Discovery Series: an interview with Lela Shields
Rhoni Blankenhorn for COMPANY
(September 16, 2011) Drawing from the natural and man-made, reality and fiction, the work of Lela Shields rekindles the imagination. She is an artist who is constantly evolving, who intuitively sifts through layers of chaos to reveal a world on the edge of reality. Born in London and raised in Virginia, Lela received her BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently lives and works in San Francisco, California.
COMPANY: Were you artistic when you were young?
Lela: Growing up, I spent alot of time with my five dogs building forts at my family’s farm in northern Virginia. During long days in the forest on my own, my interior world began to take shape and my imagination developed a strong foundation. What I made in school was not that different from the crazy forts I used to build out of wood, stone, moss and bones in the forest as a little girl. I still draw upon this time in my work now.
COMPANY: Can you describe your artistic process?
Lela: I think about my process as taking a chaotic, abstract mess and making sense of it; cleaning it up per say and making it beautiful. This process is how I approach everything in my life. I am constantly renovating old and unloved houses, gardens, and even studios. It is always very clear to me when the piece is finished; it’s just a feeling.
COMPANY: You are able to create such complex images with a simple palette. Why do you choose to work with such limited color?
Lela: Painting is so open-ended, you can paint absolutely anything. Sometimes so much choice is daunting. I think it is freeing and healthy to create some boundaries and restraints in which to explore within as a starting point.
After doing installation and performance for years all over the world, I grew tired of leaving work and lugging around large sculptures. And it was impractical because of extensive travel and moving around. When I moved to NYC from Australia in 2000 I started drawing with a pad of paper and two colors. I appreciate the simplicity and directness of this medium, and I still do plenty of installation during exhibits of 2-D work.
COMPANY: There are some fantastical creatures in your paintings. Where do they come from?
Lela: Nature, travel, relationships, love, crazy life itself, and anything of wonder. Each creation has a different story. I think of my creatures as strange fruit. Each one unique, made up of bizarre but somewhat familiar parts. The result is something that can’t quite be named or put in a box. I am interested in the very rich history of human fascination and play with the hybrid, and there are also many references to the era of cabinets of curiosity.
COMPANY: What has been your best experience exhibiting so far?
Lela: My first solo show in nyc was pretty exciting. But I learn something about my work at each of my shows - conversations or meeting new and interesting people make each of exhibition a rich experience.
COMPANY: Can you describe a particularly memorable exhibition?
Lela: I showed with a crazy collective in Australia and New Zealand for a year when I was doing an exchange program there in 1994. We transformed unconventional, government owned buildings by going and blacking out the windows, renting generators, and advertising through all underground avenues (radio stations, stenciling, word of mouth). The goal was to expose unloved and messy buildings that needed cleaning up and bring art to the streets. Artists and musicians presented work in all mediums. We even invited buskers (such as opera singers and puppeteers) off the street to perform alongside of the fine artists Working and creating with this community still informs my work and helped build the foundation of my practice.
COMPANY: Do you remember the first piece you sold? What was it like to let it go?
Lela: I sold my first work out of my old work space in the 526 26th Street artist building in NYC. It was an open studios, and the first person that came in bought the entire body of work, about 9 pieces. I was completely stunned! I did experience a flash of attachment, but mostly I was totally over the moon, and called my Dad immediately to relay the news. I was so happy that someone connected to the work, all the work, enough to want to take it home.
COMPANY: What are your relationships like with collectors?
Lela: I have enjoyed the collectors I’ve met. When exhibiting in galleries, the artist unfortunately does not always have contact with the buyers. I have found over the years that I typically have a real connection with people who are attracted to my work. Anyone who gets what I’m doing feels like an old friend whether or not they are a collector, dealer, or whoever.
COMPANY: Have any collectors had a significant impact on your career?
Lela: Definitely, collectors are essential. Anyone who has purchased work from me along the way has helped me to continue making new work, although the collector that I previously mentioned as being my first buyer helped a lot.
COMPANY: Do you think about the art market? Do you consider where your work might end up when you’re making it?
Lela: I try not to let the market have too much effect on my creative process. I have always run a second commercial business in order to allow myself the freedom to make exactly what I feel and to keep money separate, although fine art career has become more and more my main source of income.
Sometimes I make work for a particular venue or gallery, but usually no. I don’t think of venue and gallery in a way that changes what it is I am making to any large degree. At this point in my career, I feel grounded in my own vocabulary and process.
COMPANY: What the most difficult part of being an artist?
Lela: I’m a hard worker, but it has been an uphill struggle the entire way. Making a living as an artist is definitely not an easy path, but living and breathing in a creative way - I wouldn’t trade that for anything! For me, making art is the ultimate quest for beauty and truth. It keeps me growing and expanding in all kinds of unforeseen ways.
COMPANY: What are you working on now?
Lela: I have a show at Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids in San Francisco this November, for which I am doing my first entire body of work just for children. The gallery is in a cool children’s store in the mission and it is all nature-inspired with a dark, Victoriana edge. Children are my favorite audience; they are fearless and free of the filters we seem to develop along the way. My favorite thing to do is walk around any of my exhibitions and ask kids to tell me what is happening in the art, you get the best stories that way.