This is the last week to see Sienna Shields’ stunning show “Invisible Woman,” on view now through February 6 at Kruger Gallery in Chicago. Shields paintings span several years, made from acrylic colored paper cut into fragments and pieces, later collaged onto canvas. In person, each piece has a surprising depth, with visible layers, washes, and strokes coming together to create a striking composition. Themes of nature and fragmentation can be found in Shields’ work, made in a somewhat meditative state. As a member of The Yams collective (also known as HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?), Shields has long lived and worked in a collective environment. Her collage paintings and bead sculptures—also on view at Kruger—offer the artist a manageable way to work within a sometimes chaotic and crowded environment. Whitewallspoke with the artist, who splits her time between New York and Alaska.
WHITEWALL: The paintings on view are compositions made up of pieces of paper you’ve washed in acrylic paint and cut to use, sometimes years later. How did you start working in this way?
SIENNA SHIELDS: I started painting this way in 1998, after college. Honestly, I just literally couldn’t afford the paint. I noticed that if I used a wash, I could stretch the paint. And then, I really liked the process. I do these washes, I crinkle the paper, I tear the paper, and then I iron, I do a reverse imprint on another piece of paper…I keep on building up the layers until I get to different textures and colors and designs. It becomes a really introspective, solitary process, but I can do it around anyone and anywhere.
WW: So this technique allows you to be present in what’s going on around you, but also inside your own head.
SS: It’s a way of being. I get to be taken out of the crazy world around me, but I can still have one foot in it while working. In that way, it’s a balance.
WW: And is that out of necessity from the environment you’re often working in?
SS: Yes, because I’ve lived in collectives for most of my adult life. I have lived with anywhere between 5 and 24 people. When you get up into living with 7 to 20-something people, it’s just a lot of energy and chaos.
WW: So you’re making these pieces while you’re around a lot of other people, while things are going on around you.
SS: Yes. I like to keep my hands busy, and it steals my mind. In a way, each work is like a diary of my life, because it acts as my own personal side of things. When I look at [each part] I can pick out memories. Suddenly I remember the people that were around and the incidents and the conversations. That’s my own personal side, for the paintings. It’s not what everyone else sees.
WW: Some of the works in the show, though all untitled, feel like they are referencing nature, maybe your time spent in Alaska?
SS: I don’t plan for any image to be in it, but what happens is that eventually, it turns out that way. I like to try to have as many different possible images pop out. That’s how I know, “Oh, this one’s done.” Because I’m satisfied with the amount of reading that I’m getting off of it. Like, “Okay, this is a fun puzzle.”
WW: Can you tell us about the beaded sculpture work that is also on view?
SS: Anywhere I go, whether I’m going to the hair store, the 99-cent store, I’m always looking for beads. You’ll find different colors in different places in the world. I’m not always hauling paint around, but I can be beading anywhere. I can bead in bed. I bead on the plane. I’ve been beading forever, all my life. When I first got into using beads, I was doing long DNA strips, making the beads look like DNA coils. I was thinking about how all this pollution with plastic is in our DNA now. But there’s also the imprint of colonialism and getting the raw deal in our DNA.
Beads are fascinating to me. As a child, when you learn really simple history, like, “This group of people traded all this land and this mountain for some glass beads,” we think, “Huh? Are you crazy?” But, I mean, people in the future will look back at us and think, “Wow, you traded your privacy for the ability to keep an app?” It’s really about the value that gets put on things. It’s also about the craftsmanship that comes out of beadwork, and about beads being a vehicle for prayer. I like the question that challenges what beads are.
“Invisible Woman” is on view through February 6.
KATY DONOGHUE February 4, 2016