Brushing With Fame

Duffy Sheridan, an extremely quiet, very private artist who worked in virtual seclusion for almost two decades, has made an impressive appearance in Sedona's art world.

To the casual observer, it might seem that Duffy Sheridan has spent much of his life trying not to be discovered. Living in relative seclusion in the far corners of the world for the last 17 years, he has created thousands of oil portraits few people have seen - until recently.

Indeed, while living in the primitive Falkland Islands for seven years, he burned hundreds of finished canvases he says he wasn't satisfied with. If a painting doesn't "speak" to him, he asserts, he won't sign it and doesn't want others to see it.

Yet, Sheridan's work has attracted the attention of art lovers on five continents, and it is included in government, corporate and private collections. His portraits are showcased in the Deanery of Westminster Abbey and on the walls of private residences of kings, judges and bishops the world over.

Sheridan relocated to Sedona a year and a half ago, and last year, he won the "Best Painting"' award in Sedona's Western Americana art competition. More recently, he claimed the "Best of the Best of Sedona"' title in a public-judged competition held at Red Rock Museum. His works are displayed in numerous galleries, including Hugh Perry Gallery in Sedona, and he has been signed with prestigious Mill Pond Press for international distribution of his limited-edition prints.

The secret is out, and artist Sheridan cannot hide his breathtaking, realistic, oil portraits from the public any longer. Art lovers on all levels - from professional collectors to those who simply know what they like when they see it - are sending a message: They want more of his intricate, photo-perfect images of human spirit.

True to his quiet, private nature, Sheridan seems slightly amused by this recent attention - in a shy, almost disbelieving kind of way. He says he really is not sure why his paintings are suddenly so appealing, but he is glad if others are finding beauty in his work.

The truth is, his paintings have always charmed those who have been lucky enough to see them - even in miniature, like the 11 tiny portraits celebrated as commemorative postage stamps for the 150th anniversary of the British settlement in the Falkland Islands. Images in this collection included Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, and one portrait was featured on the cover of internationally circulated Stamp Magazine.

On a larger scale, literally, Sheridan has a huge, 8-by-11-foot painting hanging in the new cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Pago Pago in American Samoa.

Some art collectors haven't needed to see Sheridan's real work to fall under its spell. Years ago, at the height of Sheridan's seclusion, his father sold a painting titled "The Death of Cordelia," from King Lear, based solely on a photograph he showed the anxious buyer. He called his son with the good news, but unfortunately, it was just hours after the perfection-seeking Sheridan had dropped the $4,000 painting into a bonfire.

"It just didn't have the right life to me," Sheridan said of his charred masterpiece. "I didn't want to sign it. Perhaps I should have waited a bit longer and given it time to grow on me."

This frustrating experience helped encourage Sheridan to put his art in the public eye and accept the acclaim that is rightfully his. A one-man show at the Royal Festival Hall in London was covered by numerous radio and television stations throughout the United Kingdom, and eventually, this show prodded him to allow his pieces into the limelight.

Following that decision, Sheridan and his family returned to the United States and traveled for months looking for a new home. "One day, we were coming over the ridge from Cottonwood and saw the amazing beauty of Sedona. My wife and I looked at each other and we knew that we finally had found our home," explained Sheridan. Now, working out of his home near majestic Capitol Butte, Sheridan says he is very satisfied to be in the art world's eye.

During the long, isolated years that marked Sheridan's almost-two-decade sequestration in the Falkland Islands, American Samoa and Argentina, he and his wife, Jeanne, and their children immersed themselves in their Baha'i faith, which emphasizes the spiritual unity of mankind.

"Our faith teaches that the earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens,"' explained Sheridan.

"The isolation and religion we experienced were critical, to my art form," says Sheridan, who received no formal training except for instruction on how to mix colors from his father, also an artist. His deep introspection on the character of his fellow citizens led to his photo-sharp, vital oil paintings of the people around him.

