For artist Duffy Sheridan, painting is a means to "elevate the human condition"
Increasingly recognized for his contributions to the new “realism,” Mr. Sheridan is unambiguous about how his Bahá’í belief affects his artistic expression.
Mr. Sheridan had just finished hanging three paintings in the main gallery at the 2005 Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art — a prestigious, invitation-only art festival which that year brought together 768 artists from 74 countries.
“My son and I were walking back to the hotel when we heard a woman yelling, ‘Artiste! Artiste!’” said the painter, telling the story during an interview at his home in this American Southwest desert town.
“We started looking around for someone, and we see that she’s pointing at me and running at me with a group of women. They had seen my self-portrait hanging in the gallery and recognized me in the crowd. I turned to my son and said, ‘This is going to be fun.’”
The recognition given to Mr. Sheridan at the show in Florence, where he won the celebrated President’s Award, is all the more significant because of the style of his paintings. Mr. Sheridan is a classical realist and his vision runs counter to the trend in contemporary art toward abstraction.
He is also unusual in the art world because he is entirely self-taught, and because he speaks explicitly of the influence of spirituality on his work. A member of the Bahá’í Faith since 1971, Mr. Sheridan is unambiguous about how Bahá’í teachings and principles affect his choice of subjects and themes.
“There is a direct relationship to what I do as an artist and what I believe as a Bahá’í,” said Mr. Sheridan.
His first big break
Unsuccessful as a young artist in California in the early 1970s, he moved with his family to the Falkland Islands in 1976 to assist the Bahá’í community there. He thought the isolation would mean the end of his painting, but instead it allowed him to refine and refocus his technique and his approach. The sojourn also put him in the path of the Falklands War, an event that required him and his family to spend every night for nearly two months in an underground bunker.
Interest in the war led to his first big break when in 1983 a show in London featured his paintings of Falkland Islanders. Since then, Mr. Sheridan has won increasing notice as an important figure in the realist school.
“I believe Duffy is one of the top 15 or 20 artists alive today,” said Fred Ross, chairman of the Art Renewal Center, a not-for-profit organization in New Jersey that promotes a return to traditional realism. “He has a wonderful technique that gets better and better. He captures the humanity of his subjects, creating very moving pieces that are very compelling.”
In March 2005, the Center honored Mr. Sheridan’s painting “Trust” with the Chairman’s Choice award in the Second International ARC Salon Competition, which had received more than 1,500 entries from around the world. In 2006, one of Mr. Sheridan’s paintings was a finalist in the Third International ARC Salon Competition.
The Center has also honored Mr. Sheridan with the appellation “Living Master,” a title it has bestowed on about 40 individuals worldwide.
In 2005, also, Mr. Sheridan’s “Self Portrait 2004” won the Director’s Award at the International Guild of Realism, a juried show in Dallas, Texas. And again in 2006, his “Promise of Renewal” received the Director’s Award at the International Guild of Realism show in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“I consider him one of the best classical realist painters today,” said Don Clapper, founder of the International Guild of Realism. “His technique, his ability to render light and shadow, is absolutely gorgeous. He really captures the emotions and the life of the individuals that he paints.”
To describe Mr. Sheridan’s style is not difficult: Most of his paintings are simple but highly realistic portraits, often of young women, in elegant classical or natural settings.
Some have compared them to photographs, but the depth of field, the choice of detail, and an indescribable “life” that illuminates them go beyond even the painting school of “photorealism.”
“All I really want to do is to create an image that will make the viewer stop for a minute and say, ‘Honey, I really want to look at this,’ and to do it so skillfully that they can’t ignore it,” said Mr. Sheridan, who is 59.
His choice of subjects — mainly the human face and figure but also natural things like rocks and water and even the wings of birds — come from a desire to portray spiritual qualities he sees in the real world.
“I have found that my eye — my heart — is always attracted to the things which are beautiful to me,” he said. His goal is to call attention to “tokens of the Divine” that he believes can be found everywhere, and especially in the human countenance
“For me, as a Bahá’í, I don’t want to do anything other than to elevate the human condition by pointing to something that is lovely,” he said. “And nature’s best expression of that is usually found in the human face.”
Many of his paintings carry simple titles of virtues — “Hope,” “Trustworthiness,” “Compassion.”
“Most abstract painters believe our true artistic nature is inspired abstractly, but not me,” said Mr. Sheridan, explaining why he prefers to paint people and why he strives for realism. “I try to reflect things that are great in the human sphere. Love for a human being is different than love for a rock or a tree.”
