Photo Credit: Katie McLoughlin
The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery (OWAG) from their various places around the globe.
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Today, I talk with American illustrator, animator, and artist Zharia Shinn.
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John: Your paper and fabric work is stunning!
I want to ask first about the design you created on your DrawBag, because it was linked to the AfroPunk Festival in Brooklyn that occurred this past summer. Can you tell us a bit about that event and your design?
Zharia: The AfroPunk Festival is, “an annual arts festival that includes live music, film, fashion, and art produced by black artists,” originating in Brooklyn, New York. At the heart of this incredible gathering is a celebration of difference, acceptance, blackness, and empowerment. I have always been an admirer of the movement and festival over the years, so finally getting a chance to attend this summer ’18 was incredible to say the least.
I am in awe of the fashion and creativity that is made in preparation for AfroPunk, which ultimately inspired my bag. The patterns, colors, and lines all speak to my take on the colorfulness and vast array of personality that oozes from the punks, outcasts, rejects, geeks, freaks, and everyone in between whom this movement fosters. My style is very shape-based and involves collaging materials from multiple sources that ultimately become one design. An abstracted face with my initials “Z.S.” camouflaged in the background creates the overall design with the phrase “The Future Is Afro And Punk” below. The incorporation of hand sewn thread is a new addition to my style that I wanted to experiment with. I am happy with the outcome and I hope to experiment in this way again in the future.
John: Where did you grow up and what were your first experiences of art?
Zharia: My childhood and early stages of my life were mostly rooted in parts of Florida, and California.
Art has always been with me since I can remember. I was constantly drawing on something. A piece of paper and a pencil was all I needed and I would still be where you left me, drawing for hours on end. My mother loves to recount a day when I was little where I came up to her when she was working and told her, “Mommy, I am an artist.” She said she knew then and there, I was telling her who I am and that has never changed.
A lot of my art experiences were at pubic school and art institutions during the summer at the Academy of Art University. My craft didn’t become more than a passion until high school, when I made the decision to apply to art school. The way that I currently work and collage did not come into fruition until the later years of my undergrad at Rhode Island School of Design, with the support of my instructors and peers.
John: You’ve been an art instructor as well yourself, yes? What has that been like? Do you think of that as a natural outgrowth of being an artist?
Zharia: My instructor experience has been very informal and I’m realizing over the years that I think this type of education is what I enjoy the most so far. From the role of an art camp counselor to collage workshop instructor, I have learned much more about not only being an educator but a student. It is a role that truly takes someone who wants to leave a situation better than they left it. Someone that wants change, both in their classroom and in themselves. Education will do that to you, and I look forward to immersing myself in more educational roles down the line.
Attending RISD and other art institutions has shown me that not only are there countless ways to receive education and knowledge, but to educate, you first need to understand your audience. Just like an artist should try and understand who their art is touching, so should an educator understand their student and how to better reach them.
John: Earlier this year you had an exhibition in Vienna. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Zharia: I honestly do not know where to start with answering this question. I could go on and on about Vienna but I will try to keep it short.
In the months leading to graduation, I was approached by the Canadian illustrator Peter Diamond based in Vienna to be a part of a group exhibition of 16 illustrators called “Go West!”. The goal of the show was to bring American illustration to Vienna in hopes to create a larger conversation surrounding the importance and integrity of this tool of communication. Furthermore, showcasing the many facets, and varied visual culture coming out of the states was a piece of the puzzle as well. Another illustrator and myself were the only artists straight out of school so having pieces in a line up of story tellers who are renowned and highly qualified was intimidating, to say the least. But remembering that my work stood with theirs was one of the biggest compliments I could ever receive being so new to illustration myself. I appreciate what Peter Diamond saw in my work and I plan to have others see it too.
My works from the series “Fabric Lineage” were included in the show, accompanied by fabric swatches used to create the series in 2016. In addition, I had the privilege to be able to help with press of the show, give a small speech at the opening, and create and instruct a collage workshop hosted at Designaustria.
Designaustia, housed inside of the MuseumQuartier, made a lot of this possible and having the chance to be in such an incredibly creative place such as Vienna, Austria is something I will never forget. This trip was also my first time being outside of the county so I look forward to expanding my horizons and making more memories outside of the states.
John: There is one clear element you share with a number of the artists you have referenced as influences (such as Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas) which is a strong use of pattern in portraiture. What does pattern mean to you in the context of portraiture?
Zharia: Pattern is one of the many tools I use in my abstracted portraits to get my message across. As I experiment with it over the years, I’ve leaned that it can be useful in distorting what the eye sees and redirecting a focus. Every pattern tends to have the same level of “importance’ and works on the same plane field in pieces of mine. I like to use it as an alternative to color and a way to break up the surface to bring life and tactility to the flatness created in my portraits. In more symbolic terms, pattern is also a chance for me to abstract the way we see something so familiar to us, such as the human face.
John: Euan Uglow is also an artist you’ve mentioned as an influence. On the surface his work seems quite different, but I get a sense that both his use of color and the very constrained, intentional backgrounds or contexts of his nude portraits may have been a point of contact. Am I way off?
Zharia: Euan Uglow is a loose influence of mine because of my introduction to him during my foundation lessons of oil painting at RISD. I admire the way he breaks up the human body in geometric shapes of colors and its slight gradients. In the same vein, I have found ways to abstract the human face in my own way with organic shapes. His use of restrained color is also phenomenal and I am inspired to experiment with how I use color in expressive ways too.
John: One of your works I really love is Fabric Lineage. Can you tell me more about the women depicted as well as your choice of fabric to create the piece?
Zharia: It all started with my liberal arts course, “Black Female Body”, taught by Bolaji Campbell I took a few years ago. One of our lectures focused on the history of quilting and the fascinating role African-American women had in it’s sustain- ability and life long craftsmanship. Traditionally sold and created for white households, slave quilters rarely had the opportunity to create personal quilts for themselves. They collected scraps of fabric and materials that were discard- ed and sewed elaborate designs for personal use and necessity.
I was in awe of these accounts of history I never knew before and began personal research and exploration into this art form. This birthed my interest in collaging portraits of the women in my family out of found materials and discarded fabrics a few years back. Each portrait was a collection of designs, colors, and textures I deemed suitable in describing each member; Big Mama (great grandmother), Mom, Laura (cousin), Marta (step-mother). Created in that order, Marta was the last of the Fabric Lineage Series, where I grew comfortable in this experimental approach.
Elevating black women through materials seen as mundane and unattractive spurred a conversation that was new and engaging to me. The importance of this notion is one of admiration, awareness, and acknowledgment. Admiration of the role these women have had in my life, showing me what strength truly looks like. Awareness of black history and what my people are capable of, even through the worst possible circumstances. Acknowledgment of the hardships my ancestors and black people today go through, trying to heal piece by piece. Tackling such a dark past is never easy but creating this therapeutic series pushed me to reach deeper into subject matter that I am very passionate about.
The Fabric Lineage was the beginning of a major change in my artistic style, voice and reason “why?”
John: How essential is color to your work? Could you survive if you were forced into blue or grey period of your own?
Zharia: The erratic use of color is a distinctive quality to my expression and ultimate style of collage. Although my work is anything but, I really admire minimalism and works that are limited and restrained. Creating pieces that are emotional with color, and yet disciplined in how they come together is something I am very interested in. The use of color is admittedly unpredictable, but there is a method to my madness.
John: Afrofuturism may be something a lot of readers aren’t aware of, although they probably know Tribe, Kendrick Lamar, and the recent Black Panther film. What has been your interest in and connection to it?
Zharia: Afrofuturism is a “philosophy of science…and history that explores the developing intersection of African culture and technology.” The major aspects of this movement celebrate and explore black culture, African roots, technology, and innovation. Names that come to mind when I think of this movement are Sun Ra, Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, and Octavia E. Butler. My fascination with Afrofutursim started a few years back in a course I took during college about the relationship between racism and location. Ever since, I have grown interest in consuming media that investigates empowering philosophies such as these.
John: How do you think stereotypes can be used (rather than denied) in conversation about our differences? Is it a constructive tool, or one to dismantle? Or maybe both?
Zharia: Stereotypes, positive or negative, will always be a narrow view that do not show the whole picture of a group. They are dangerous tools that people constantly face and subconsciously or consciously try to counteract, and at times, feed into. I believe it’s important to acknowledge stereotypes, understand how they undermine a said group, find ways to subvert them in conversations, and ultimately empower, not disfranchise. A simple way to start is to do personal research, ask questions, and listen. Gaining personal knowledge of a group that you are referring to or in conversation with will always foster understanding, which can help disrupt violence from ignorance.
John: If you had to state it in one sentence, why are you an artist?
Zharia: I am an artist because this is my soul purpose on this Earth, and God gave me this gift for reasons bigger than myself.
John: Part of the larger woven pattern of the universe…