Spring 2005

Shary Boyle Knows Shame
Reclusive artist subverts our most vulnerable moments

(Ed: this version of the article differs from the print version)

Somewhere in a bunkhouse at summer camp, two young girls are hidden away. One proudly grins, lifting up her shirt to show off her (non-existent) breasts. The other squints, aiming a camera at the exposed chest. The girls share this private moment together, unashamed and excited about their changing bodies. These girls could be anywhere really, but they aren’t. The two girls I’ve just described were drawn by a Toronto-based artist named Shary Boyle.

One of Shary’s latest projects is a book titled Witness My Shame, published by Montreal’s Conundrum Press. She refers to the book as a “’best-of’” collection. It is a feisty group of drawings from her mini book-works including collaborative work with Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby (often known for their videos), and some drawings from her regular art practice.Since the book has almost no text, the images are left alone to speak for themselves. Shary says she trusts her viewers, that “people can read images as a language in the same way they can listen to music as a language.”

From drawing to performance, and everything in between, Shary creates clever and inspiring art. Beyond that, Shary also does illustrations for magazines and newspapers. Whether she’s living in Winnipeg, launching book in Toronto, or performing with musician Peaches in Los Angeles, her work is magical and thought-provoking. Arguably, she is best known for her drawings and paintings of girls and women, and her ongoing exploration of sexuality and vulnerability.

Shary, who was born in Scarborough says, “I always had some kind of gift for drawing and I never stopped. I was guided into a performing and visual arts high school. After that I had to make a decision between music and art.” Luckily, art won. She says part of her decision to be a professional artist stemmed from her beliefs, “if I became an artist it meant I would never have a boss, or have to do something reprehensible in the world.”

After high school she continued her studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. When she talks about her experiences at OCAD, she says, “I was bad with authority and not good in group situations.” She says she was a class-skipping punk who was “chomping at the bit to have an independent studio practice.” Since graduating in 1994, Shary has taken her work around the world. Despite the difficulty of living up to such ideals, she is grateful for her independence, and has sacrificed a lot to get where she is.

Shary emphasizes that In order to create, she needs undistracted time with her thoughts. She says, “Toronto is a very social scene where I struggle with privacy and getting enough of it.” Accordingly, Boyle is always traveling, and seeking out foreign experiences. She places herself in cities where she can be alone and anonymous, making the freedom she needs to be introspective, and in touch with the magic of her work. As Shary reflects on her production, she suggests that anyone who is an artist, or is interested in becoming one, read Tillie Olsen’s Silences, a book that examines the need for creation and the things that obstruct or silence it, especially for women.

Part of Shary’s desire to make work exploring the lives of women is to share her personal experiences. She says, “If I can inspire someone to have the courage to talk about things that matter to them, and take emotional risks, that’s awesome! If I tell a secret and it makes someone feel brave enough to tell their own secret, I feel pretty great about it.” Shary was raised in a macho, boy-dominated household with hunters. As such, the experiences of the women in her family were undervalued. Since she was over-saturated with men’s stories, she decided she really wanted to try and balance things out, and talk about women. Although it sounds like she is highly motivated by politics, she says that her working method is intuitive and emotional.

Shary’s work has a strong sense of honesty to it, but she does not slavishly recreate the world we live in. She describes her process as “trying to create an alternate, private universe using fantasy and metaphor as a way of transcending the pain, and banality of being human.” She talks about her art as a necessary means for survival, for making her world a better place to live in. The urgency and importance of her art comes through in no uncertain terms, describing emotions with an alarming degree of accuracy. Though her drawings are often quite dark, she never loses sight of absurdity and humour. The combination of comedy and tragedy work well as partners, feeding of one another. The sadness brings out the strength of the funniness, and vice versa.

When I ask Shary what role music plays in her life she tells me she finds inspiration from it all the time, saying “I really love music, I’m just so happy to listen.” Although she doesn’t want to play favorites, she says “Elliot Smith, Will Oldham, Dolly Parton, Judee Sill, and Smog, to name a few,” are artists that mean a lot to her. On the visual arts side of things, Shary says she really loves the work of Kathe Kollwitz, John Currin, Henry Darger, and Daniel Barrow. She particularly loves outsider art, and always make sure to visit The American Folk museum when she’s in New York.

As much as the characters in Shary’s art are strong and independent, they are equally as vulnerable. Though strength and vulnerability might seem like opposites, Shary makes it clear they are not. She says, “I am interested in re-presenting vulnerability as one of the strongest positions we can be in.” By exposing struggle, these characters show “a courage and hope that they will be identified with, that they are going to be healed.” Boyle feels strongly that her characters can take care of themselves, saying that “if they are offering to expose their vulnerability, they can handle it as a choice.” The more we look at Shary’s work, and the worlds she creates, the more we understand that weakness is only a matter of perspective.