Professor carves conversation out of wood

Photo courtesy of Mary-Lou Zeek

Photo courtesy of Mary-Lou Zeek

Lizzie Martinez

For Totem Shriver, adjunct professor of art and visual culture, art is not just something to do: It is where you live. The world around the artist permeates the art, he said.

“Would I be creating the same art if I lived in the desert?” Shriver said. “I doubt it.”

Originally from Kansas, Shriver moved to rural Oregon 23 years ago. He also lived on the East Coast, an experience he described as worth it because of the museums.

His art has reflected the nature around him ever since his move. Wood is Shrivers main medium. He said he has always been drawn to the senses of smell and touch. Each piece he creates grows from his own designs. The designs do not depict a specific picture; rather, the images draw from a subconscious level, he said.

Once he has drawn a simple design of basic shapes, Shriver begins creating the final form by working with the wood.

“Wood has a voice,” Shriver said. “I like finding the voice of the wood in the piece. People who are drawn to my work understand the conversation I am having with the wood.”

Though he does not use models, Shriver said his work is not abstract because it is generated from a specific design. The image may not be concrete, but it is a carefully planned composition.

“Everyone sees images they recognize [in my work],” Shriver said. “It opens the field to interpretation. I hope the viewer walks away with questions, not answers.”

Currently, George Fox University is hosting some of Shriver’s woodcarvings in a show. Freed Gallery in Lincoln City and Bush Barn in Salem also sell woodcarvings by Shriver.

For the last six years, Shriver has been teaching art at Linfield. He mainly teaches introductory art classes, such as Image Management.

“Teaching has added a lot to my work,” Shriver said. “It has made me grow as an artist.”

Shriver asks students to complete several pieces of art in different media. Shriver said the point is not for the student to try to please the teacher, but for the student to explore his or her own expression of art.

“People get stuck in the ‘I’m not good enough’ phase,” he said.

To work past the block in students’ work, Shriver focuses on giving them the tools necessary to develop and execute a design using basic principles of composition.

“I like to introduce exercises and get out of the way,” Shriver said. “They need time to think; art is 90 percent thinking.”

Sophomore Helen Maltese said she enjoys the open-ended projects in a variety of media, though sometimes it is difficult to discover what she wants to do with her art.

One of the most rewarding elements of working as an adjunct is watching the students grow, Shriver said. He usually meets students during their freshmen or sophomore years when they enroll in introductory art classes. He said it is interesting to see how they change during their four years, from freshmen exploring art to senior art majors hosting thesis shows.

Many of his students are not art majors. Shriver hopes they come away from his classes with an appreciation for art and the ability to
critique it.

In his class, Shriver emphasizes that art is not a random collection of shapes, but a designed composition that can be analyzed from many perspectives including color, form and lines.

“I’ve learned to be less traditional when it comes to judging art and what is ‘beautiful,’” Maltese said about Shriver’s class.

In addition to being a working artist and adjunct professor, Shriver also pays the bills by working as a massage therapist. Though he is always doing something, Shriver is never too busy for art. He advises artists to make time to create art.

“You can think all you want, but it really requires sitting down and going forward,” he said.

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