Shaila Hanscom: Erosion and Existence
by Victorya Montbleau
I had the pleasure of meeting Shaila last year since we were in several classes together at the OSA. I always found her work very organic, emotional, and full of movement. Now in her second year of school, Shaila put on her first solo show Erosion and Existence, at the Lee Matasi Gallery this December. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with her about the show and about her work.
Before the show, I got to see Shaila at work on the pieces that were eventually featured at the gallery. She was very immersed in her process and it’s really fun to see her at work. In our conversation she talks about how its important for her to be in touch with her mind and body during the process of creating her work and I feel like that really comes across in the final product. There’s a sense of movement, yielding, and transformation in the pieces from Erosion and Existence that communicates to the viewer about a mental health experience. Read on to hear more about Shaila and her great ideas!
Shaila Hanscom is 19, her mother is the manager of a Church, her father is a Pastor, and her grandmother is Mohawk in origin. She says this really influenced her in regards to looking at her body holistically. For Shaila, the physical and spiritual are all related and not being afraid of that is important. That comes into her work because she sees her work as an experience. As she put it to me, the spirit of her being is interpreting her experience.
In high school she had a very dedicated visual art teacher who encouraged her in this direction. It felt really right and comfortable to her. Because she has lived with anxiety, she hasn’t always felt that kind of comfort, but in visual art she says she feels confident and comfortable.Shaila told me about herself: “I have a strong desire to do the work, to be in the process. I’m not interested in the intellectual process or political manipulation. I don’t want to get lost in the idea of art. I’m really interested in just what it takes to create as a human being and to speak from your truth. Some people in the arts world believe what you need is the ideas, the concept. But I want to speak honestly from my experience, and to me that means doing the work myself. Doing the work and being in the process is my priority. I want to live true to what feels right to me and not what is expected of me. The experiences that transform your soul and move you physically are the movements I want to capture in my work.”
Interview with Shaila
V: I remember being struck by the lighting you chose for the show. It was very warm. When you photographed the pieces, the images were all very close up and textural and bathed in this warm glow. Can you tell me about your lighting choice?
S: The lighting in the studio is very fluorescent. It’s more of a factual lighting because you are seeing everything. It flattens things out, so there is less dimensionality. That’s good for the creating process, but when I was showing the pieces I wanted to play more with how the work is perceived. Warm tones warmed the pieces and made them inviting to look at. Small details were important and I wanted to accentuate that. This translates back to the concept of the show. I feel like people think that dealing with mental health is harsh. For me it’s a delicate and complicated realm of understanding yourself. I wanted to invite people to look into the details of it. There’s a difference between the harsh clinical light of the studio, versus the more personal, inviting, loving, tender, accepting, introspection of warm light. I wanted to allow the viewer to be present in their personal experience.
V: It seems like what you wanted in the show was to invite people to experience themselves while contemplating these rough surfaces that remind us of ourselves, and to provide an environment where the viewer could be held in warmth.
S: Yes, I wanted it to be comfortable and not invasive. Everyone has different experiences, positive and negative. I wanted to be sensitive and not overwhelm anyone. I displayed things openly and created space to give people the freedom to move. With the lighting, I wanted to create that space of comfort. When you’re going through anxiety and depression, you don’t know what the problem is. It could be any number of things within all of life’s demands. It’s important to honour your experience. My mental health is related to how my body relates to space and objects. People deserve space to experience what they are experiencing.
V: Could you talk about the objects themselves? I’m interested in the fact that you’re wanting to have this conversation about mental health with bowls and abstract broken sculptural pieces.
S: The opportunity to make bowls is a experience in itself. Approaching the wheel with anger, anxiety, lack of confidence or comfort with yourself gets translated through your body. So the objects I made would translate my experience. Your bowl collapses, the walls aren’t even, you make a hole. The bowls were about the process of it and how I reflected on my own mental health while making them. It’s also about the materials. Clay is made of dust, just as we come from dust and return to dust.
V: How did you achieve the texture of the bowls?
S: I used white slip and a surf worm to graze over the tops. Tooth brushes, stamps, paint brushes. Anything i could get my hands on that could make a mark on the bowl. The goal was to make relief work, showing that the process creates a resolution that could be good or bad or still in a process.
V: One thing that I also found really interesting was how silent all of the pieces appeared to be. What I mean is, for example, when you look at a painting that has a lot of colour in it and a lot of compositional elements, it can feel very loud or in your face. By contrast, your show was very minimalistic. Colour was used sparingly and it wasn’t representational.
S: Yes, there was a reason for the subtlety. I chose white clay because I thought it would translate the cracking and subtlety I wanted. Dark clay would have more colour and what I wanted was subtlety. I also purposely diluted all the colours a lot, to create the feeling of erosion I wanted.
V: I enjoyed the fact that you were so sparing with colour and with lighting you chose. When I was looking at the show it definitely brought my eye closer to those surface details and I just found myself tracing the bumps and cracks and it was such a subtle thing even to experience observing. It very much did feel like an introspective experience.
S: Ceramics slows me down a lot because it’s so schedule oriented. So I’m forced to break down the process into manageable tasks. I have to know that I’ve done all I can do. Surrendering to the process is the same as surrendering to my emotional process. Realizing that the clay has its own personality, in a sense.
V: The other thing I noticed while looking at the show. (More so with the way you photographed them, but also with the show.) The pieces almost look like landscapes. They look like desert landscapes.
S: I was inspired by nature, and specifically by rock sediments. I wanted to translate the layering of sediment as the layering of the self and landscape.
V: Is there anything you want to add?
S: The whole show was really about not being afraid of your mental health, for people and doctors. I want to bring people closer to it and normalize it, to help people be comfortable with it and just aware of it. I’ve had family members experience health issues and mental health issues and have seen how much they are related. Those personal experiences are what impact my art and creation process and why I wanted to take the time to focus on the body and emotional process through the sculptural process and using the wheel. Some people communicate with their body through dance, exercise, or sports, but for me ceramics allows me to do that and that helps me in being aware of myself. It has given me a confidence in being able to take up space.
You can see more of Shaila’s work on her website and etsy store: