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Meet the Artist: Sharon Shapiro

For our August installation of Meet the Artist series, D2 Art is very excited to feature both Eric Zammitt and Sharon Shapiro, two long term and incredibly prolific artists. Both of these artists deal with incorporating various visible and underlying dualities in their work but each do so through distinct and differing subject matters, methods and results. Yet for all their variance, both Zammitt and Shapiro reveal a true love of form, whether it be figurative or geometric, and wonderfully utilize color to its fullest in their respective works.

In this interview, we met with Sharon Shapiro, who is an exhibiting painter based in Louisa, Virginia. Her lush paintings focuses on depicting the opposing struggles of the inner and outer lives of people, specifically women or girls. In addition, a mixture of constructed and natural environments are added, creating alluring and, sometimes, haunting images that very definitively reveal her interest in psychology and relationships. Using old photographs from unknown peoples, she weaves the past memories of strangers together in a work, often including her own personal past recollections. Shapiro’s dynamic composition of opposing elements work wonderfully to create tensions that lures one in, then gives them the space needed to recall and investigate their own memories. Using the human body as the main vehicle in her works, one cannot help but have an emotional as well as physical reaction in viewing her works.

1. What is your strongest memory of your childhood?  My earliest memories are of my father’s store in West Virginia: Phil’s Fashions. Chunky Lucite pendant lights hung from the ceiling. I remember, in vivid detail, display racks spinning around.  Sometimes, my dad would sit me on top of one and spin me around. There was also a small antique elevator, the kind with a metal gate, which only went up one floor- but I thought was the coolest thing. The first pencils I drew with at age 3 were embossed in gold lettering with the store’s logo “where smart women shop”.  I still have some that I keep in my studio. I would also go on buying trips in the summer to NYC with him and my favorite place was the Museum of Natural History. The brightly lit dramatic dioramas in the dark hallways had a huge effect on me. On some level I got that looking at something staged and motionless could be really powerful.

2. How did you decide on art as a career?  I was always interested in psychology and relationships, in what makes people tick.  I thought about majoring in psychology but I loved to draw and I had a desire to make something that I could show others. Not knowing that fine art was really a career option, I decided to study fashion illustration at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I took a painting class my sophomore year and immediately fell in love with pushing oil paint around and making forms appear on a flat surface.

3. What type of art do you most identify with?  Art that is authentic, that feels like it had to be made and witnessed as a stand-in for something that was felt or experienced.  As for genre, I identify most closely with figurative.

4. Could you please tell us about your creative process – from initial thoughts to completion?  I’ve been collecting strangers’ old photos for over two decades. Many of my ideas come while I look through them. There are pictures that I am naturally more drawn to, sometimes for reasons that I can’t quite place – so I categorize them into themes, or I find common subjects that have some relationship with my own memories or feelings. For the last couple of years, I’ve been putting specific search terms into eBay (1970s + swimming pool + women) in order to discover these photographs.  I think it’s fascinating that people sell family photos on Ebay – I think generally the seller doesn’t know the people in the photos but it’s still so odd that something meant to be personal ends up in the free market.

Collage is an important part of my process, it really helps to generate ideas for new paintings and it’s fun. I try to keep something fun when I’m working.  A part of creating should feel like play. When I start a painting, I usually just put some paint down quickly and let it sit.  It’s like I don’t want to commit to the painting yet.  And then there’s a part when I’m committed to the painting and excited and I’ll work for 4-5 hours straight.  Then toward the end, the painting doesn’t need that kind of time, so it’s mostly looking and making minor adjustments.

5. What kind of patterns, routines or rituals do you have that help aid in your practice?  I work best after I’ve had some type of physical activity, like running or taking a barre class. I get a lot of clarity about things I’m struggling with in my work when I exercise and that helps when I go into the studio.  Music is really important to me when I work (and when I exercise).  I usually start off with something kind of mellow (Frank Ocean is one of my favorite work-to musicians, and The National too) and if I’m really making progress with a painting but getting tired, I’ll listen to something more energetic, like Prince.

6. How do you choose the themes of your works?  I’m currently trying to work on several pieces at once, which is something I’ve never done before. I have a list tacked to my studio wall that looks like this– Subject: Adolescence, female, obscured eyes, swimming pools, backyard, California, summer, memory. Content: Disjointed feelings, closeness/distance, self-consciousness, idealized lifestyle, fragmentation, tension, feeling of threat. Formal: synthetic color, juxtaposition of black and white against bright color, aggressive mark-making, vibrance, light, shadows, fantasy, surreal, fashion, mid-century architecture (palm springs). I also keep notes of possible titles on random pieces of paper and iPhone notes.  I’m often saying “Oh now that would be an interesting title for a painting”.

 7. What is the best piece of advice you have been given?  To keep going, to keep making no matter what.  No matter how dire your circumstances may be or seem, make something. You can always keep a sketch pad and some charcoal or pencils and make drawings if space/time/money is an issue. An artist friend once told me that the pain of not making art is much worse than the pain of making it. I also think it’s important to do something every day even if it’s only for 15-30 minutes. It’s visual fitness.

8. Do you find the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?

Yes, it can be for sure. It’s a pretty solo pursuit and can feel like singing into a paper bag at times. I’m an introvert, meaning I get energy from being alone but I also like being social and seeing people.  I make plans with friends at least once a week to get together for dinner or drinks and I like to have people over for dinner parties. My husband is a chef and he loves to cook at home, so it works out well. And thanks to the internet, it’s easy to stay in touch with artist friends.

9. What do you dislike about the art world?  The nepotism. For example, people selecting their friends for shows when another artist unknown to them might be better suited for an exhibition. I dislike that excellent work is not being seen.

10. What do you like about the art world/ or art community?  Artists are the best people on the planet. I really believe that. They are the hardest working, most self-motivated and interesting people by far.  It’s counter cultural to be working for something other than monetary gain.

11. Could you tell us about forthcoming projects/exhibitions?

I’m currently in Portland, Maine in a low-residency MFA program that is eight weeks of intensive work in the summer for two consecutive summers and working from home the rest of the year. It’s been exciting, difficult, and transformative in developing certain aspects of my work.  I’ve been delving deeper into collage and using my found photos within the paintings themselves. I want to stay in this generative place that I’ve found over the past seven weeks.

12. What do you dislike about your work?  That it’s always a struggle. Painting is really really hard, and it’s humbling. You can’t cheat in painting, it will reveal itself.

13. What do you like about your work?  Same as above, that it’s always a struggle.  It never gets boring.  I like the constant challenge and the excitement I feel when making a painting.

14. What superpower would you have and why?  To time travel!

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