EK Interview: Joe Shea

Joe Shea is currently showing at the Hellion Gallery in Portland, Oregon.  His work with mixed media spans a variety of themes, from fables to the American West to his own personal issues, but in all cases it is imbued with with a sense of wonder, as if there’s much more going on behind the work than what is at first seen.  Take a look at his interview:

What part of Boston did you grow up in?  What was it like?  How did your childhood and where you grew up influence you as an artist?
I was born in Brighton and raised in Quincy Point, a blue-collar shipbuilding neighborhood filled with large Irish Catholic families fiercely loyal to their roots and to their sports teams.  Inspiration was everywhere as its history was rich.  I was inspired by the art & sculpture of the Catholic Church my family attended but also by places like Paragon Park, a seedy, decaying amusement park at the beach.  Later on in 1980’s I found much inspiration from attending ton’s of punk rock shows the local music scene was amazing back then.

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What about mixed media excites you?  Have you experimented with other media?

The fact that mixed media has no limitations, it combines a number of skills & disciplines so the viewer can observe the full range of the artist.  I’ve always enjoyed drawing and painting, bookmaking is something I’ve been doing for years it is more of a personal thing and recently I’ve been experimenting with some animation concepts where I can mix art and music together but its just experimental at this point, just having some fun.

Each of your series has a number of unique and diverse pieces, how long does a series generally take you to complete?  ‘American Folk’ has the feel of Americana, cowboys and old pickup trucks, set against yellow skies and telephone wires.  What was the inspiration for the series?  Do you feel a connection to that time in history?  Or an attraction to that depiction of/time in American history?

The collections of sculpture vary in times of completion depending on the exhibit and the size of the gallery space.  I work on multiple sculptures at once slowly building them and refining them so time is not something I think about too much, whatever it takes to get the balance of the work just right.

The American folk collection was inspired by a cross-country road trip I took with my girlfriend Keiko.  She is Japanese/Brazilian and had not seen or experienced much of the states with the country’s culture changing so fast we thought it would be good to travel and see some of its roots before it all disappears.

We took our time traveling hitting up both urban and rural places, I collected small pieces of junk and relics along the way.  I also filled a sketchbook of loose idea’s so many of the sculptures were based on these sketches or created with a particular found object as the central starting point.

Our goal was to experience some of that true Americana again before it completely disappears and becomes one big chain store so we sought out some of that character on our trip and found some.  For some reason I am drawn to old artifacts of American history and history in general, I can’t explain why but it fascinates me, maybe it’s the old craftsmanship of everything and how the quality of things made today can not compare.

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Where were you emotionally for ‘A Feeling of Transience’?  That series is populated by pieces with names echoing the sense of existing without a home, Solo, Escape, and of course the eponymous Transient, where were you coming from while doing these pieces?  What is each meant to say and what does each say about you?  The final piece in the series seems to stand as a counter force to the theme, A Good Foundation, how is this piece different, thematically and compositionally?

While creating the collection I had a feeling of transience.  Many things in my life were uncertain, my history has been a transient one since leaving Boston 16 years prior.  I would live in a different city every 4 years and kind of start over in the next so I was coming up on the 4 year mark in my current city and the future was uncertain.

The collection is based on narratives that I had been formulating over the years it has to do with residing in different places for short periods of time building relationships only to move on and build new ones somewhere else.  Never really feeling grounded but always leaving room for hope of stability.

Good foundation is the only shadow box sculpture in the collection.  In the past a good percentage of my sculpture work was in this shadow box style I learned that people are conditioned to appreciate art more when its framed or the narrative is neatly placed in a box I guess our minds just accept that but at the time I was moving away from that style of presentation so I found it fitting to create another box piece.   The narrative for Good Foundation is based on owning my 1st piece of property and the feeling that the house has an unseen guardian.

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How have you grown artistically in the time between ‘American Folk’ and ‘A Feeling of Transience’?  What have you learned about yourself and your art?

I am thinking more about space and negative space when I approach a collection or exhibit its not just about covering wall space with a series of work anymore I’ve slowly moved away from my signature shadow box style and have been experimenting with more open-air sculpture that has kinetic movements.  My hope is to create more of a singular environment then individual pieces hanging on a wall my work is moving towards more of an installation type setting and it’s a positive thing.

I think I’ve learned that the positive response to the shadow box style sculpture was one small part of my growth.  I found it difficult to keep repeating the same process as a creative so I had to break outside of the box and use the gallery space itself as my box.  I realized that the new found natural lighting source was complimentary to the work and the giving the subject matter the ability to move on its own was a wonderful discovery.



Tell us about your pieces and your method, what do you use to make the actual pieces?  What are the sails on your ships made of?  How do you get them so stiff? 

The sculptures are made of so many things I’ve just gotten used to calling them mixed media.  I’ve always enjoyed modeling clay since I was little but just making figures out of clay or wax became expected or predictable to me so I found if I could include found objects and textiles it would become much more interesting to view so there is a little bit of everything modeled clay & wood lots of wire and plenty of found objects and junk collected over the years from yard sales and flea markets.  I’m usually drawn to objects with a past good craftsmanship or strong history, objects that are broken and on their own just waiting for me to find them and give them a new life. I often say I don’t seek out objects they seem to find me.

While working in the studio I wear work wear shorts all day.  My brand of choice is dickies and over time they get covered with paint, glue, resin all kinds of stuff. When they are ready to be retired they become a new textile for me to work with so the sails of the ships are made of dickies shorts.  Believe it or not the stiffness, texture and colors are created by numerous layers of acrylic and oil based finishes.


