We recently connected with Neil Shigley and have shared our conversation below.
Neil, appreciate you joining us today. How did you learn to do what you do? Knowing what you know now, what could you have done to speed up your learning process? What skills do you think were most essential? What obstacles stood in the way of learning more?
My current work consists of large abstract paintings, some illustration work and designing and creating large-scale installation pieces. Along with actively making art I teach drawing and illustration at San Diego State University. But the work that drives me most deeply is a series of large block-printed portraits of the unsheltered.
As a child I drew a lot. My father used his art training to draw and paint places we visited, documenting experiences that we had. He got a degree in architecture but never practiced. I always tried to copy what he was working on. Same thing with my older brother who could draw. I didn’t take any art classes until college but I was drawing all the time, and I loved it. I decided to major in art at San Diego State University where my emphasis was in painting and printmaking. I was exposed to all the foundations of art. I was working while I studied so I was there full or part-time for a 10 year period. During that time I took classes in many of my interests and was able to take lifedrawing, painting and print-making and art history classes multiple times. My focus at that time was in abstraction but my ability to draw led me to enroll in an illustration class my senior year. That set me on a new course. After trying to get illustration assignments in San Diego I realized I needed more training. I applied to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and was offered a scholarship so I enrolled and moved to Pasadena. This was the most impactful decision of my life. The education I received there, the contacts I made there and the reputation the school has has had such a profound impact on everything I have done professionally since. After graduating with honors I was selected to be the 1st student to speak at the graduation ceremony in the school’s history. During my time there I was surroundeed by a renown faculty and other students who were talented and driven. It was an environment of intense supportive competition. Some time during my time therre I made the decision to move to New York city after I graduated. This is what I did. Once there I hit the streets meeting with every art director, designer, creative director, established artist that I could. I quickley started getting assignments and established name for myself using the block-print medium, which at that time was not common. I was enjoying the east coast and NYC and I was busy! During this time as an illustrtor I continued to paint abstractly in my free time. My commercial assignments ranged from publishing, editorial, advertising and entertainment. Because I had the ability to capture a likeness I given many portratit projects. I look back at this period of my life and feel it was my traing ground for the work I am doing now. I was being paid to perfect my technique in carving into a block to print, and to capture a likeness using marks to describe how light cascades across the landscape of a human face. When I begin a portrait now. all of these experiences play an important role. I litterally think back to specific educational situations and commercial art projects. as I work.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
My name is Neil Shigley, I live in San Diego, CA. I work in a number of mediums. Along with printmaking, I paint with acrylics and oils, and draw with graphite and charcoal. In my portrait work, my focus is to capture the likeness of an individual by using descriptive marks to describe how light hits the forms of the face. Much like a landscape. My hope for each portrait is to, in some small way, touch on the human condition. Each portrait starts with a walk around various areas of San Diego where I talk to people living on the street. I approach them with a great deal of respect. Even though they don’t have a home, they still have a space that is theirs. As an artist I am looking for interesting characters, and when I see someone that intrigues me I approach them and explain to them that I am an artist and would like to do a portrait of them. Some say yes, some say no. If they agree I spend some time talking to them about their life, their history, why they are on the streets, their plans and their dreams. I take one to two photographs; I don’t try to set the photos up in any way except that they are facing into the light, because I am looking for the most honest portrayal that I can get. From the photo I do a number of drawings. Once I am satisfied with a drawing I blow it up the size of the piece of plexi-glass that will be carved. I place the drawing behind the plexi and begin carving using a flexible shaft drill. Most of my portraits are 36in x 48in. and are carved into a piece of plexi-glass the same size. The bigger ones which are 48in x 72in, or 72in x 96in, and larger are carved in sections on the 36in x 48in sheets of plexi-glass, then after printing them they are pieced together in the mounting process. The carving takes 6-8 hours per sheet. The carved plexi-glass is then rolled with ink and a piece of paper is placed over it and rubbed by hand to transfer the ink on to the paper. When the ink is dry the paper is soaked in water then adhered with matt medium to canvas that is stretched over a wood panel. When the piece is dry the excess paper is trimmed, then at the top of the piece, I hand write the name, age, location where we met, the year and number of the print along with my signature. At the bottom of the image, I hand paint a symbol that is one of many that were used by drifters in the 1930’s in the U.S. to relay information about a place to other drifters who may pass that way later. The symbol I choose relates in some way to the individual portrayed.