Sheridan's concentration on the human element also led to his constant quest for perfection - "because people are the most observed creatures in life, and any imperfections are immediately apparent,"' he explains. Further, simply mimicking features on canvas is not enough for Sheridan; he says he is challenged to improve on reality." When creating a painting, I strive for an element that celebrates the human spirit - a look, a movement, a casual occurrence that enshrines power and grace in time." he says.

Indeed, in one of his portraits, "First Flower," Sheridan captured more than just a lovely girl on a balcony." It was my wish that my model's expression and the gentle first light of morning in her hair would warm the canvas as well as the viewer's heart," he stated. Sheridan accomplished this in an extremely effective manner, for "First Flower"' seduces the viewer with a young girl's quiet, but radiant, flirtation.

Set in beautiful Tlaquepaque, as are many of Sheridan's recent works, this canvas breathes with every strand of sunlit hair and every wrinkle in the young girl's simple, cotton dress. Such is the detail in this and every one of Sheridan's pieces, that the girl's skin and hair look soft, silky and touchable. In another portrait, "Anya Smith," the lace in the subject's blouse looks hand-sewn to the canvas, and in "Innocence,""the flowers in a girl's robe are lifelike, down to every thread-fine petal.

Without exception, all of Sheridan's characters are beautiful from a young, virginal girl with flowers in her hair to a weathered, elderly man Sheridan met in the Falklands. The details of these magnificent paintings blend so as to create a symbiotic effect that is almost haunting in the way that they are captured with the artist's self-described "eagle eye." With each portrait, this artist strives to showcase a positive emotion of living - a challenge, he says, "since human beauty usually is not as obvious as the beauty in a brilliant sunset."

Nonetheless, the beauty of Sheridan's work always is apparent. "I appreciate the richness of humankind," he says. "The purpose of my work is to magnify the dignity and nobility of the human spirit, and the singular beauty in all things."

This unique motivation of human spirit is, perhaps, what makes Sheridan's portraits so magnetic. His award winning "'Young Girl in Kimono,"' for example, compels the viewer to look again and again at the tender profile, as if waiting for the young woman to turn, smile and step out of the frame. His subject, 16-year-old Nathelle Damhesel, an aspiring model and family friend, is featured in a number of his most-recent portraits. Damhesel's dark, elegant beauty has inspired Sheridan's current focus on "black-eyed, dark-haired damsels in romantic dress." Most of his subjects are friends, acquaintances, or imaginative visions stirred from photos.

While his smoky models impart a natural sultriness that has become a cornerstone of Sheridan's work, their looks also pose a challenge. "The quality of the look, the magic in the eyes, is so important," he says. "If the eyes don't work, neither will the lips, or nose, or anything else. With dark-eyed people, it often is difficult to capture their inner light."

This uncompromised quest for perfection is why Sheridan destroyed many of his earlier pieces, but it also is what keeps him creating new work. When asked if he is much more critical than the viewer, Sheridan shyly admits, "'Perhaps some pieces I don't like really are OK."' Yet, he says he needs severe, inner criticism to fine-tune his craft.

Sheridan can tell after a week whether a new piece will meet his exacting standards, he says, and if its character will motivate him to continue. Because each work takes at least a month to complete, spiritual motivation obviously is essential.

"I always like my work when I start it," stated Sheridan. "The goal is to like it as much when I'm done. The perfection I'm after isn't entirely technical; it's a combination of craft and art. Skin tones must have the right colors, but they also must reflect the vibrancy of life."

With regard to his heralded art, Sheridan slowly is allowing himself to appreciate the magnificence others see in his creations. He is learning how to accept credit for his unique talent. "As I mature, I realize there has to be a goal in my work," he says. "I want to pursue what's in my heart by presenting the wonder of people in my art. I want to progress very positively, and I feel that if I can combine my vision of beauty with competent technical ability, then I am doing that."

In answer, a growing number of art aficionados are saying, "Thank goodness, Duffy Sheridan finally is sharing his art with the rest of the world!"

by Carey Sweet
Sedona Magazine, Summer 1993