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What are the bodies of your figures in ‘Suspended Animation’ made of?  Is the disparity between the bloated size of the bodies of your figures and their heads commentary on our current society at all?  Do you see your work as social commentary?  Do you feel any responsibility, as an artist, to comment on and attempt to influence society and culture?  Do you think that’s the mantle of an artist?  Why or why not?

The suspended animation figures are constructed of various materials, some are made of modeled clay, wood and wire while others are numerous found objects cobbled together slowly to create a distinct shape or form.  I am always experimenting with new materials to create different kinds of sculpture styles.

I’ve always created figures with larger bodies and smaller heads these characters re-appear throughout my collections and symbolize entirely different walks of life depending on the narrative.  In one sculpture the figure may symbolize power and status as the character wields a briefcase and phone device, in another it symbolizes the common man navigating his rowboat through shark infested waters.  They can also symbolize the struggling creative with his quill pen and bucket of ink.

I think just about anyone being creative is always going to be making some sort of social commentary, myself included.  You can find commentary in my work all the time but I think its subtle.  I don’t make an effort to include essays with my work and mount them on the wall next to the sculptures.  My hope is that people walk in and experience a feeling when they see my work.  I don’t think I’m changing much in the world but I hope to make folks think a little bit, at least the small amount of folks that see my work in person.

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Tell us about the show at Hellion, what are you showing at Hellion gallery?  What about the show excites you?  How will this show be different from the last show you were in?  How have you grown in that time?

I met Stephanie Buer a few years ago when she relocated to Portland from Detroit.  I found her work and subject matter amazing even though she had not been exhibiting much at the time she has an amazing work ethic and you can tell when you see her work that she has spent many years refining her craft.  Since then she has had some successful shows in Los Angeles and was on tap to exhibit at Hellion.  She asked me to exhibit with her even though our styles and process are very different, we are good friends and our work inspires each other so it was a nice opportunity to create a collection of work, or an environment if you will, that could compliment Stephanie’s beautiful drawings and paintings.  We also had the real opportunity to collaborate and its always nice to find an artist open to that idea.

The challenge of exhibiting at Hellion was the space itself a beautiful naturally lit room so I proceeded to create a collection of work with the space in mind.  There are two large windows that past artist’s seem to avoid.  They have white textile shades covering them but at the same time let a wonderful light source in so that tuned into a nice installation location for the exhibit.  The installation consists of numerous suspended pieces and is meant to be viewed in afternoon light even though most people end up seeing the work during the opening which was at night.  Another area of the space I had for exhibiting was a large corner area so I created a freestanding sculpture that can be turned 360 degrees by the viewer so that all the details could be properly observed its my 1st interactive sculpture.

The Inhabitants collection is a continued experiment of narratives surrounding the subject of life, death and life after death.  My approach to this subject matter is not in a dark way but more in a curious way of what possibly happens and how we are transformed.  It is something that has fascinated me for many years and continues to fascinate me although it is a topic that people often are uncomfortable discussing.  I don’t think about it as the end but more as a new beginning

With the Inhabitants exhibit I’ve realized that my work is growing in scale and concept so I am not sure what the future holds.  I’m really enjoying creating larger scale works and I am preferring things big at the moment.  I’m not sure why, maybe because my early works were small, delicate and detailed and now my work is larger, a bit more simple with more focus on the form, shape and feel they give to viewer.  I believe that I grow artistically with each exhibit but I never know if it’s a good thing or bad thing.  As a creative I feel a need to keep experimenting and hope that my style will always show through even though the work is changing as it should.

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You’ve shown a lot in the past few years, what can you tell starting artists who are trying to get into a show?  How did you get in touch with galleries?  How would a starting artist approach a gallery to get shown?

I prefer to keep myself busy so I try to exhibit a few times a year.  These exhibits also help market my work and help it find new audiences which is important to me. I do not create any commercial work so these gallery shows let me express myself in the purest form with no art direction or outside filtration of any kind.  That itself is powerful to me.  I really enjoy working in my studio and making sculpture, that is my favorite part of the process, the exhibits are the final part of that.  I love it when my studio has been emptied completely of work and I think more openly.  An empty studio is beautiful to me, it means that I’ve been productive and I made a huge mess in the process.  I have found over time it that is the only way to grow as an artist.

I prefer to work with some of the more modest grassroots galleries, I’ve been very fortunate to be given the opportunity of exhibiting work in different cities and countries when I know a lot of creatives are looking for those same opportunities.  I try to find one gallery in one city and it’s important to space your exhibits as well but often you have no control over that.  I prefer to work with experienced curators that have been running galleries for awhile, if the curator has a bigger bio then the artists on display that is not a good sign.  Matt Wagner at Hellion Gallery is one of my favorite curators he is always looking out for the best interest of his artists and creates a unique experience for visiting artists  exhibiting at his space.

If you are just starting out its not such a bad thing, it’s a lot easier now then it used to be but it is a lot less personal as well.  With the internet it is pretty easy to research spaces, as the landscape of galleries has changed so much over the years I suggest corresponding with a gallery by snail mail.  It shows the gallery how creative you can be, and while they may not dig your work at least you will know they checked it out.  I always send a few post cards enclosed in an envelope with a drawing on it, that drawing should make the curator want to open it up.  You have a better chance that way then sending an email that might just well get deleted.  I think if you keep it personal you will get a reaction after all art is a very personal kind of thing.

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