BABY, WE’RE AMAZED…SHANNON IS “THE WORLD’S GREATEST BEATLES ARTIST” By Sandra Castillo
Consider it sheer coincidence or synchronicity properly aligned with the timing of the assignment at hand. When this writer set out to ascertain the preliminary research needed to successfully establish my next article for RG Magazine, featuring renowned Beatles artist Shannon, imagine my surprise when the song “Hey Jude” erupted out of the speakers at the café I frequent most days to write, while sating my early morning caffeine fix. This selection of song, a most welcomed inclusion on the soundtrack played daily at the coffee shop, buoyed my spirits immediately. It was the perfect, musical foil to accompany the feature I was working on of the famed artist, recognized the world over for her uber-realistic portraits of the Fab Four and other major luminaries, past and present, including Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Sylvester Stallone and Muhammad Ali, their legacies extending well beyond the fray of music, cinema and the sports arena.
As I studied the intricate, superb detail of Shannon’s masterpieces, courtesy of her websites, I was awestruck by what my eyes were feasting upon. Every portrait, an exquisitely-detailed, striking creation of the four men from Liverpool, who went on to conquer the world with their irresistible charms and musical influences, is testament to the magnitude of her artistic gifts that simply defy the imagination. Honestly speaking, her life-like images of John, Paul, George and Ringo took my breath away.
Regarded as “The World’s Greatest Beatles Artist,” a title bestowed unto her by The Lord Mayor of Liverpool and the city of Liverpool, Shannon’s dedication and reverential treatment she imparts every one of her masterpieces has, undisputedly, elevated her to Rock Star status in the art-world and amongst her peers. Shannon does for Art what The Beatles have accomplished in Music. Both have left an indelible, everlasting impact on the universe and on those who have been transformed by the power and persuasion of their benefactors.
Shannon MacDonald, who goes by her first name only, professionally, was born in Lakewood, New Jersey but had spent the majority of her life in Bayville, which she describes as a “tough, little town in Jersey, 11 miles from the ocean, and rumored to be the hideaway of mobster Al Capone.” She now resides in Pennsylvania and Liverpool, England.
RG Magazine had the dubious honor of contacting her, where she was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule and speak with the publication about her life, art, music and illustrious career as “The World’s Greatest Beatles Artist.” This is her story…
Shannon, what age were you when you began to create art?
My mom explained I was only two years old. Most kids scribbled. I was already drawing stuff you could understand.
Do you recall your very first art piece that you worked on?
Not really. I was so young. I do remember drawing The Beatles a lot…The Beatles and John F. Kennedy. I guess that was a sign of the times.
Do you have any formal training? If so, where did you receive your art education?
I failed art in school. I had invites and scholarships to and for several art schools, but you have to pass art in high school first. My high school art teacher and I did not see eye-to-eye. And she made me quite aware of that. When she got tired of seeing me draw The Beatles, she told me, ‘You’ll never get anywhere drawing those pigs!’
My Junior High art teacher, Ms. Marshall, was amazing! My Social Studies teacher, Mr. Ron Villano, told me to get out of Bayville, New Jersey, if I wanted to achieve anything. THAT was a great influence! Most of my teachers, I didn’t achieve influence at all. They were dull and overbearing. My main influences usually came from the outside.
What art mediums do you work and create with?
My “go to” is canvas and airbrush. It’s like comfort food to me. Then, the list is endless, from clays to paint to resins to wood. My fave paint to use is a green-friendly paint by PPG called Envirobase. Love it! For striping and Kustom Kulture (hot rod world), I like 1-Shot enamel. My clays are Chavant NSP or Monster Clay. My woods are curly or quilted maple (when I build guitars).
You had posted some art of Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick that you did when you were, I believe, 17-years-old. It was a fantastic depiction of the musician. Was this your first attempt to create “Rock Star Art?”
No, I had done “Rock Star Art” before but for no one in particular. I had created something for Paul and Linda McCartney (of their children) a couple years before, but it was stolen off the stage, and they never saw it. Sad story.