Long path to success
Like many artists, Mr. Sheridan’s path to success was long and tortuous. At one point in the late 1960s, he was working as the manager of a grocery store in California by night and selling simple portraits by day. In another down-and-out episode, he traded his only means of transportation — a red Volkswagen with a leaky exhaust pipe — for a month’s rent and three cords of heating wood.
“His message was that the world had a new teacher or educator from God,” said Mr. Sheridan, explaining the Bahá’í concept of progressive revelation — that all the world’s major religions were sent from one God — and how the process was renewed in the 19th century with the coming of Bahá’u’lláh.
“We realized that if the nature of progressive revelation was true, it was not something that could be ignored,” said Mr. Sheridan.
The couple recalls staying up all night after hearing about the Bahá’í Faith and deciding that they had to embrace it.
“Everyone comes into the Faith in their own way, but for us it was a spiritual experience as opposed to an intellectual experience,” said Mr. Sheridan. “It was the knowledge that even though we didn’t have a thorough understanding of who Bahá’u’lláh was, it was clear to us that the Manifestation of God for this day had come.”
The couple moved to the Falklands in April 1976 in response to an appeal from Bahá’í institutions to travel to areas where Baha’i communities were small or struggling.
They found the windswept islands in the South Atlantic to be a sharp and often difficult change from life in the United States.
“At that time, the lifestyle probably wasn’t much different from what it was 100 years ago,” said Mr. Sheridan. Heating and cooking were done on peat-fired stoves, the diet was mostly mutton and potatoes. “And there was no television or refrigerators.”
To support the family, Ms. Sheridan got a job as a typist for the government and Mr. Sheridan started working as a carpenter. It didn’t occur to him he could make a living as an artist.
“I told myself, ‘Well, there goes any art career I ever dreamed of,’” he said, explaining that he believed that the distance from art centers in North America and Europe would cut him off from trends in the art world and from access to galleries. “As it turned out, it was exactly what I needed for my art.”
The couple discovered that life was so simple in the Falklands that it did not take much money to survive. They were able to live on Ms. Sheridan’s salary, and Mr. Sheridan was able to take up painting full time.
“I was really cut off — as cut off as I could be on the planet,” he said. “And because I didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder, I was allowed to practice according to my own whim. I found that I had a greater tendency towards drawing and painting in a realistic fashion
Learning to observe
He also developed in himself a power of observation — an ability to find what he believes are “tokens of the divine creation” in the shape of a rock or the pattern of a leaf. “I just learned to love to look at stuff,” he said.
Their sense of isolation was abruptly broken in 1982 by the outbreak of the war between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falklands. Thousands of Argentinian soldiers swarmed the island, driving out British officials, and setting up defenses to repel a possible counterattack.
Committed to Bahá’í principles of humanitarian service, the Sheridans ignored calls by the U.S. government to evacuate. Mr. Sheridan helped form the civil defense committee in Port Stanley, the capital, and ended up serving during the war by driving around to check on elderly people and others who could not easily get out for groceries or other necessities.
“With thousands of Argentine troops in town, we were essentially hostages, and we knew that,” he said. “They set up gun emplacements all over town. And we realized this was a real danger… They fired at every cat that jumped out of a garbage can. And the shells they were using would go right through the houses, in one side and out the other.”
Their own house had walls of thin metal siding, “so we went and stayed with a family who had a bunker underground,” said Ms. Sheridan. “Eleven of us spent 56 nights sleeping head to toe in that bunker.”
Before the war, Mr. Sheridan had spent much of his time painting portraits of native Falkland Islanders, a project that became the core of the 1983 show in London that first brought wide attention to his work. A stunningly lifelike portrait of the family’s baby sitter, Anya Smith, ended up on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine in London.
In 1986, the Sheridans moved to Samoa, where Mr. Sheridan painted full time and Jeanne did secretarial work. Today an 8-by-11-foot painting of his hangs in the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Pago Pago. Mr. Sheridan also did a portrait of the Samoan head of state, His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II, who was also a Bahá’í. [Editor’s note: The Malietoa passed away on 11 May 2007.]
Five years later, the Sheridans moved back to the United States, eventually settling in Eloy, Arizona, a desert community in the southwestern United States. Mr. Sheridan has established relationships with a number of galleries and also travels to exhibitions around the country and even overseas, as when he was invited to Florence. He also has a Web site that displays his work and from which prints can be purchased.
Through it all, he has retained a sense of humility. “I don’t ever remember thinking that I was going to be a famous painter,” he said. “I just always wanted to paint. And when the opportunity presented itself to do that, I would do it. And then I managed to start making a living at it.
“But the goal has always been to do it just as good as I can do it. And anything else that happens is in the realm of providence.”