We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Shawn Smith a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Hi Shawn, thanks for joining us today. What’s the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
I went to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. I was exposed to art at a young age and my high school experience solidified my love of making things. After graduating, my father became very ill. I chose to stay close to home and take care of him. I continued my education to the best of my abilities by attending Brookhaven Community College in Dallas while taking care of my father and working at a restaurant. Initially, most of the classes I took were the basics that I knew would transfer to a 4 year institution – like economics, psychology, history, etc. I also hoped that by transferring into a 4 year institution to focus on art making, and having all of my credits transfer, I would be able to afford to go to college. My father made it very clear that going into huge debt with a degree in the arts was not a smart decision. I needed to find a scholarship.
I was spending so much time studying, taking care of my father and working that I began to really miss art making. At Brookhaven, I ventured away from my basics back into art making. I took a few 101 classes, printmaking and design. I had the same professor for both classes – Don Taylor. He encouraged me to push my artistic work, think beyond the high school art making level, experiment, fail, and think about my voice in a larger context. The following semester, I took more classes with DT. I found myself growing as an artist and finding my direction. Don encouraged me to think about the next step in my educational path. I explained that I didn’t have the resources to go to a 4 year university without incurring large amounts of debt. Don asked me if I thought of going to Washington University in St. Louis. I was honest, and said, I had never heard of the school. I had been more focused on places like the Kansas City and San Francisco Art Institutes.
DT asked if I was interested in making a road trip to see the school. Don had gone to Wash U. for graduate school and his former professor was still there teaching – Peter Marcus. We made the road trip in DT’s car and I met with Peter and we hit it off quite well. I applied to Wash U the following semester with the portfolio I developed with Don and got almost a full ride based on merit. Because of Don’s generosity, compassion, and belief in my abilities, I was able to get my BFA degree. I developed a lot at Wash U as an artist. This experience allowed me to develop a strong work ethic I use in the studio to this day.
Shawn, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
I am an artist living in Austin, Texas. I work in a variety of materials – wood, steel, casting, found objects, collage, public art, stained glass, light, and installation art. I have exhibited extensively throughout the United states and Europe. For the last 20 years, I have mostly been making mostly sculpture. I am interested in the intersection of technology and the natural world.
Some of the projects I have completed over the few years include a 18 foot tall pixilated giraffe installed at the US Embassy in Niger, a 70 foot long pixilated steel panther installed at fire station 42 in Fort Worth Texas, several solo/group shows in museums and galleries (including one in Paris, France), and several large corporate commissions for Facebook and Google. Currently, I am working on 2 public art projects to be installed in the city of Austin. Both are based on inspirations from 6 weeks of embedded time with the Austin Fire Department and Austin EMS. In addition to my current public art projects, I am working on 2 solo shows.
Is there a particular goal or mission driving your creative journey?
For the past 15 years, my work has been investigating the slippery intersection between the digital world and reality. I am specifically interested in how we experience nature through technology. With my “Re-things”, I create three-dimensional sculptural representations of two-dimensional images of nature I find online. I build my objects pixel by pixel in an overtly laborious process in direct contrast to the slipperiness and speed of the digital world. Through this process of pixelation, details become distilled, distorted, or deleted. I am interested in how each pixel plays an important role in the identity of the object, the same way each cell plays a crucial role in the identity of an organism. I have used a diverse range of scientific disciplines as an inspirational lens and departure point for many of my sculptural works. For years, I have been inspired by a persistent curiosity with the natural/biological world, scientific discoveries across many fields, the strange and fuzzy logic of quantum mechanics, the intertwined histories of science and culture, and the various roles of geometry in biological, structural and aesthetic systems.
For you, what’s the most rewarding aspect of being creative?
For me, the most rewarding part of being an artist is being able to research a vast range of inspirational subjects and design a visual problem to solve. From the beginning to the end of my creative process my brain has to stay very active. I love all of the steps in the process for different reasons. Researching expands my understanding of the world around me, what came before me -from micro to macro perspectives and everything between. I dont have many rules I need to abide by in my process. Nothing is off limits. Artists can slide between worlds gathering bits of data and work with it in another.
I love the building process. I enjoy making the individual parts in my process. I typically have 1000’s of pieces in what I make so it is imperative that I pay close attention to each step. I love the smells and sounds that individual materials make in the studio when they are being manipulated. Another aspect of the building process I adore is when I run into a conceptual/structural/material problem that has no off the shelf solution – no store I can go to and buy a thing to fix the art object. I have to make my own solution. I have to be my own engineer, fabricator, and creative problem solver.
- Website: shawnsmithart.com
- Instagram: @shawnsmithsculpture