But honestly, it was only my passion for the band Cheap Trick that inspired me to paint Rick Nielsen. I had a concert ticket to see my fave band and wanted to say, ‘Thanks for the music, Rick!’ Never had a clue it would land me backstage and a lifelong friendship with Rick and the band.
Who or what compelled you to combine your talent and your love for Rock and Roll to create a body of work that, quite frankly, boggles the imagination?
Well, I started this thing called “life after high school” with a guitar. After failing art, I said to myself, ‘Y’know what? I don’t think I will take this road anymore. I want to learn music now.’ That was my crossroad. It was new, it was challenging, and I could prove to myself I could do it. So, I taught myself how to play bass guitar. Truly, it was Paul McCartney that taught me how to play bass. I just listened to every Beatles song and learned it note for note. I started with the albums Meet The Beatles and ended with Abbey Road. By the time I had finished the catalog, I was accomplished and out on the streets making good cash. So, I continued the journey learning other instruments, eventually writing my own music and singing my heart out. I only went back to art, because the bottom fell out of the music club circuit in New Jersey and New York after the drinking age was changed. I never stopped playing and writing. I just found the closest and easiest way to provide for myself without being a slave to the grind. I started a sign company, hand-lettering anything and everything. Then, someone gave me an airbrush. The airbrush truly sparked whatever was left in my heart for painting. My passion for art was reborn!
On what or whom did you “test drive” your newfound airbrush skills?
So, my first, serious airbrushed painting was of John Lennon. Go figure! I entered the Battle-of-the-bands at some local Beatles festival. It wasn’t to win. It was to have fun doing what I love and playing what I love. For giggles, I entered my John Lennon piece in the art contest. We were packing the van with our music gear after our show and just about to leave, when someone came outside and said, ‘Hey! You’ve forgotten your painting!’ And I said, ‘Sh#t! I sure did!’
So, I went back inside, and it was gone from where I had left it. In a panic, I asked someone where my painting had gone. They said, ‘It’s onstage in the main room.’
‘Because you won first place.’
And that’s how it all began. The next year, I came back with more art and sold some of my pieces. It snowballed from there and has never stopped.
For me, Art feeds the music as does the music feeds the Art.
You have been given the prestigious title, “The World’s Greatest Beatles Artist.” Who bestowed you this honor?
In 1994, while at a Beatles festival in Connecticut, I met Bill Heckle and Ray Johnson. They were from The Cavern Club. All the way from Liverpool. I was pretty impressed. They introduced themselves to me but paid no mind to me, myself. They just stared at my artwork. In a little conversation, they told me they had a great plan, and I was the missing piece to the puzzle they had been working on.
‘We’ll be in touch, Shannon.’
So, as life would have it, I never heard from them and moved to Los Angeles. I had just painted postage stamps of Sly Stallone a year before and was invited to New York City on the set of Copland. While sitting there, Sly said to me, ‘You can’t do anything with your art here. You need to move to LA.’ With that magical bug in my ear, I did…about four months to pack everything, including my red Corvette, and I was gone.
All comfy in my Los Angeles home, and I get a phone call at four in the a.m. ‘Hello, Shannon? It’s Billy from The Cavern in Liverpool. We need you to come out. Can you make it? No worries, we’ll take care of everything.’ So now, I am heading to Liverpool, England. Where it all began! By myself. I get there and meet with Bill for about five minutes, and he says, ‘We are sending you to meet the Lord Mayor. Then, we’ll talk.’
On my way there, I asked my chaperones, ‘Is there really a Lord Mayor of Liverpool? I thought he was just a fictitious character in the Yellow Submarine movie.’
They had a laugh. Then, we met him.
At that time, surprise to me, I was given the title “The World’s Greatest Beatles Artist,” by The Lord Mayor of Liverpool and the city of Liverpool. Then, we had some tea and biscuits. I signed my name to the history book, right next to Princess Anne’s signature and went back to The Cavern. In one hour, life, as I knew it, had changed.
When I arrived back at Cavern City Tours, it was, then, that I heard of, the piece of the puzzle that soon became me…The Hard Day’s Night Hotel project.
