Aftyn Shah is a painter and printmaker from Conshohocken, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. Born in High Wycombe, England and raised in Naples, Italy, Aftyn says she considers Columbiana, Ohio, a beautiful rural area in the northeastern part of the state, to be her hometown.
Aftyn’s paintings are like mini therapy sessions. Each of her pieces incorporates the beauty of the natural world so vividly, they invoke a sense of peace and calm that you find yourself getting lost in. Rural, mountainous landscapes, forests, rivers and trees, grassy fields and flowers all come alive in Aftyn’s paintings and block prints.
We just had to get to know Aftyn better—and we are so glad we did, because this talented artist has an incredible story. Her journey is an inspiration to not only artists, but to human beings. Aftyn is proof that people can make the choice to overcome adversity and heal, but it is a choice, and it is hard work.
We read that your background is in communications and federal strategy consulting. What did you do before you were an artist?
“My dream for a long time growing up was to follow in my father’s footsteps and join the Navy, but unfortunately severe asthma made that impossible. So, instead, I worked for the federal government in multiple capacities, including as a strategy consultant and communications specialist. It wasn’t the most creative work, but I still found ways to create beauty, even if it was through wordsmithing in talking points and crafting special details on PowerPoint decks (no, seriously, I received high praise for those, ha!) for our leaders.”
Had you ever painted or created anything before, or were you artistically inclined in some way?
“Like most kids, I drew a lot as a child, usually creating flying horses and imagined landscapes with lots of hills, mountains, and trees, but never imagined I would pursue art as a career. My focus was always more on creative writing, and I thought maybe I would be a novelist on the side, after working hours.
My mother was always creative, able to create gorgeous acrylic landscapes easily, yet art wasn’t something elevated beyond a hobby in my house. Something we did for fun, to relax. She gave me a set of cheap hobby store paints sometime during my last year in college, intended as a form of stress relief, so I started painting a little bit then.”
How did you get started in printmaking?
“Since college, art remained something of a stress relief for me, picked up once or twice a year, throughout my twenties. But, after a life-changing car accident on a DC highway and the resulting traumatic brain injury, it became a huge part of my recovery. One of my neuro-rehab doctors recommended I pick up a creative pursuit that I hadn’t tried before, something that would exercise my mind, but without any pressure to be good at it. I ended up picking up blockprinting, and I haven’t stopped since! Through blockprinting, I gained the confidence to return to painting more seriously.”
Can you elaborate on how blockprinting has enabled you to expand into painting?
“One of my favorite things about printmaking is deciding how to translate the details and depth with simple lines and contrast. I generally work only with black ink, as I absolutely love the high contrast. So, now when I go for hikes or walks, I’m looking at my surroundings and thinking about how I might interpret the light and the textures. What I create in a print will never look as “perfect” as what I’m seeing or remembering. I’ve come to accept that. I think that’s exactly how I’ve been able to venture back into painting.
When I first tried painting in college, I always faced at least a bit of frustration with the final pieces. They were never what I envisioned. This is probably why I never pursued it more seriously, thinking I had no skill because I couldn’t make my marks match up to what I had in my head.
Printmaking made me realize that perfection isn’t the goal or the joy; it’s the act of interpretation. Sharing how my mind takes reality and recreates it with marks.”
Your website’s About Us page says: ‘being active and outdoors factors heavily into her process, and she spends part of her year on the road, most notably working from the mountains of Colorado for long days of inspiration (and no cell service).’ Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
“A huge part of my recovery after the brain injury involved being outside. For about a year after the accident, I was afraid to leave the house. I had an incredible amount of very intense anxiety, amplified by becoming a new mother during the whole mess (I was 13-weeks pregnant when the accident happened).
The same doctor who instructed me to take up art told me to get outside. He wanted me to find somewhere with few other people, where I would feel safe, but be active and in the sun and just leave the house. This was not just a healthy habit that brought me back from all of that anxiety, it changed the lifestyle of our family.
My husband and I had been active before, but it was usually about fitting workouts in at the gym in our building. After the accident and finding healing outside, we now like to spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s in the garden or taking road trips to hike through different parks. We have friends who live in Eagle County, Colorado, and they kindly allow us to visit for extended periods. The spotty service up there is the perfect excuse to forget about our phones and focus only on the experience and one another.”
What is the first thing you created?
“When I first started printmaking, my goal was to create a card I could send to friends. It was terribly overambitious for my skill level (completely beginner), with a complicated landscape, a bison, and words – in cursive! I ended up finishing and sending them out, but I have to smirk at just how out of my depth I was.”
You carve block prints, monoprints, you paint and you create these gorgeous mixed media pieces. Is there any type of art that you have never tried but would like to?
