The music of Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, and Jimmie Rodgers reverberates in a tiny second-story art studio in downtown Santa Barbara. The twang of American Roots guitar is a fitting accompaniment to the featured artist’s work. Joe Shea’s American Folk gallery provides a shadowboxed view of a back-country road trip, complete with highway motels, shady looking characters, and broken down truck carcasses. Sea monsters and frightened fishermen also make an appearance. Shea combines sculpture, painting, and assemblage, using bric-a-brac collected during his cross-country sojourn to create a series of unique works. Each work is set in a open-faced wood box that was found, bought, or made in America.
Shea, originally from Boston, thinks art should be about “being able to enjoy happy accidents.” American Folk was inspired by a road trip he took with his girlfriend, also an artist. “Something turns all of our juices,” the artist says, and for him it was the idea of creating a gallery that would allow its patrons to take a walk through the America he had seen.
One piece in particular catches the eye: the form of a woman blowing out a powerful wind toward a group of tiny birds, wasps, and fish. “This one was inspired by our drive through New Orleans,” Shea explained. “We passed through before the storm, and when it was over I couldn’t help but think of the change. The wasps, birds, and fish are the symbol of change.” This piece, titled “Sea Breeze,” hovers in the middle of the collection, and whether intentionally or not, seems to separate the ocean-themed pieces from those representative of life on land. Shea’s surreal view of America is both endearing and inspiring, and might just make you want to pack up the camper and haul yourself across the United States.