Because of that fateful meeting with Bill Heckle and Ray Johnson, you were commissioned to do the artwork for their Beatles-themed hotel, The Hard Day’s Night Hotel. You were also a hit sensation at the Beatles Convention that you made front page news at the Connecticut Newspaper. However, it has been reported that you almost did not make it to the fab-festival.
I almost didn’t go because the transmission in my van gave out. We called my van “The Ghetto Cruiser.” Things were tough back then, and you did what you could to make ends meet. My van was not some luxury ride, hence its name, and it reminded me of just that-more often than not. So, there I was, defeated and my van was broken (again). Somehow, like always, I pulled it together at the last minute and got a rental. I repacked, and off I went to Connecticut.
When arriving late, I set up as fast as possible and began to paint. It was the first day of a 3-day show, so it must have been a Friday afternoon. Exhausted, I finally finished the night and off to bed I went. It was a long day.
In the morning, I set up early and began to paint. I was feeling great! A gentleman came up to my table and asked, in an English accent, ‘Who are you?’ Mind you, he was not pleasant.
I said, ‘Hi, I’m Shannon.’
He asked, again, ‘Yeah, but who are you?’
With that, I became uncomfortable. Again, I said,
‘I am Shannon. Can I help you?’
He said, ‘I want to know who you are.’
I said nothing but stood in utter embarrassment as a new crowd was gathering, other than the ones watching me paint. He threw a newspaper down and pointed at my photo on the front page. A color photo. I smiled with delight. Not what he was looking for! I slowly came back down to earth and was rid of my smile.
He was loud now. ‘I want to know who you are. Cynthia (Lennon) was supposed to have this front page, and here you are in her place…AND IN COLOR!’
I didn’t know what to do but apologize. ‘I’m sorry. I had no idea. This is all news to me and unexpected.’
He pushed the newspaper forward, pointing a finger at the bottom. ‘There is Cynthia. Black and white and at the bottom! I want to know who are you to take her credit?!’
He looked at me hard and finally walked away. I slowly went back to painting…confused and more confused.
An hour or so had passed, and I was deep in customers and paint. I was slowly forgetting the events from my morning meet. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw he was back. I thought, Dear God…
He flagged me over and said, ‘Cynthia wants to meet you tonight at the bar on the second floor. 8 o’clock!’
And off he went. It was now about 2 p.m. I had six hours of nervous time to think how Cynthia Lennon was going to rip me to shreds. It was agonizing and got worse as the day dragged on.
At 7:30, I cleaned up my area, closed down, grabbed my portfolio, and off I went to hang in the gallows.
As I walked into the bar, I saw she had it shut down. It was closed! She actually closed it down just so she could kill me! She was across the room on a couch with “that horrible man.” (He turned out to be her boyfriend, Jim Christie)
As I walked the death mile to Cynthia, I began to shake. She said hello, and I readied for the most brutal tongue lashing of my life. I greeted her back. She looked straight at my portfolio, which I had forgotten I was still carrying, and said, ‘If that is your portfolio, may I have a look?’ I surrendered it to her like I was hypnotized. She flipped through every page and never said a word. She studied the images. Some folks flip through flippantly. Others truly look, and I know what a true looker is. Still, this did not put closure to my worry.
When she was finished, she closed my art book and looked up at me with a smile.
Here it comes, I thought. But she spoke words, I will never forget.
‘I grew up with these boys. I was there at the beginning. You have somehow managed to capture the fire and hunger in their eyes. You are amazing.’
For the first time in six hours, I realized I wasn’t going to die. We had drinks, and Cynthia spoke of John, art, her new life and her fave subject…Julian.
When speaking of Julian, she lit up. The evening ended after nearly an 8-hour visit.
That weekend, I also met May Pang, Pete Bennett, Mark Benson and other folks that I became friends with. Pete would always call me “the hardest working woman in show biz.”
That particular Beatles Convention slammed me through doors I never anticipated.
Who are some of your muses?
