to present themselves and the artworks they have produced along with celebrating their achievements. 

For this month of November, I decided to interview Kirsten Shanks, a recent Glasgow School of Art graduate who is primarily concerned with using drawing media including water-colour, charcoal and gouache on a large scale. Her art focuses on reinterpreting traditional landscapes as seen by the British Romantic Movement to convey a sublime but melancholic undertone. Kirsten’s works have been showcased in a variety of galleries and creative spaces in Glasgow, including Bourdon Gallery, The Glue Factory, Transmission and most recently SaltSpace, where her exhibition Cherub was on display between 1-12 October 2020. This exhibition is based on a body of work that Kirsten has produced as a result of her 2019 research trip to Florence, which was awarded by the Royal Scottish Academy. 

Kirsten Shanks at her degree show, Glasgow School of Art, 2019
Ph: Kirsten Shanks
  1. Tell us about your time at the Glasgow School of Art. What are your best memories of that time? What was your favourite art class and why? 

I have been graduated for just over a year and as much as I miss being in the studios, it is good to be away. I met some amazing people at the Glasgow School of Art and I have so many happy memories of being in the studios, encouraging and distracting each other, so those are my favourite moments. As for the Art School itself, I was happy to be leaving, the institution has a lot of issues and as a student, I felt a lot of time was wasted feeling either frustrated or disappointed by how the school was run. In terms of classes, the course is mostly self-taught, with dedicated studio spaces so we did not have set classes other than mandatory life drawing for the first few years, which suited me. That being said, I did spend time learning about etching and lithography from the printing technicians who were great and during my 4th year I spent a bit of time in the photographic darkrooms, which I loved. I only wish I had been able to start this earlier.  

2. When did you know you wanted to become an artist? What do you think are the main difficulties behind pursuing a career in the art world for young people today? 

I have always been pretty certain that this is what I wanted to do. I do not really remember wanting to be anything else. Being an artist is a pretty unstable career choice, financially speaking. Most people have to balance another job alongside making work, unless you are already financially stable, which most young artists are not. Funded residencies and affordable opportunities are competitive and hard to come by. I really do not have enough experience to know yet, but as a graduate, it feels as though your career might just be a mixture of luck and waiting for an opportunity, all of which probably requires more patience than I have. You have to invest a lot of yourself, spending a lot of time on your own, trying to develop your own ideas which only really matter to you, so of course, I have and I still doubt if it is a career I want. At the same time, I have had a really fortunate first year after graduation, with a funded residency and a non-fee-paying studio residency at SaltSpace in Glasgow, which has made continuing to work as an artist so much easier.  

Kirsten Shanks’s exhibition Cherub at SaltSpace, on display from 1st to 12th of October 2020
Ph: Kirsten Shanks

3. I noticed that your artworks emphasise the importance of drawing mediums. What is your preferred medium and what is the reason behind this choice? 

Yes, I generally work with a combination of watercolour, gouache and charcoal in the larger paintings. I am more confident working in watercolour compared to oils and love working with such a fast-drying medium. I spend a lot of time prepping the surface so that the paint can dry into the base similarly to how a fresco would dry.  

4. Who or what are your biggest influences in art? 

I go back and forth between looking at photographs, drawings and paintings but at the moment I have been looking at Renaissance painters like Federico Barocci and Giovanni Bellini for composition. Regarding contemporary references, I keep coming back to Ida Applebroog for composition and then Cat Roissetter, Clara Drummond, Tacita Dean and Mithu Sen for drawings. About photography, I will always love Fay Godwin’s book Our Forbidden Land and Ingrid Pollard’s landscape series Pastoral Interlude. Romanticism has been an important influence on my work. The Romantics celebrated the natural world through the sublime, picturesque and pastoral, ideals which still underpin our cultural understanding of the land in Western society today. Ironically, in a time of environmental warning, these beautiful ideals make us gloss over reality. This line of thinking is explored more by contemporary photography theorists like Marianne Hirsch and the curator Liz Wells; both of their writings have been really influential to me.  

