Daydreaming on canvas: Duluth artist takes whimsical ideas and transforms them into imaginative, fun paintings


In Shawna Gilmore’s world, bicycle wheels are made of cucumber slices — a style that is trending in Europe. There is a wide hole in the floor of the wilderness where children and a bear observe outer space. A girl’s dress helps her blend into the flowered wallpaper; she tips a watering can.

Gilmore, a Duluth-based visual artist, collects in a notebook these slightly off-kilter scenes in barebone sketches and funny phrases. They come to her from things she’s read and observations — ideas and more ideas that she paints during daylight hours in the studio of her Lakeside home.

“I daydream a lot,” Gilmore said during a recent visit. “I feel like I’m a professional daydreamer.”


Gilmore’s acrylic painting of the girl with the watering can — “Watering the Wallpaper” — is among one of the featured pieces in the Duluth Art Institute’s 61st Arrowhead Regional Biennial. The exhibition, which has an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, has work by 33 artists as selected by guest curator Dyani White Hawk, a full-time studio artist who was gallery director and curator at All of My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis.

“Wallflower” is part of a new series by Gilmore that shows girls in patterned dresses in a room with similarly patterned wallpaper. It’s an idea that appeals to the self-described introvert.

“I was looking over old sketchbooks and, actually, this theme has been coming up for years, this idea of disappearing into whatever the space is,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had the skills or a way to solve the problem. I’d attempted it many times.”

With “Wallflower,” her vision came to fruition.

“I was like ‘Yay! My idea finally worked,’ ” she said. “I really like the isolated figure. I really like children, innocence and wonder. The world — it’s all possibilities. I like interior space and exterior space and how they mix.”


Porch studio

Three years ago, to create a studio, the Gilmore family repurposed the front porch. She had been eyeing it since she and her husband, writer Eddy Gilmore, moved in but first it was used primarily for storage.

They bisected the porch with a windowed wall adjacent to the front door. They added French doors to separate the space from the living room. She has an easel, a single lamp and floor level heating. There are hip-high shelves filled with books, and her paintings are scattered and stacked.


Gilmore paints at a small desk in the corner while listening to, primarily, true crime podcasts.

“I solve a lot of crimes while I paint,” she said and laughed.

She’s visible to passersby. She has come face-to-startled-face with the mail carrier and sometimes people stop to watch her work.

“The fact that I can see the sidewalk is a plus and a minus,” she said.

Gilmore said she likes having a space at home just off of the family’s primary living area. She can stop easily for lunch or tea, plus it works with her subject matter.

“This is cozy,” she said. “Home inspires me, and I paint about domestic stuff.”

She works while her 11-year-old twins are at school. At night, she closes the curtains on the space. It can be like a fishbowl, she said.


Back to work

It’s been about a decade since Gilmore decided she needed a creative outlet to balance out raising two young children. She took over a 4-by-6-foot space in the basement — a former coal room with cement walls and floor, a wood ceiling and light from small lawn-level windows and a single bulb.

She started painting again, late at night.

“In the beginning, I was desperate,” Gilmore said. “I was like ‘When can I get to the studio.’ I just had these ideas.”

Among her first series: The adventures of her childrens’ stuffed bunny, always left behind in some sort of whimsical way.

“I’d come into a room, and it would be doing something hilarious or sitting on the coffee table like a centerpiece. ‘This is my life right now. Toys,’ ” she said.

Eventually Gilmore moved to the dining room, which added a level of chaos.

“I’d be like, ‘Stop bouncing the ball’ or ‘Don’t do a handstand there,’ ” she said.

Regardless of location, the ideas kept coming.

In addition to writing, her husband is also a farmer. He inspired a series with vegetables alongside slogans. “Lettuce is relaxing” has a boy leaned against a bunch; “Veggies make you stronger” shows a boy holding a beet over his head; “Cucumber bikes are all the rage in Europe” features a woman holding a bike with sliced cuke wheels.

“I have too many ideas,” she said, pulling out a collection of paintings of an animal in rhyming situations — maybe, someday, it will be a children’s book.

“Bear in a chair,” she said, flipping through the pages. “Bear hanging in there.”

Bear in the air.

Bear without a care.

This past winter she had a show at the Duluth Art Institute. “Land of Wonder” was described as exploring science, fairy tales and a world of topics in between. Anne Dugan, curator and director of the art institute, said Gilmore’s work has a touch of darkness and that it has been compared to European fairy tales.

“A lot of her work is about exploring imaginary realms and other spaces,” she said. “It’s daydreams brought to the canvas. I like it because the whimsy and wonder in her work isn’t always safe.”

Gilmore keeps sketchbooks filled with rough designs and phrases like “she preferred to stand on the ceiling” or “the girl who could light up the room.” Some of the ideas come from things she has read. Some come from the vintage photos she collects as source material, works by collage artists, Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” Before she falls asleep, she likes to imagine outer space — and is sometimes coaxed from the bed to quickly find her sketchbook before the image dies.

“I can’t sleep if I have an idea,” Gilmore said.


If you go

What: Duluth Art Institute’s 61st Arrowhead Regional Biennial

When: Opening reception 5-7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Duluth Art Institute, 506 W. Michigan St.

Gilmore online:, and @shawna_gilmore on Instagram

Written by Christa Lawler for the Duluth News Tribune