That’s a tough one…right there, on top, is Charlie Chaplin. He was amazing! Then, there is Norman Rockwell, an artist that I have looked up to, since I was in my single digits. My Aunt Terry spent endless hours teaching me “color,” probably, the most important thing in my world now. I can’t escape “color.” It lives within me, so, I think my Aunt Terry will always, as well.
Where is your art on display?
The Hard Day’s Night Hotel (Liverpool, England), The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland, USA), The Cavern Club (Liverpool, England), ASET Gallery (Salt Lake City).
Besides art, you are also heavily involved with music, too. When did that come to be?
My first love has always been my music. Nothing in the world sends me to another place like music.
When I was sick a few years back, I had some truly hard times with excruciating pain from tumors embedded into my spine and sciatic nerve. My pain management was the guitar. I could “go away” inside my head and forget the pain. I would play for hours until I literally fell asleep. Music has moved me through doors I have never expected and even lead me back to painting-something I thought I would never do again.
I’ve had the good fortune to play with folks like Alan White (John Lennon/Yes), Steve Holley (Wings/Joe Cocker/Elton John), Joey Molland (Badfinger), Denny Laine (Wings/Moody Blues), Roger Glover (Deep Purple), Simon Kurke (Bad Company), Gene Cornish (The Rascals), and so many others.
I have recorded at Electric Lady Land under the guidance of Mark Mangold and Roger Glover. I have worked with dear friend, Grammy Winner, Dennis Ferrante on many studio projects. I have played in small clubs that sat 20 people. I have played The Echo Arena in the UK which seated 10, 000. Though I must say the roar of 10, 000 people, after you have been introduced to them, can be intoxicating and easily make you want to play “that particular kind of gig” every night.
My studio bandmates, today, have been longtime friend and collaborator/guitarist Lou Pucci, longtime friend and drummer Jimmy Scarpone, drummer extraordinaire Steve Holley and newest friend and guitarist Jimmy McElligott. Others include Vinnie Sisser, Jonny Ihle, Jesse Ford and Tony Anzivino.
Don’t get me wrong. I love painting and creating. In the end, it’s all a “giant pool of ART.” Isn’t it?
What led you to create, incorporate IMAGINE NATION HOUSE into the artistic equation of your life?
The company is actually new, but it has been in the works for years. It’s really the 3D side of The Shannon Gallery. This is where I create sculpture design, product(s), statues and collectibles. Although it’s been around mentally-it is, finally, a reality. Everything is under one umbrella…it’s just easier to put them into categories for me, my staff and the folks out there who have common interest.
As beautiful as your work is, have you ever been dissatisfied with the outcome of a project?
I hate everything I do. Not only am I my worst critic, but I am also very hard on myself to get EVERYTHING perfect. And that is deadly! It can’t be done. Perfection is something some of us strive for. Is it ever achievable, though? I don’t think so.
Looking back on your career, when did you first realize you had “arrived,” succeeded in your quest as an artist?
Today I strive for one thing…tomorrow, another. I don’t think I have ever “arrived,” and if I have, perhaps I missed it. I have always felt as if I am a rubber band on the end of the world’s thumb, waiting to be released. It’s where I perpetually sit, mentally. Once I am, if ever, released-perhaps, then, I will “arrive.”
What brings you joy?
True joy in life is either pure quietness or absolute loudness from one of my electric guitars. I love to create art, but my music has gotten me through the worst of times…every time. Dynamite, Buzz and my dearest friends also bring me joy.
When you immerse yourself in a project, where does it take you?
It takes me to “me.” A place I cannot explain. It’s a very tough and focused place with many walls and just reachable levels. Once there, it is hard to leave. I am chained to that particular project, until it is finished. If I don’t finish, it will torture and haunt me until it is. If I get caught up and can’t figure out “an equation of depth or color,” I am doomed to stay until I find the way out. Two guards watch over me…Shadow and Light. Their pressure is unbearable, at times.
Perhaps this is the padded cell of an artist. Perhaps this is, to put it more simply, a guilt-ridden human being who was brought up Catholic.