Shae Bishop is a wonderfully creative artist merging disparate art forms (at least in my mind): ceramics and clothing. His stuff is fun, playful, colorful, lighthearted and interesting. As he explained his work, I found some very interesting themes, such as the interplay between the permanence of ceramics and the transience of clothing. Shae also pokes around with what defines masculinity, blurring elements of decoration with iconography of cowboys and the American West.
JW: What first interested you in exploring the relationship between ceramics and textiles? What do the two mediums offer that lead you into this area?
SB: I’ve been consciously engaging with clothing ever since playing dress-up as a child. The transformative and expressive qualities of clothing never cease to fascinate me. Dress is a visual language and what we wear is always communicating something to the world around us, intentionally or not.
Whether it’s our daily attire that we don without a thought, or an elaborate outfit for an event or ceremony, we transform our naked forms by dressing. From this perspective all clothing is a costume. Clothing is also very personal, both literally, in the sense that it touches our bodies, and figuratively, in the sense that it can express how we view ourselves and/or how we want to be perceived.
When I first thought about making ceramic garments, I had a material metaphor in my mind. Ceramic represented history to me, something hard and long-lasting, heavy and also fragile. Textile represented the individual, something flexible, soft, and personal. By using the two in concert I was trying to merge the personal with the historical, to locate myself and my individual narrative within the larger story of human culture.
JW: You mention that you’ve explored the connections between the cultural histories of ceramics and textiles. Can you explain what you mean by “cultural histories”?
SB: Every material has different kinds of history. Ceramic and textile’s natural histories could involve the geological processes that make clay deposits, or the climate in which flax for linen grows best. By “cultural history” I am referring to how human societies have used, traded, decorated, and ascribed meanings to the products of those materials. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence we have for the invention of textiles comes from impressions made on clay vessels. That is part of cultural history. But this history is being written still, so every time a maker uses or thinks about a material in a particular way, it also becomes part of that history.
JW: You also say you’ve explored connections between the “pattern-making systems” of ceramics and textiles. Again, could you elaborate on what you mean by that?
SB: I’m very interested in architectural ceramics, like tile and brick, how these can clad the interior or exterior of buildings like skin or clothing. Any arrangement of tiles or bricks creates a unit-based pattern, from a simple rectangular grid in a suburban bathroom, to the stunningly complex geometric mosaics of some mosques and palaces. Likewise, in creating a textile, any system of interconnecting yarns or threads into cloth creates a pattern, from the over-under grid of plain weave canvas to the elaborate floral brocades made on a jacquard loom. In addition to these base patterns, ceramics and textiles are often further overlaid with patterns through glazing, printing, etc.
I am particularly intrigued when ceramic and textile patterns influence one another, such as the tilework in Hungarian Secession buildings, influenced by the designs of the region’s folk textiles.
JW: I notice in your wall tiles that you’re incorporating cordierite tile – is that the commercially available material sometimes used in pizza ovens?
SB: For many of my wall tiles I glaze directly on cordierite kiln shelves. This gives me a very large, flat, durable ceramic surface to work on with glaze and overglaze enamel, like a canvas. I also glaze on clay tiles I make myself, especially when I want a shape more complex than a circle or hexagon.
JW: I also see some different materials (wood, steel). Are those materials used for hanging the pieces, or somehow integrated into the imagery on the pieces?
SB: I often make wood or steel frames for these tiles, they are essentially ceramic paintings or drawings.
JW: Do you use commercial decals?
SB: I haven’t used commercial decals on any of the tiles you see on my website, the colored borders are glazed by hand with a brush, and I do the line drawings with overglaze enamel and a steel-nib pen. Most of those pieces are fired many times with layers of glaze and enamel.
JW: Where did you first come up with the idea to create wearable ceramic pieces?
