As galleries in Austin try to navigate the ebb and flow of COVID-19 restrictions, it’s become increasingly clear that nothing is set in stone. Even for a stone cutter.
For Meghan Shogan, whose Vault Stone Shop in South Austin has been featuring walk-by window shows since April, the approach has been to just go with the flow.
“It’s been somewhat spontaneous, I’m just trying to keep it very low-key for the artists,” she says over the phone.
Her springtime group exhibition, “Saints and Intermediaries: The Ballad of Saint Elmo’s Image” has been pushed (tentatively) to the fall. Her current window display is serving as a preview of that show, timed well with Saint Elmo’s June 2 feast day.
The Catholic martyr is an unlikely namesake for a neighborhood which has gone from industrial landscape to multi-family developments in the last five years: a brewing company, elementary school, and self-storage facility all honor his name, right where I-35 and Highway 71 make the sign of a cross with their endless streams of traffic. On South Congress, East Saint Elmo Road and West Saint Elmo Road misalign by a block, with the latter dead-ending right into Shogan’s shop.
The gallery owner and part-time stone worker (her full-time job is in construction management) moved into the live-work space two years ago, kicking off the gallery with an official opening last fall. She has a small area curtained off where she keeps her own tools on display, as well as a little drafting table and light. When it’s appropriate, she opens the curtains for visitors, revealing her own artistry with her whatever else is going on in the gallery.
For her current walk-by window exhibit, Shogan asked one of the participants for the postponed “Saints and Intermediaries” show to create an offshoot project of Saint Elmo. Saul Jerome San Juan (“SJ” for short) had the idea to create an egg tempera painting of the saint, based on an album cover done by the Norwegian-based artist Izzy Kovalevskaja for the Wisconsin-based Brave Mysteries Recording Company.
“He likes to go off on tangents,” Shogan says of SJ.
From there he recruited six bonus artists who have nothing to do with the original “Saints and Intermediaries” group show and asked them to produce work for this preview exhibit, which is titled “Feast Day of St. Elmo: Saints and Intermediaries.” The current offshoot of the original show (which was supposed to open May 1) runs until the end of June, with live painting activations scheduled throughout its four-week stint.
For the preview, SJ decided to play a game of visual telephone. He invited artists Thomas Cook and Richard Ashby to paint their own versions of his Byzantine-dazzled religious icon, who in turn, showed their respective paintings to Jeffrey Primeaux and Erika Huddleston, who then offered their own interpretations of the original work (which they had never seen), to painters Valérie Chaussonnet and B. Shawn Cox.
Inevitably, the original’s details mutated from one iteration to the next, much like a virus.
Saint Elmo’s original iconography has also changed over the centuries; he was born Erasmus of Formia, though Elmo had a nice ring to it. There are competing versions of his martyred death, as well as confusion about the object often depicted in his hand. What was initially interpreted as ropes wrapped around a ship’s windlass may have actually been his intestines coiled around a spindle. As a result, Saint Elmo is not only the patron saint of sailors, but stomach aches.
“SJ wanted to play with this mutation of how the history of the image came about, and how the attributes of the saint changed based on misinterpretation of a picture,” says Shogan.
The seven versions of Saint Elmo can now be seen in the Vault Stone Shop window, one of a handful of quick shows running until the end of summer. Turning a storefront into a small exhibition space is one of the few non-virtual ways to experience art these days.
“A lot more people are walking through the neighborhood right now since you can’t really do anything else,” Shogan tells me. “I wanted to activate the window space so they’d have something to check out; maybe they’ll come back when we’re open again.”
Vault Stone Shop is not your typical art gallery. Located in the Public Loft building, a shiny new mixed-use development on the stretch of South Congress south of Ben White, it is far from the east side’s eclectic art scene. The shop is a part of the ground floor retail area along with such boutiquey businesses as a home renovation firm, an organic skincare store, and a hair salon.
“This part of Austin is quickly changing, and before it becomes too commercialized, I wanted to carve out a space that’s a little offbeat and more community-based,” explains Shogan.
When Meghan isn’t busy carving out cool art spaces in condominium complexes, she can be found carving stone sculptures at her outdoor work studio east of Hwy. 183. The 33-year old has been doing smaller freeform pieces as of late, though she trained extensively as a traditional builder in the restoration field. (Shogan has long been interested in ancient architecture as well as old stone buildings.)
In 2011, she was accepted into France’s prestigious Foundation de Coubertin, where she was not only the only foreigner, but the only woman (they have only ever accepted one other female apprentice, sometime in the 1990s). The school’s stone department has a brutal reputation, Shogan explains, even for the promising French male students. Unsurprisingly the pretty blond from Pittsburgh was met with resistance.
“I learned so much at the end of the year and a half, and I earned their respect,” she says. “I still keep in contact with them — I really want to go back and work on Notre Dame.”
Back home, Shogan has dealt with more subtle discrimination within her exceedingly male-dominated field. The company which brought her to Austin in 2012, for example, initially hired her to be a stone cutter. But they took one look at Meghan and placed her in the office instead: “That’s how I started learning construction management skills, even though I really just wanted to work in the shop.”
Up until March, Shogan was juggling her full-time project manager job with 20 hours a week in her workshop, as well as her gallery space, which she also lives in. Though all of the storefronts at the Public Loft building are live-work spaces, Shogan is the only one dwelling in hers. The back room is her bedroom and all her furniture is on wheels.
I ask what the biggest challenge has been since the pandemic began and she’s quick to state the obvious: isolation. By opening a gallery, Shogan was hoping to further knit herself into the new neighborhood. She also misses attending art openings herself, seeing familiar faces and feeling like a part of a larger community.
“Stone carvers are very much isolated loner people, even when we’re working together we don’t really talk.”
Nonetheless, she feels lucky to be primarily at home during the pandemic. Her outdoor workshop has also proven to be a bit of a sanctuary, with only two other stone carvers on the premises. She’s hoping the original Saint Elmo group show will still happen come fall, though cramming people into her 500-square-foot space has gone out the window.
For now, she’ll stick with just the window.