When she was growing up, Shelby Prindaville thought she was going to be a marine biologist. Then by college, she was going to be a lawyer. But there was no law undergraduate program at the University of Pennsylvania where she was enrolled, so she turned to her childhood love: art.
"I was indeed creative as a child and fondly remember competing in county fair art contests. I didn't know it would be my career, though," Prindaville tells MNN.
Although she pursued law-related extracurriculars and internships, she focused on art.
"I graduated right when the 2008 financial crisis hit, which severely impacted legal professions, and I simultaneously realized that art was actually a viable career option for me, so I began to pursue it instead. I think societal scripts about starving artists may have contributed to the delay in realizing I wanted to be a professional artist, but it's been working out for me so far!"
Prindaville's art encompasses paint, sculptures and mixed media, but the underlying theme is always nature.
"I have always been drawn to the natural world. I grew up in a rural town and had a number of formative experiences immersed in and interacting with the outdoors," Prindaville says. "Nature can provide such a wealth of experiences that are just inaccessible otherwise. I have never felt so small and unimportant — in a strangely comforting way — than when out alone in a vast wilderness."
She compares the outdoors to an otherworldly experience.
"Visiting different ecosystems is like getting to visit alien worlds, rich beyond my own imagination with nevertheless real beings. I mean, have you read about mycorrhizal networks?! They are absolutely magic on Earth and you can't convince me otherwise."
Prindaville says each piece has its own story, but her entire body of work is intended to encourage environmental conservation.
"Some pieces celebrate the joy and beauty that is a part of a conscientious engagement with nature, and other pieces are darker, hinting at or outright showing the losses we suffer from ecological imbalance," she says.
She enjoys the responses she gets from people who enjoy her art.
"People have been really receptive to my work, though funnily enough there is absolutely a cultural preference for particular subjects," she says. "I bring along prints of my work to show and sell when I travel on artist residencies, and some prints that sell really well in the U.S. don't do so well in France or Spain and vice versa. U.S. audiences tend to have a little more of a soft spot for raccoons than European ones, for instance."
Prindaville says she works in different mediums because she has many favorites
"Some subjects or concepts seem to me to be best suited to painting," she says. "Other ideas are better suited to relief or sculpture, and my favorite medium for those is an extremely versatile polymer clay that I helped develop with Louisiana State University chemistry professor John Pojman, called QuickCure Clay or QCC. I often end up using mixed media and a range of substrates because I enjoy the variety which also frequently draws in more diverse audiences."
Prindaville has several favorite pieces right now including the painting "Volcanic," shown above, and the sculpture "Albrechare," shown below.
"I like 'Volcanic' because I really think I nailed the color space and the juxtaposition between the hyperrealistic Gran Canaria giant lizard and the abstracted volcanic landscape, plus I had a connection with this particular lizard and I think it shows," she says.
"'Albrechare' speaks to me because it's layered with references. I decided to sculpt a famous watercolor by Albrecht Dürer called 'Young Hare' and then referenced North American folklore by giving the hare some jackalope-esque horns that also call to mind sheltering branches and a whole ecosystem."
Science plays a big role in Prindaville’s work. She's collaborated with scientists on testing new art mediums and worked with the staff of several greenhouses and botanical gardens on acquiring the seeds and plants she's used in her living interactive installations.
"I always research the species that I'm working with, and I gather firsthand experiences observing and sometimes even interacting with them. (Holding a tame puffin is like holding an inquisitive marshmallow.) The fields of botany, ecology, environmental sciences, environmental ethics, horticulture and zoology are all relevant to my artwork and my research," she says. "I would like to collaborate with scientists even more, and have applied to a few artist residencies (and bookmarked a few more!) that would assist me in that goal."
Many of the subjects of Prindaville's pieces seem to approach the viewer from interesting perspectives.
"In some ways I reference scientific practices like taxonomic illustration in my work, but I also try to diverge from overly familiar perspectives or color palettes to entice the viewer and suggest that there's more to my subjects than they might otherwise have credited," she says. "I don't want people to take the environment for granted — coexisting with it requires active care but does come with great rewards."
Born and raised in Concordia, Kansas, Prindaville has worked as the art program director and assistant professor of art at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, for more than five years.
When she's not instructing her own students, Prindaville is always learning — and that helps her arrive at some interesting conclusions.
"I would like to share that you can catch koala chlamydia if an infected koala pees on you, and it manifests in humans as a form of pneumonia. Imagine attempting to explain that to your boss," she says.
"Maybe adore koalas from a bit of a distance and don't take any impromptu naps under gum trees until we can help koalas sort out the plague of chlamydia that's decimating their wild population (in concert with habitat loss). Instead, if you're going to get peed on by a wild animal, choose a binturong. You'll end up smelling like buttered popcorn."