Shea Chang is in constant creative hustle. Originally from Vancouver and now based in Toronto, she keeps in motion through commissioned and freelance illustration, curation and art instruction. Inspired by everything from Abstract Expressionism to Dadaism and influenced daily by the city’s energetic bustle, Shea’s work has been featured in various publications throughout North America and her illustrated children’s book “Tarantele” was a finalist in the 2011 Governor Generals Awad. We met up with her for a coffee at The Mascot and stopped by later for a studio visit, read more below!
When people ask you what you do what do you say?
I would say that I’m a hustler. I’m constantly juggling between three to five jobs, depending on the time of the year. My personal practice is a combination of illustration, graphic design and painting. In addition to that, I curate at Toronto Image Works Gallery and teach at OCAD University.
Was there a certain point in your life in which you realized that you wanted to pursue art?
I always knew I wanted to be an artist, I think that it’s always been part of my identity. I started off doing a Fine Art Diploma Program in Vancouver which gave me an incredibly broad background. We made sculptures and welded our own tools, did etching and all kinds of different printmaking processes, stretched our own canvases and silkscreens. I eventually switched over to the design side of things when I came to Toronto, but my practice today embodies both worlds of art and design. All of those hands-on skills I learnt back then still translate to what I do now.
Would you change anything about Toronto’s art community?
Toronto is a great city for an artist to build a community and make their way. I moved here because I felt that it has so much to offer in that regard compared to my hometown of Vancouver. Toronto is such a photography town though. If I were to change anything about the scene here I would like to see more representation of female painters. I would like to see the same amount of calibre and diversity that we see in Toronto photo communities happen in the painting community. We could always do with more painters creating collectives, galleries and community projects that bring us together.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s been a boy’s job for a long time. As an instructor, I’m surprised when I see a lot of young illustrators that don’t really consider what it means to be a woman in a boy’s club. That’s definitely something I’m looking forward to see change.
How would you describe your style?
When I was just starting off I would do a lot of surreal, really dark (sometimes repulsive) and highly rendered paintings. I realized then that you can’t alienate your audience by completely ignoring aesthetic. It has to be a balance between aesthetic and concept; it always has to be considered as part of the whole.
My current work is based on abstracting organic forms and representing them in manufactured colours. For me, it’s part of representing the urban landscape and engages with the idea of the sublime. The forms in my abstract work represent distilled movement in nature; elements such as wind, flight and tides, are compressed to a two-dimensional space. If these elements read as having a ‘feminine touch’, I suppose it might be because I am interested in questioning beauty and aesthetic value is and its relevance to art.
Subverting our perception of beauty is definitely an issue that I find popping up in most of my work. My next solo show at Hunt Club Studio in March will be a series of bag head portraits created with highly rendered graphite portraits covered up with collage, so that you can see that there is a drawing underneath, but the bag head on top diminishes its value (or preciousness).
Tell us more about the bagheads! What was your inspiration behind the series?
It started off as a joke, actually. About a year ago a friend put a paper bag on her head and began dancing around. That moment triggered something in me and I started drawing these portraits of fully rendered graphite and collaged bag masks on top. At that point, it was really an investigation of identity and the differences in which people present themselves to the public vs. how they really are. Since then, the project has developed into something much greater than that. I’m looking into the historical uses of masks that every culture has history of doing, it’s something really human. The root of painting is a very human experience, mark-making, we’ve done it on the walls of caves since the beginning of time. To me, there’s some connection there that I’m still figuring out. I’m looking at what makes us human and what makes us un-human, or savage. What is wild.
How has being in Toronto influenced your approach to art and style?
I love the energy of Toronto, that feeling that so many things are happening. There are great contemporary artists as well, I’m really into Alex Fischer’s work (at O’born Contemporary). And I’m obviously influenced and inspired by my peers. Jon Todd, for example. Although his style and subject matter is so different to mine, his process is alike. We both give way to the power of the unexpected and value the things that transpire during the ‘making of’ something.
What advice would you give to emerging artists in the city?
Prioritize feeding yourself artistically. A teacher of mine once said “You can’t just sit and expect ideas to fall straight into your lap”. You have to feed your brain and you have to feed your creativity since your inspiration is a source that needs replenishing. Through community, people and inspiration, through understanding what else is being done out there. You really can’t grasp the value of what you’re doing without understanding the context which it’s in.