Artistic Airmen: Comptroller by day, photographer by night

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Katrina Heikkinen
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is part one of a series highlighting Airmen who work as artists in their off-duty time.

Cindy Sherman, American photographer, once said, "The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told."

Just as Pablo Picasso helped introduce the world to the Cubist movement, conceptual art brought a whole new meaning to America in the 1960s when the conventional notion of art was rejected.

According to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the term Conceptual Art gained popularity by Sol LeWitt, a minimalist artist who published "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art." Conceptual artists depicted feminism, symbols and culture to create art that excluded commercialized art and wanted to push the limits of tradition. Today, conceptual art is based on the idea rather than the object.

"I [always] knew I wanted to take pictures no one else was taking," said Senior Airman Alison Shildt, 341st Comptroller Squadron Defense Travel System lead technician. "I wanted them to be breaking edge, funny and I wanted the audience to have a reaction. I love photographing portraits so the audience can look into the eyes of that image and be able to relate to it."

Shildt was 9 years old when her parents gave her a Polaroid camera. It was then, in third grade, when she arranged a class photo; that she discovered her first and greatest love: photography.

"I remember thinking, 'These people are smiling and helping me set up a really great shot,' and I realized I liked doing that," Shildt said.

Although she discovered her love for photography at a young age, Shildt put photography on the backburner as she pursued video editing during adolescence and high school.

"I was 18 years old when I held my first film festival," Shildt said. "I was sure I was going to be a director. Then I went to Harrisburg Community College in Pennsylvania and I took a photography class and that's when I really fell in love with it. I had a really great professor who believed in my work, so I transferred to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and received a bachelor's degree in photography."

Following college, Shildt took a break from photography to teach English in Costa Rica to fulfill her dreams of traveling, but her heart called her back to her true calling. After her parents encouraged her to enlist in the Air Force as a photographer, Shildt joined in April 2011, not as a photographer, but as a comptroller.

"I wanted to be stationed in Montana," she said. "There are so many landscapes and I saw a picture of Montana and thought, 'I have to go there.'"

Within just one month of being stationed at Malmstrom, Shildt auctioned off two photographs at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in December 2012. Although she was initially told she would have to wait two years before she could have her own show, today she has an exhibit of more than 30 photographs titled "Alison Shildt: Diverting Tableaus."

"I'm very grateful to be able to have my work displayed at Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art," Shildt said. "To be able to have my work auctioned off and now have my own show is incredible."

Corey Gross, Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art registrar and associate curator, played a large role in helping Shildt earn an exhibit at the museum.

"Alison has been an absolute delight to work with and we are honored to have her artwork here at the square," Gross said. "She's so easy going and fun to work with."

Shildt's exhibit consists of self-portraits transformed into made-up characters, staged photos and photographic/conceptual journalism. Her photography has been described as strange and bordering on surreal. While many of her photos transform into the final creation during the editing process, they all tell a different story.

"For me, a photo is made in the computer, not the camera," she said. "Editing is always going to take longer. My camera is a Canon D40 - it's nothing too fancy but it gets me through. I also like using simple point and shoot film cameras. For me, cameras aren't that important; it's about what I do in the output and what goes into the computer that counts."

Shildt says she finds people who are different, charismatic and bizarre as the inspiration for her photography.

"I'm always looking for the weird people who aren't on the same wavelength as others," she said. "Photographing the locals in Great Falls has been great because I'm so interested in their story. But, it also has been hard, which is why I starting photographing self-portraits."
Some of Shildt's self-portraits include Tammy, a character who tans too much; Savannah, a hippy and actresses from the 1950s.

"I love makeup and I'm very theatrical, so when I dress up as these characters I go out of town, find a location and make up a whole story to go along with it," Shildt said.

When Shildt isn't busy leading an active-duty life as an Airman, she enjoys acting in the Montana Actors Theatre, hiking and hopes to achieve a master's degree in either marketing or forensics.

"In the future, I would just love to do anything involving art," Shildt said. "I think [art] is the be-all, end-all. Being in the Air Force has given me the opportunity to go to different areas and do things I wouldn't have been able to do. Being able to serve in the Air Force and still do what I love is great."

Information from this article was taken from the following websites: