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Woman’s Magazine, October, 1999:

PROFILE: ANNE SHUTAN

By Deborah Rosenberger

Many of us women have enjoyed the opportunity to take an unconventional course in our education—say shop instead of home economics—but few actually grow up to be a furniture maker or sculptor. Anne Shutan, however, eventually did just that. Having received a B.A. in English from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, she should have plunged into a graduate program in fiction writing. Instead, she chose a path of most resistance. She graduated in 1980, and “by 1981, I had discovered my true passion in life: I realized I wanted to work with my hands. I was encouraged by my parents to be anything I wanted, to do anything I wanted. It just took me a while to realize what that was and to have the courage to pursue it.”

As a child, Shutan spent many hours playing in the dirt, climbing trees, and playing with blocks, an activity she absolutely adored, “and in some funny

way, I get to carry that on!” she says exuberantly. “There is no such thing as a dead tree to me,” so wood was a natural choice when it came time to plunge into working with her hands.

Shutan started out on her path by seeking an apprentice job in a Colorado Springs woodworking shop. “Most of the shops that I approached were not at all amused by my desire to learn woodworking and I was not exactly welcomed until I came upon the ‘right’ shop. I just knew woodworking was it for me.”

Her bold enthusiasm lead her to the door of Jan DeSwart, a renowned Dutch sculptor and bandsaw virtuoso, in 1985. There she apprenticed for two years until his death at the age of seventy-nine. “It was serendipity that brought Jan and I together. An interior designer was taken by my work and introduced me to this master woodworker and sculptor who was semi-retired at the time. It was instant rapport. At the end of our first meeting, he said, ‘You are the person I will share my secrets with,'” and the rest is history.

Shutan pursued woodworking with a vengeance. “I went back to Colorado to gather my things and to say good-bye to a place that I loved so much.” She headed for Los Angeles to become DeSwart’s protégé. “Three weeks after meeting him I literally arrived back at his door along with everything I owned in a twenty-two-foot rental truck, and there I worked with Jan every morning for two hours a day until his death.” At his side, Shutan learned technical skills she would need to realize her visions, but more importantly she learned to explore the artistry of sculpture. Shutan explains that “Jan was such a pure artist. He created because he couldn’t help it—and that was one of our big connections. He experienced life with so much humor and joy, and those feelings were expressed in his work. He taught me to go with the mystery—that art has as much to do with finesse and taking chances as with intelligence and craft.”

Trusting her intuition has played an important role in Shutan’s life and work. When DeSwart Turned down a commission for a custom door, she seized the opportunity to begin her own commissions, trusting the knowledge that she could build anything. “I submitted some sketches, then made five small models, and got the commission.” The day the door was installed, the owners introduced Shutan to a group of friends at their home in Malibu, California. This fortuitous connection has opened doors for her to create one-of-a-kind pieces ever since. In fact, much of her current work is created for clients in California.

After a move to Newfane, Vermont in 1988, this talented sculptor and furniture maker was selected six years later as a featured new artist for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York City which showcased over 400 exhibitors. “The ICFF is very well known, especially in the furniture world. It was quite an honor to be written up as a featured new artist, and it was an incredible opportunity to expose my work in an international venue,” she says earnestly.

When you first lay eyes on one of her creations, your eye glides slowly over the sensuous curves and your hand is overwhelmed with the desire to touch it. Curves and whimsical features are at the heart of her work, but behind the designs and her playful personality is a very serious-minded artist. “Part of my role as an artist is to remind myself and the viewer to smile—an essential ingredient to our survival. Wood is the means by which I get to explore this,” she says.

When examining her abstract sculptures, the tall, free-standing shapes look impossibly simple, yet could only be the creation of a master. In fact, these pieces have been sliced longitudinally from single pieces of wood and then glued together in new shapes. Theoretically, they could be reassembled into their pre-bandsawn dimensional lumber with nothing lost but sawdust.

Her creative whimsy lends itself to such elegant forms as stringed instruments in mahogany that have been taken apart and reconfigured into forms that are decidedly humorous. “Laughter, pain, wonder, sensuality—all deserve to be touched. My work allows a visual and tactile connection with these primal emotions. Discovering the sensation in wood requires a lot of faith and patience.”

