Marlin artist spotlight

Maria Marinelli
Staff Writer

Shawn Riley takes his woodturning abilities to amazing heights with each piece.

At 52, Shawn Riley neither looks like a “typical” Virginia Wesleyan student, nor the stereotype of an “artist.” An unassuming man with a kind face, Riley possesses a quiet confidence that is unlike the brash boldness that many college students embody and the frantic energy of many would imagine an artist to have. Riley sat down to talk about his art, his inspirations and the journey that led him to our campus.
Growing up in “dairy country,” New York, Riley had an early appreciation for the beauty of nature, and began pursuing art in the 70s as a way to “channel his energy” in school. In 2006, after serving for 21 years in the military, he sold the majority of his possessions, bought a small RV and “went for a drive”. He ended up spending six years traveling the country. Although he says “there are still some places I have to go,” his favorite part of the country was the valleys of Montana. But that wasn’t the only place that left an impact on him. Riley eventually ended up in Alaska, and he and a friend taught themselves how to turn wood.
Turning wood is a process wherein a person mounts a block of wood on a lathe, a piece of woodworking machinery, and then shapes it to the desired appearance. When he makes bowls, he rounds the outsides before hollowing out the inside, and then sands and polishes the bowl. Finishing the piece, he says, is the hardest and longest part of the process, but the pieces that he makes are extraordinary. Some look ordinary, like plain wooden bowls, but others are amazing displays of skill, with finely sharpened lids and intricate carvings.
One of his favorite things about woodcarving and woodturning as an art medium is the level of craftsmanship that goes into the art, and that dedication is clear in his work.
Riley also paints, and he sees the Impressionist painters as a major source of inspiration.
“There’s something about representing a scene in a fashion that nobody else has done before that those guys captured…they developed a school for seeing things from a different point of view,” said Riley. He likes painting for the stress relief that it offers him, especially in winter when he has to deal with the demands of work and school.
He is currently working towards a B.A. in Visual Arts and wants to be able to teach or facilitate art in the future. Virginia Wesleyan appealed to him because of the “welcoming and encouraging” nature of the faculty and the small size of the college. Although he does admit that the small size and age of the art facilities are drawbacks.
When asked about advice for budding artists and art students, Riley said, “Be brave. Express yourself and don’t worry about what other people think of your work.” He lamented the fact that many artists doubt their abilities and don’t finish what they start, so he wants people to “do what you’re going to do” and “follow your vision all the way to the end”.
The advice has certainly worked for him. In addition to participating in art shows across the country, Riley, out of over 1,000 other designers, won the 2012 New Designer Search hosted by The Foundary, a furniture and home décor online store. As a reward, his work was sold during a 48-hour flash sale on their members-only website. Within 24 hours, he had sold over 28 of his pieces. If you’re looking to buy, you can contact him through his email,
What makes Shawn Riley truly stand out from the crowd is his dedication to his craft. He cares deeply about honing his skills and perfecting his work, and it shows in the level of technique and talent exhibited in his art. We, as a community, are truly lucky to have such an artist walk among us.