Assembled from chunks of shale strung together like a huge necklace, "Geonome" weighs around 900 pounds. The sculpture, which will lay snaked along the Smokebrush's gallery floor through May, suggests layers of time and a sort of geological DNA. It also meshes well with many of Shan Wells' other explorations of the relationship between humans and nature.
"The complexity of the world we live in is very fragile, and it doesn't take much for a cascade of effects to begin," the artist says. "It's important for us to be aware of the delicate parts of the balance."
The title of his show, The Pause Between Breaths, refers to that same delicate balance.
"By breathing, we willingly exchange oxygen, carbon dioxide and other microscopic materials with the Earth," he explains. "We're both alive."
Wells, 42, also wants his art to be alive, which is one of the reasons he uses natural materials in his sculpture, like rocks, mud, wood and leaves that he finds near his home in Durango. For the artist, the concept is as important as the visual impact of the finished piece — a preoccupation he traces back to his graduate school studies in New Zealand, where art had a definite literary aspect to it.
"There was an intellectual rigor in New Zealand, and your work needed to be metaphorically sound," he says. "You needed to be able to defend what the piece was about, and why."
That rigorous training helps Wells translate his environmental concerns into visual forms, as in "Leafpress," another sculpture featured in the exhibit. Aided by metal pieces, large blocks of wood clamp down on a delicate pile of leaves; the tension is clear, as the leaves are helplessly crushed by the large, man-made press.
This is the first solo show in Colorado Springs for Wells, whose numerous awards include a prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation fellowship, given internationally annually to select people with "recognizable artistic merit" and "demonstrable financial need." Smokebrush director and curator Holly Parker contacted him because his work fit into her focus for this year, which concentrates on environmental and humanitarian issues. Although many artists work with this theme, Parker says she chose Wells because his work "is intimate and thoughtful."
"Some of the materials are manipulated, and some are not," she says, "and the combination of that makes it more interesting."