DUART — “Art has been a constant throughout my life,” said Austin Sheppard, an award-winning sculptor.
That’s not an unexpected proclamation from a professional artist. But for someone who who grew up in a remote location in Bladen County and can claim “farmer” on his resume, Sheppard’s journey into the art world is not the usual one.
As an artist and teacher at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Art Department, he is thriving. Sheppard won three top awards in juried art exhibitions this year. The most recent came from the Tryon Fine Arts Center’s 2017 Biennial Sculpture Exhibit & Sale.
His work titled “Indigo’ is a 6-foot fiberglass, wood and found materials sculpture that judges said “exudes a striking presence.” It was a self-portrait in a hyper-realistic style.
Sheppard does not put a label on his style.
“Some call it surrealism, but I don’t know if that fits. Some just call it disturbing and weird,” he said. “Indigo is a super realistic piece with non-realistic texture and color.”
The work took a year to complete. Sheppard also makes smaller scale pieces and “wearable” works, such as the tin can man that stands prominently in his studio.
With tin cans hung with string from a welder’s helmet, it makes music as it moves, and viewers can pick up a can and make a phone call if they wish. For this kind of whimsy, the accolades are rolling in.
Sheppard will have a one-man show in April at the Florence Art Center. He will be working on it beginning in December because of the distraction of another major project at the university.
“I’m a bit tired this morning, because we were installing the display case for the new university mace,” he said. “There will be an unveiling on Friday.”
A mace is a medieval weapon that, today, finds its way to the hands of UNCP marshals, who lead graduates to their commencements. The university has been in the process of designing and sculpting a one-of-a-kind mace for more than a year.
“I am the project manager,” Sheppard said. “When they came up with a design, they had to make a physical object. I’m a multi-media sculptor, so that’s right in my wheelhouse.”
Only committee members have seen the finished product, which weighs a healthy 11 pounds.
Sheppard said, “Everybody likes it.”
All of this sounds like the career of a professional artist, but for Sheppard, there were many bumps in the road.
He grew up on a farm, located in the crossroads community of Duart. His family has farmed the land continuously since 1735, and he lives there today with his parents and an uncle.
Duart’s post office is in St. Pauls, but Sheppard attended Tar Heel High School in Bladen County, where he was class salutatorian.
“I never, never studied, never opened a book,” he said. “School came easily.”
The tiny rural school didn’t prepare him to study art at a major university. He took his first art class in his senior year.
The first year at East Carolina University proved overwhelming, and Sheppard returned to the farm. Seven years of farm work convinced him to give college another try, but this time at UNCP.
“The plan was to transfer to ECU after a year or so,” he said. “At 25, I had my head on the shoulders.”
Sheppard literally brought tools to school that most 18-year-olds don’t have. He had spent time in the farm workshop and knew how to weld and use power tools, among other skills.
There were some adjustments. On what he thought was the first day of an intense summer ceramics class taught by art professor Paul Van Zandt, Sheppard got a scare.
“When we started working, I noticed everyone else in the class seemed to know what they were doing,” Sheppard said. “I asked one of the students where he learned that. He said, ‘yesterday, during the first day of class. I had missed the first day of class. It took me a while to get my first ‘A’ from Van Zandt.”
Under the mentorship of art professors Van Zandt and Ralph Steeds, Sheppard realized that UNCP was the place for him.
“At UNCP, I made the transition from art student to artist,” he said. “After working with Paul and Ralph, I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
Sheppard worked long hours in the studio at UNCP. His next step was to return to East Carolina and earn a master of fine arts degree. There was a touch of sweet redemption.
After earning his master’s degree, Sheppard spent four years at Davidson College’s Art Department. Two years ago, he started at UNCP as a studio technician and lecturer. He is teaching drawing this semester and sculpture next semester.
UNCP is still a good fit, and Sheppard calls his department “a good team.” He is proud to say, “We nurture students at UNCP.”
Sheppard has two studios, one in a tin farm building and one at his house when the weather becomes extreme. The remoteness of the farm is a blessing and a curse for an artist.
“I can get a lot of work done here because it’s so isolated and free of limitations,” Sheppard said. “Isolation fuels my work. If I get an idea, I can get into the studio right away.
“But there is no art community here.”
The studio, which is located in a cluster of farm buildings that includes a smokehouse, mule barn and carriage garage, was a workshop until the farm tractors got too big for it. Plenty of daylight streams in from a large window and the gaps in the tin.
“It’s got character,” he said.
Tools and other farm objects adorn the walls. Sheppard has named it the Sausage Factory, because he creates art from everything and anything he can find.
The studio is as unique as Sheppard’s career in art.