I moved a lot as a child. We lived in France, Korea and several places in the United States. My father was very artistic as was my older brother. I was exposed to the art and culture of everywhere we lived and traveled. That along with watching my father drawing and painting is the foundation of my life as an artist. I studied art in college majoring in painting and printmaking at San Diego State University. While at San Diego State, my work was mostly abstract. From there, I went onto get my degree with distinction from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Ca. I majored in Illustration there and fell in love with wood block printing. After graduating from Art Center I moved to the New York City area and began a career as an illustrator and fine artist. During my career as an illustrator, I was commissioned many times to do portraits for magazines and other media. After I moved back to San Diego in 1990 I transitioned to fine art and began teaching. I taught at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, then eventually at San Diego State University where I currently teach drawing and illustration.
Our life experiences are what enables us and maybe confines us to our artistic expression. I know that my experiences have brought me to the place that I am now with my work. My initial inspiration was watching my father create and feeling his interest and passion for the art and culture of wherever he was at. My education gave me the skills and confidence to pursue my artistic ideas. My career as an illustrator gave me so much experience creating work and specifically portraits. My teaching has honed all of it by forcing me to talk about and refine my ideas. Now I make art.
Is there mission driving your creative journey?
We are bombarded in this country with images of the rich and the famous, the privileged, the ‘have’s’. I am focusing on portraying people from the other end of the economic spectrum, the under-privileged, the have not’s, the unsheltered. Giving them some face time. I was initially drawn to the incredible character that these people possess. A character that is hard earned, through sometimes many years of life on the streets and the daily struggle for survival that that can bring. Nobility, beauty, strength, vulnerability, they are all there if we only look. At first it was just about the artistic concerns. Capturing a likeness using decriptive marks. The more portraits I did, the more I became intrigued by these people and their lives. Chronic homelessness is a complex issue, one that I don’t pretend to have any answers for. By presenting them as often as I can, perhaps someone will see these portraits and will have some solutions.
Art has the potential to focus attention, in this case on the homeless. By focusing attention it raises awareness. And with awareness, change, on a grand scale or a small scale can happen, even if it is simply one person treating another with respect.
I have titled this series “Invisible People”. Many people, who encounter people living on the street, avoid them, ignore them, and treat them as if they are not there. Actively making them invisible. By presenting these portraits in this large scale, it makes people confront them and their situation. Making them visible again.
Any resources you can share with us that might be helpful to other creatives?
There are some inner resources that if I had figured out earlier, perhaps things would have gone smoother. These are things that i talk about with my students at San Diego State and my sons.
We are in this world surrounded by people, the art buisness is about people. People react to enthusiasm. Don’t be so cool. You have alot of time to be cool when your dead. Be warm, be hot. People will respond. Everything will go more smoothly.
Make things interesting!
Life is full of projects, personal art, commissions, chores, school work. Many are activities that you may now really want to do. Find a way to make them interesting or fun. Otherwise you have a lifetime ahead of alot of work and drudgery. Its your choice to flip the switch.
Commit to what you’re doing.
Especially when it’s design or art related. The easy way to never fail is to not try. Then you can tell yourself it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t turn out. You’re off the hook. The sooner you totally commit to projects the sooner you willl find how high you can go. You may fail and that doesn’t feel good. But that the most profound teacher. Find out how to correct it or maybe find out if you are in the right field. That’s harsh but it’s reality. It may be the best thing that could happen so that you can transition to your true calling.
- Website: www.neilshigley.com
- Instagram: Neilshigley
- Facebook: Neil Shigley Artist
- Linkedin: Neilshigley