“There are so many types of art I would love to try! I am completely smitten with weaving. I love to see how weavers play with color, texture, different patterns… all of it. I took one afternoon course taught by a friend and I would really love to try it in earnest. And also throwing clay on a wheel. I think I’m really taken with the particularly tactile forms of art, with lots of texture and manipulation.”
What is the most rewarding part of creating? What is the most challenging?
“The most rewarding part of creating is sharing what I have in my head or my heart with other people and seeing them feel something. It’s such an amazing connection. The most challenging, during this season of my life, is being a mother to two young boys.
While I love the idea of balancing my role as a mother and an artist, I don’t think it really exists how we envision it. My sons take priority right now. I try to structure our lives to ensure I make it into the studio (something I need for my sanity, sense of self, and income), but the reality is their needs come first. It’s something I find frustrating quite often, even though I love them dearly. I try to be honest about this pain point, as I think often parents see the virtual highlight reel and feel like they’re alone in the struggle. I create during very early mornings, nap times, and after bedtimes. It’s hard, but I also know it won’t be forever.”
What do you do when you’re not feeling inspired to create?
“I actually find that my issue is never a lack of inspiration, but rather time. Right now, I have a whole list of ideas I wish I had the time to try—and the list just keeps getting longer! But if I’m looking for any kind of inspiration, I just go for a hike or step into our back garden without my phone. Just look at the details and nature’s natural composition. Something will always strike me somehow.”
What’s your creative process like?
“My creative process is a little manic. Because I have to fit my creative time into small chunks, I tend to ruminate on an idea for a period, thinking about it sometimes for weeks or months. Then, once I’m ready to actually put it into action, I work furiously on it, often staying up far too late just to make progress. With carving prints, I try to limit the amount of time, just because the likelihood of mistakes is higher the more tired I am, but with painting all bets are off. It’s really not the healthiest habit, as I operate best on eight hours of sleep and my neurologist would be horrified to hear I’m getting any less than six. When I’m in the midst of a project, especially if I’m really excited about it, it tends to be a huge mental focus. I’ll be going through my daily routine with the boys and be fixating on it, even visiting the piece throughout the day to check on details or reconsider.”
What’s one of the pieces you’re most proud of? Why?
“The piece I’m most proud of is a larger block print carved from 18” x 24” linoleum called The Mountain’s Riverbank. I just really enjoyed the whole process, from sketching it out, carving it, with lots of intuitive marks made along the way, and then printing. The linoleum was slightly warped, which I didn’t notice until I was almost done carving. It was very subtle, but there was a bit of a gradual dip right in the main part of the large mountain. Printing it on the press was therefore a bit of a process, but it made every successful pull so gratifying. I just love the composition, the dynamic feeling, and the light and dark balance covering the whole block.”
If you could offer two pieces of advice to a new artist, what would it be?
“First and foremost, just create. And often. I get so many messages from new artists about the business side of things, even as they are just starting out or trying a new type of art. I fully recognize I was in a very unique and privileged situation, having art as therapy with no intention to take it anywhere else; I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the business. That was an afterthought. But I think it’s so important to create for yourself first. Create as much as possible.
Try new supplies, new subjects. Troubleshoot and find your own rhythm, your own marks, your own voice. Find and test your boundaries. That way, if and when you go into business, you feel confident and comfortable.
That said, even if you feel confident you’ve found your style and preferences, my second piece of advice is to continue to try new things. You never know what you might discover, whether it’s a new supply, technique, or even just color, that you will want to bring back and incorporate into your art practice. Take new classes, meet new mentors, create with friends. All of these can influence you so positively, even if it’s not directly. I personally believe we should all approach art as students, forever and always learning and refining. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of being an artist.”
Which Flexcut tools do you own and what do you like most about each?
“I own five of Flexcut’s carving tools, including the 45 deg. x 1mm V-Tool (FR803) and Mini-Palm Set (FR604) – plus the SlipStrop. One of my first carving tools, when I started printmaking, was actually a hand-me-down Flexcut tool from a more established printmaker. Unfortunately, I lost it during our move to the Philadelphia area. But the thing I love about the Flexcut carving tools is they are very, very sharp, making perfectly precise marks and getting all the lovely detail you want in a piece. They’re also incredibly comfortable, which is important when working with them for extended periods.
It’s hard to describe exactly, but comfort can be a complicated thing for a printmaker, as you want the handle to fit nicely in your palm, but you also don’t want any pressure points digging in the pointer finger. I can use these for hours, with no issues! Having sharp tools is important for both the artwork and for safety, and I like the SlipStrop because it’s easy. It’s straightforward. And I always have sharp tools that will last for years and years.”