Q&A with Barbara Shaiman

A conversation between Barbara Shaiman and Krista Schoening on the topic of Shaiman’s current show, Solace

KS: The first things I noticed about these works were their bright colors and varied textures. They seemed to be ornamented in the way that creatures are, drawing in the desired observer through visual beauty. Do you use color and texture deliberately to draw the viewer in? Does your use of these visual properties draw on the sorts of ornamentation found in nature, like the feathers of a peacock or the markings on a tropical fish?  

BS: Although I certainly hope my use of color and texture draw the viewer in, that was not my motivation. Texture has always been a major part of my work and is one of the attractions of clay as a medium. My current color choices evolved from a change in my studio and kiln. I decided to try new approaches to glazing, experimenting with color options and materials. At the same time I recognized that since I make sculptures, not functional ceramic ware, I wasn’t limited to using glazes, so I began experimenting with acrylic paints. This opened a whole new world to me. Simultaneously we were all dealing with isolation and depression from COVID, so using bright colors struck me as a positive thing…looking forward to the coming of spring and the end of the pandemic. 

KS: Would you tell me a little bit more about your works Cohorts 1 and 2? These sculptural works are presented hanging in clusters on the wall rather than sitting on a shelf or plinth. Your decision to hang these works interests me because they seem to float — or swim, like a school of fish — and defy gravity. What motivated your decision to install these works in this particular manner? 

BS: This series started when I made a group of small pieces that referenced rocks or gourds. One evening while watching a group of birds flying by I saw an image of my rock forms morphing into birds and decided to show them on the wall rather than on plinths as originally planned. I so loved the feeling of them floating or flying (swimming would be apt as well) that I have made all my works since to hang on the wall. The reason the title Cohorts appealed to me is that I see each work in the grouping as an individual piece that exists on its own, yet the grouping expands the meaning of each piece as they speak to each other and create an entity larger than each by itself. Birds, fish, and bees were part of my thoughts, as were people working in teams.

KS: In both the Flowing Waters series and Cohorts, do your sources come from specific observations? In other words, do you take inspiration from a particular tree, or rock, or place? Or are they linked to these sources more intuitively? The works in your series Flowing Waters were drawn from coastal and riverine sources of inspiration. As you worked on these sculptures you couldn’t access the places that inspired them, due to pandemic travel restrictions. Given that context of forced distance, how much of a role do imagination and memory play in these works? 

BS: It is all about memory and imagination, fed by photos, both my own and those I see in nature magazines along with hours spent watching nature videos in the past year and a half. The titles of the works are specific to areas i regularly visit in the NW, but the sculptures are named after they’re completed. When making them I’m thinking of a variety of images of rivers, tidal areas and estuaries, not one specific area.

BS: Nature has always been a focal point of my work. Before moving to Seattle I lived in Montana and spent time in the amazing wilderness areas and Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.  These images have stayed with me and still influence my work. Then, since moving to Seattle many years ago, the beauties of our area and the NW coast became part of the large reservoir of images that inspire me. I am alarmed by the rising dangers of climate change so I’m sure this natural imagery will remain an essential part of my practice and I hope in some small way my work might increase the viewers sensitivity to the situation. I think a lot about how to make my work give a stronger message about the catastrophe we are facing without being didactic but am not yet sure how that will manifest itself in the future.