She learned this from DeSwart, who encouraged her to explore the greater mysteries of sculpture. “At first I only made sculptural furniture. But once I got into sculpture for its own sake, I found it very exciting because the creation is a complete unknown until it ‘appears’ in my hands. Now. I receive as many commissions for sculpture as I do for furniture and doors.”

Since 1983, Shutan has taken her own custom furniture and sculpture business through three states, having now landed in Colorado. For the last sixteen years her work has been commissioned by clients throughout the United States and includes pieces as diverse as a sculpted walnut headboard and a bleached maple media table. Each piece is individually designed and crafted. Shutan concentrates on one piece at a time, the process for commissioned work from conception to delivery taking from one to six months. Her clients have remarked on the strenuous nature of her creations and how it’s obviously a female sensibility behind them.

Though she now resides in Boulder, Shutan believes it’s essential to travel to meet her clients and see the space the art will occupy. “The client’s personality has a lot to do with the outcome of the piece; my feel of the person becomes part of my instinct and drive in the work.” She discusses the type of wood with the client and any general ideas. Then she returns to her studio in North Boulder to design and execute. She moved back to Colorado in 1994 to live near the mountains and beautiful sky found here, and she is pleased that “residents here are just as responsive to my work and they appreciate my artistic endeavors.”

“It is an incredibly exciting experience to work with a natural medium—being ‘in touch’ with something that is real, working with something that is alive. I love being able to create something as sensual as I am able with something that is pretty much unforgiving.”

One naturally wonders which of her many creations is her favorite. Just as naturally, Shutan says, “The current piece that I am working on at any given time. I recently began creating a cubist instrument sculpture for the Colorado Springs airport that will be installed on a temporary basis from January to March 2000.”

Her works of art adorn her own home. I’m impressed by a one-of-a-kind chess set with over a hundred pieces that Shutan estimates required nearly the same number of hours to create. Another remarkable piece is a very fluid bench with a black walnut seat, decorated with small stones; it is a simply elegant place to sit. But I’m especially taken with her relaxed sculptural beam. Apparently, she has achieved the impossible—taking a square beam and enigmatically turning it inside out. I’m intrigued when she mentions that these beams offer a new twist on the old “post and beam” theme—they can actually be used as structural beams in a new home.

When not designing or creating her signature pieces, Shutan leads the regional workshop of No Limits for women in the arts once a year. This national grassroots organization of women artists welcomes all women in the arts—writers, dancers, actresses, visual artists, musicians, and more—to rediscover and define their largest visions as women artists. “I think it is so important for us as women to reclaim full creativity and intelligent thinking by building supportive communities and close relationships that allow us to move our art and our lives forward.”

This two-day workshop is held each year, helping women discover their potential as artists, and to work at the level of their hearts. Therein lies the success of Anne Shutan. “Once I tapped into that previously oppressed part of me I was open to explore my true passion with wood. I knew I was doing what I was destined to do, but it was not until I worked with Jan that I honed my craft as a true artist.”

Shutan is a shining example of how one woman has followed her heart and created a world that she can live in. “Each piece has its own secret. I need to listen to help it come out. Sometimes the design hits immediately; other times, I sit with the wood for awhile, then suddenly visualize the piece. But as I work, surprises happen. And very often, the accidents are more exciting than the original idea. Perhaps the accidents are the secret.” I am convinced that nothing Shutan creates is an accident.

“When I’m not playing in the studio,”—and it’s the heart of Anne Shutan to consider that she’s playing, not working—”I do a lot of biking and hiking, and supporting other artists to keep reaching for their largest visions. I enjoy being with friends, being silent, playing my guitar, and generally taking advantage of this incredible space we all live in.”

As a returning guest artist of the Open Studios Tour on October 2-3 and October 9-10, she will help participants gain a new perspective on the world of art while whey are meeting one of Boulder’s more fascinating artists. Perhaps you will see first-hand how she turns a beam inside out, and you can share in her world of whimsical imagination.