5. Name three of your favourite art hubs in Glasgow.  

Streetlevel Photoworks, David Dale Gallery and SaltSpace Coop.  

6. How did covid-19 impact your career as an artist and did it affect your view on the importance of art/artist in society? Did you re-discover art as a therapeutic practice? 

At the beginning I did not spend much time making art at all, I did not feel inspired or motivated, which is why I was thankful for the SaltSpace deadline, otherwise, I would have kept procrastinating. I do not think I have ever found painting therapeutic, I get quite easily frustrated when things do not go how I had planned. I prefer drawing, it comes more naturally to me than painting. Some days it works and some days it really just feels like you are burning through expensive materials. Artistically speaking, covid-19 has not changed much for me, other than the postponement of my show at SaltSpace, which gave me extra time to make more work for the show and play about with cyanotypes, which I have loved making. Art is obviously valuable, whether it is music, TV, film, painting, photographs, books, they are all valuable to society. Culturally, they are the means by which we grow and learn, they give us enjoyment and keep us company. Being in lockdown has not changed my mind about any of that. But with the added financial pressure from covid-19, it is likely that there will be more funding cuts for the arts, which means less opportunities and less encouragement to study art, specifically in lower income areas, meaning less diversity for the future within an art context that is already barely diverse enough.    

7. Tell us about your 2019 research trip to Florence awarded by the Royal Scottish Academy. How did Florence influence your style? What new perspectives or ideas did it help you conceive? 

Florence was incredible, it was the first time I had been to Italy and I loved being there. I cannot fully describe the experience, everything was memorable. The gardens definitely made a lasting impression on me. While the Romantics created the poster picture of the idyllic landscape movements, the Renaissance roots are equally important in understanding how culturally we have such a warped rose-tinted view of the land. It was incredible being able to spend so much time in these places. I am still working through all the research pictures I have from the trip, so it is hard to tell how much my work has changed right now but I am sure the experience will continue to feed into any future work I make.  

8. Through your art, you reinterpret traditional landscapes as seen by the British Romantic Movement. Why did you choose this specific art movement as inspiration? Is there an ecocritical perspective you are interested in displaying through your artworks? 

Yes. For my degree show this was definitely the case. I mimicked a couple of Briton Rivière paintings as compositional references and more recently I have been adding aerial views of Renaissance gardens into the foreground but the skies all stem from sublime Romantic skylines. My interest in the Romantics has come about pretty naturally over the past few years; they come within my field of interest in the history of the land. I particularly became interested in the idea that the Romantics are partly to blame for the rose-tinted views that society has of the landscape today. The Romantics rose around the same time as the world was industrialising and as this happened people migrated to cities and slowly paintings of the land substituted window views. Overly emotive landscapes are designed to make the human heart ache, consequently the celebration of these images has become so culturally ingrained within society that they have warped our reality of the land. Ironically, their celebration of the natural world now acts as a cultural blockade against environmental reality. While my work stems from those ideas, I am not overly interested in having the viewer know all of that when they see the work. I am trying to make nice pictures that have a somewhat melancholic undertone, and the viewer can use their own imagination to dream up whatever feelings or ideas they have. I will continue to add in clues or hints that suggest some sort of environmental sadness but my own personal ideas do not need to be the only answer. 

9. Tell us about how the exhibition Cherub at Salt Space (1st – 12th October 2020) was born and what is the meaning behind the title. 

Initially, the show was going to be called Forgotten Cherubs but I decided to shorten it. The idea for the show was to reimagine cherubs and figures from the time of the great Enlightenment and surround them with Romantic skylines, gardens and symbolism of the past. I was aiming to make light of a cultural weak spot by painting them within the contemporary context. When reimagined today in our current climate of persistent dystopian warning, their fate is limited.   

Discover more on Kirsten Shanks’ Instagram page   

Kirsten is also available for commissions. Send an email to if you wish to contact her.  

Published by Belen De Bacco

Co-founder, editor and manager of Art Gate blog. 3rd-year History of Art and English Literature student at the University of Glasgow. Currently volunteering at the Hunterian Art Gallery and creating online content for the initiative #MuseumFromHome.