When Art Calls

A local artist finds inspiration through adversity


Some of us spend years searching for our life calling – that quintessential American Dream career, a profession that pays the bills and simultaneously fuels the soul. The seed is planted early in childhood when parents and teachers ask inquiring young minds their answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Some debunk the reality of a calling, taking solace in a job that transforms decades of service into cold, hard cash and the means to live a desired lifestyle.

While these perspectives are diverse, both camps might agree on one account: the person who finds his life calling is one lucky dude. Local artist Shawn Duff stumbled upon his true calling, except he did it when he felt anything but lucky.

Three years ago, Shawn’s mom received a harrowing end-stage cancer diagnosis. Shawn, out of work at the time due to injury, assumed the calling of caretaker. He drove her to and from the litany of cancer-related appointments, translating doctor speak into gentle, digestible information. Three months into his stint, his calling was cut short. His beloved mother lost her battle with cancer and took a piece of Shawn’s heart with her when she did.

Nail-biting anxiety punctuated Shawn’s grieving process. He wasn’t only broken up over the loss of his mother, he was also broke in the literal sense. Still out of work, his bills piled up with the due dates looming like doomsday. Worry and fear wreaked havoc on his brain, rendering sleep little more than an impossible dream. During one bout of insomnia, he tried to quiet his mind with the mundane task of organizing his closet. Beneath the abyss of acquired clothes, he discovered three blank canvases and oil paint. He purchased the materials years ago when he thought about rekindling a short stint in painting, one he describes as an “aggravating, forced attempt to create art.”

That night, he laid a sheet down on his living room floor and started painting. An hour later and his art spanned three canvases. “I didn’t know where it came from, I’d never done something like this before,” Shawn humbly confides. “Things were so bad, you get to a point that you don’t know where to turn. I just started praying. Things started coming. Something kept saying to me you’re going to be okay, just paint, everything’s going to be okay. And I did. And it was.”

Looking back though, it was anything but all good instantly. For starters, his confidence was low. In a panic to make his mortgage payment on time, he channeled the gumption to phone a friend, inquiring if they’d like to see and subsequently purchase a piece of his art. This friend, whose anonymity is guarded by Shawn, just so happens to be a prominent player in the Rhode Island art scene and was blown away by Shawn’s art. He purchased a painting and told Shawn to keep at it, adding that his work needed to be seen.

This next stage was fierce. Shawn persisted, facing money problems and the rejections that go hand in hand with entrepreneurship and putting oneself in the arena. In the midst of this turmoil, his cup seemingly empty, he still managed to give back. He donated two of his paintings to Peace-Love Studios in Providence to be auctioned off for charity. In Shawn’s words: “There’s a simplicity in kindness. As bad as it gets, you still have to try to help others.”

Shawn views his artistic talent as more of a spiritual awakening than a calling. His voice is eerily ethereal when he states, “The work I’ve produced, I’ve stopped and looked around the room and I knew that I didn’t do it. There’s a spiritual guidance going through me when I’m painting. I can’t take credit for it. I’m an instrument with a brush.” It’s as if his art flows out of him and on to the canvas. Often, he takes a step back, shocked at what he sees. In between the rolling waves of an ocean seascape or peeking out of the brushstrokes of a golden sandbar is an added element that he didn’t plan. Shawn chalks it up to prayer and the spiritual journey that he’s grateful to be on.

Be it a calling, divine intervention or a karmic return on investment, Shawn is succeeding. He’s sold numerous paintings to KitchenBar restaurant on the East Side, loaned out others to the Rhode Island State House and boasts of local art aficionados visiting his home gallery and leaving with more than they came with. Now, he’s gearing up to unveil his life calling to the rest of us in his exhibit at AS220. Shawn’s show premieres in the AS220 Open Window Gallery on May 4 at 5-7pm.


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