Continuing the series of posts from our archives, we bring you an interview with artist Shawn Smith. This feature originally appeared in issue 7 of Quint Magazine (July 2011).
How did you become an artist? Did you study design or sculpture?
I went to an Arts Magnet High School in Dallas that exposed me to a lot of techniques and artists at a very young age. When I started college, I made a shift and began studying science. I was particularly interested in sciences of the big like Cosmology as well as sciences of the small like Quantum Mechanics. After a year of science courses, I did a little soul searching and decided that I wanted to pursue art more than science.
For my BFA, I studied printmaking and art history at Washington University in St. Louis. For my MFA, I studied Sculpture at the California College of the Arts (and Crafts, as it used to be called).
Your work and style is very unique, mixing the styles of digital imagery and sculpture. How did you come up with the concept?
I started making this style of work during my last year of graduate school in 2005. I arrived at the process in a convoluted way. During my first year of graduate school I had a difficult time finding something that I wanted to focus on. I was making small sculptures using a variety of materials and found footage 35mm films. I think the films began to influence me in a new way that ultimately began to inform the sculpture.
In the films, I was concentrating on natural subjects I knew very little about (first hand) I was fascinated with how the films viewpoints, sound, and editing constructed a context and gave nature a fleeting identity for me. I started thinking back to when I was young growing up in Dallas and that I had never been camping or spent much time in nature. The only way I new nature was through a second hand source like a computer/television screen.
I got to thinking a little more about some of the earliest depictions of nature that stuck out in my head and remembered how natural objects were depicted in video games particularly the game Pitfall. For many years prior to the “pixilated” works, I had always liked using small pieces to make up a large identity. Seeing the blocky and abstract pixels that made up a larger identity began to intrigue me in a new way. I started paying attention to what information was provided and what was deleted. There is an economy of information here. Only the necessary bits are rendered to create the identity of the objects.
At this point I made a switch back to sculpture, in that I wanted to see if I could make a natural form using blocky pixels (or voxels). I started asking myself: what would an encounter with one of these digital objects look like in our reality? I chose a simple deer head out of MDF. I worked on this piece continuously for about 7 weeks at 10 hours a day. After a marathon of work, I finally made it work!
Could you tell us about your technique and the materials you use?
After I have decided on a subject matter, I make pencil and paper architectural sketches to show scale and elevations. Each project begins as a full sheet of wood. I use a table saw to mill the wood down into strips. Next, I cut the strips into smaller pieces of some predetermined denomination. At this point, I start dying the wood with inks and acrylic paint to get different colorations.
After everything is dry, I begin to assemble the pieces pixel by pixel. I use wood glue for a strong bond with some flexibility. I use my preliminary sketches like a road map to know how many pieces and how long they should be. About 70% of the way into the process, I abandon the map and start free forming the object (I feel like the object will benefit with more liveliness and flow this way). If I stick with the map 100% of the time, I fear the sculpture will look to stiff and blocky.
As for materials, I use primarily wood. I like composite woods like MDF and particle board. However, I have used a lot of balsa and bass wood. For outdoor pieces, I like to use stainless steel.
A lot of your artworks are animals – how do you pick your subjects?
I choose my subjects for a variety of reasons. Here is a list of some: natural patterns, mythology, commenting on how nature and technology might collide, predator prey relationships, natural selection, artificial selection, endangerment, something I have never seen before, diet, and sometimes a feeling that I want to work with this particular animal/subject and see what comes out.
What are your plans for the future?
I have quite a few shows lined up in the future at the moment. I am working on a piece for the “40 Under 40: Craft” Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery which opens in 2012. As of right now, I plan to keep working within this series. I do make departures from time to time – depending on the demands of the piece I am working on. I try to be sensitive about letting the work go where it wants to in an organic fashion.