SB: I started making my ceramic garments 10 years ago at the Kansas City Art Institute. I have continued this body of work ever since. Each of these pieces usually takes 4-9 months to make, so it’s quite a slow process to work through all my ideas. Also, the ways that I think about this work have evolved over time and branched into a few different groups. There is so much to think about at the intersection of clothing, history, personal narrative, craft processes, and materials. It’s still so exciting for me.
JW: I absolutely LOVE the “You Lookin At Me Pardner?” piece. Super fun. Can you tell me the background of this piece? Where did the idea come from? How did it evolve?
SB: I spent a lot of time out west in the past few years and was thinking about the cowboy as an American archetype and particularly as an icon of masculinity. The subject resonated with me because of growing up around Country music and culture, and because of my interest in Western fashion.
Here’s a culture steeped in machismo, but where a century of iconic figures wore high-heeled boots, tight jeans, bright colors, floral designs, and sometimes even fringe and rhinestones. There’s a fascinating history here, full of diverse influences and wild paradoxes. I took the cowboy hat as a symbol and started making this series called “Fragile Masculinity” where I playfully examine different facets of the manly cowboy ideal. In the double-crowned hat “You Lookin At Me Pardner?” I’m particularly thinking about old Western movies and male barroom posturing, where so much is conveyed by how somebody looks at you. This hat creates a face-to-face confrontation into which both wearers are locked.
JW: I see your partner is Annie Evelyn. In glancing at her furniture work, I see she’s also quite involved with textiles and fabric. Can you tell me a bit about your collaborative pieces?
SB: You are quite right to notice similarities between my work and Annie’s. It’s one of the things that first drew us to each other. We both explore the interplay between hard and soft materials, and surprising interactions between crafted objects and the body. We also have a shared interest in fashion, pattern, and geometry. So it felt pretty natural collaborating.
We had just taken a trip to Cuba and spent a lot of time looking at the colorful cement floor tiles in the buildings there. That was a starting point, we knew I would design square tiles with abstract motifs, but I wanted to push the patterns further. So I started to design patterns that changed incrementally across the rows of tile, and color gradients that changed with the patterns. Annie is an amazing woodworker and upholsterer, so she built hardwood frames and made the benches with hidden upholstery foam under the tiled seats, so they are squishy to sit on. It was really fun seeing these come together.
JW: You seem to live in a very creative community. Can you tell me anything about the artistic context you live in and around, and how that influences your work?
SB: I’ve been living in the mountains of North Carolina on and off for the last 7 years. I’m part of a big community of artists that live in the area around the Penland School of Craft, an hour north of Asheville. I fell in love with the area the first time I went to take a class at Penland, I later moved there to work for a local artist, I met my partner Annie there, and we bought a house a few years ago. I love the beautiful rivers and forests, but the people are what really tie me to the place. I am part of a communal studio, where I work alongside furniture, sculpture, and jewelry artists. We share equipment and skills and have plans for expanding to include more artists, facilities, exhibitions and event space. And ours is just one of dozens of area studios. If I make something too big to fit in my kiln, I can take it to a friend’s studio. I work with amazing photographers who help me do photo shoots for the images that accompany my work. Local metalworkers help me make display systems for my work. We live in the woods but can have the resources of a city by working together. It’s a dream for me.
JW: Finally, what about your plans for the future? Do you have some ideas for new work that you’re kicking around?
SB: There’s a lot in the works! I’m making more hats to continue my Fragile Masculinity series in some upcoming shows.
I am starting a garment that is a follow-up to my Waistcoat of Earthly Delights, with flora and fauna of a different habitat.
I’m interested in experimenting with materials like Velcro. But, maybe most exciting for me, I am learning to make shoes. I’ve wanted to learn shoemaking for many years, and I just finished a 6-week introductory class. I love the process and can’t wait to learn more and make this an ongoing part of my creative practice. And, before you ask, yes, I have lots of ideas for incorporating ceramic into shoemaking and leatherworking. It’s always a thrill for me to learn new craft processes, get new ideas, and be able to express my ideas in new ways. I hope I can keep doing that for the rest of my life.
Shae’s work can be seen on his website.