Arts and Culture / DU Alumni / Magazine Feature

Alum makes art from the everyday

Jim Sheesley at work

DU alum Jim Sheesley works on one of his recent creations.

An airplane flies over a row of suburban houses. Parents have a conversation while watching their children play baseball. A woman stands inside a bedroom, peering through a window to the sunny street outside.

They’re scenes of mundane, everyday life, but as depicted by painter Joel Sheesley (MFA ’74), they become magic moments frozen in time; the opening scenes of short stories whose plotlines are left up to the viewer.

“He takes these scenes that on the surface look so ordinary or everyday, but then the longer you look at the pictures you start realizing that there’s more to it than, say, two people talking at a baseball game, or a person in a room,” says Gregg Hertzlieb, director of the Brauer Museum at Indiana’s Valparaiso University, which hosted a Sheesley retrospective, “Domestic Vision,” last year.

When he was at DU in the ’70s Sheesley was an abstract painter, but as time went on he switched to more representational work. When he moved to Chicago in 1974 to teach at Wheaton College—a job he still holds today—he found himself in a strange new world worth documenting.

“I found myself in a kind of society I had never been in before, which was the suburbs of Chicago,” says the artist, now 58. “And the whole nature of suburban life was a brand new and very strange experience for me. I found myself wanting to engage that life.

“I was also at that point aware of literary figures like John Updike and John Cheever. Their take on that upper-middle-class lifestyle became a way for me to interpret and start to understand what was going on around me.”

Sheesley’s paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries around the country. In the 1980s he published Sandino in the Streets, featuring his photographs of revolutionary street art in Nicaragua. In 2008 Lutheran University Press published Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley, a companion book to the Valparaiso exhibit.

“It was an opportunity to look back over 25 years and to see all of these works come together and to find continuity and find difference at the same time,” Sheesley says of the exhibition. “For me, painting has been a process of discovery, and I think that discovery happens through observation.

“I think one of the great things that painting and most art practices teach you is to be ever more observant and careful about what’s happening around you.”

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