Intuitive Mapping

Intuitive Mapping

Sienna Shields once made a collage in which she placed a dark, jagged form right at the center. Amid the  hundreds of paper pieces she’d cut and layered to create this large, complex, abstract work, it stood out. It looked like the silhouette of a female swimming, tethered to a sort of umbilical cord – not that Shields intended that.

“When I’m collaging I just go into this other space with my hands and my brain,” says the Brooklyn-based artist, 37. “Sometimes I’ll be about to put a piece of paper somewhere, and my body says, ‘No, it can’t go there, it has to go there.’ And I obey myself. I’m totally in the zone, the colors are having their own relationships, and I don’t have a lot of control of it.”

For years, she says, when people in the New York art community saw that collage for the first time, they would zero in on that distinctive little shape. “Oh, that’s So-and-So,” they’d say, naming another artist, someone Shields didn’t know at all. Eventually – perhaps inevitably – she crossed paths with the woman, and the two became friends. And yes, she found, she had unconsciously summoned a true likeness, in form and spirit, of an artist she was destined to meet. “What’s crazy,” she adds, “is that in her sculpture and paintings she does a lot of stuff with umbilical cords and babies.” To Shields, this kind of prescience is a wondrous but not really surprising element of making art.

“Strange things like that always end up happening. Any time you open up your heart in a creative endeavor, you are in a lot of other times at once. That’s the beauty of art – it’s a way to kind of Möbius-strip through time. In a sense, it’s a more realistic look at how life actually is, even though it’s so fantastic.”

Like her work, which ranges from (but is not limited to) beadwork, quilting, and sculpture to video, performance, and photography, Shields is an amalgam of diverse influences: an American of African descent, born and raised in Alaska, flourishing in New York. Right now it’s probably the collage paintings for which she’s best known. Vibrant, bursting with color, movement, and emotion, they begin with Shields creating a color palette with acrylic washes she applies to paper. She then tears or cuts shapes, using an iron and her hands to create different textures and shadings, then layers the pieces in her intuitive way, until the story – whatever it may be – is told. 

Measuring as much as 8 by 8 feet, the collages are a visual diary of her life and relationships, inspired in part by topographic or demographic maps – notably some old fire-insurance specimens she once saw, in which changes in buildings or businesses were recorded simply by adding new patches on top of the old, documenting evolving neighborhoods over time.

Shields’ work is “at once molecular and topographic in focus, micro and macro in scale,” says Thomas Lax, a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which displayed three of her collage paintings in “Fore,” a recent showcase of work by emerging artists of African descent. “Building off of Afro­futurist artists such as [musician/philosopher] Sun Ra, she creates a cosmos all her own, inviting the viewer into her immersive life world to enjoy its many sensuous sensibilities.”

Annie Seaton, director of Bard College’s Difference and Media Project, has watched Shields’ work since the mid-2000s. By that time, “it was already clear that she was working at the frontiers of American originality,” Seaton says. Like Walt Whitman, another Brooklynite, Shields “takes America writ large as her subject – in her case, from Alaska to New York.”

The Last Frontier was an unlikely but perfect incubator for Shields’ imagination. She was born in 1976, a boom time in Alaska, when a wave of mostly young people poured in, spurred by work opportunities on the new pipeline, a zeal for the burgeoning environmental movement, and the promise of the ultimate back-to-the-land experience. Shields’ father had been drafted and sent there during the Vietnam War and stayed, becoming a math teacher. Her mother, a music teacher, had come from New Jersey seeking a change. The family lived on the outskirts of Anchorage – “dirt roads on dirt roads,” as Shields describes it. “It was a magical place to be a child. There was this sense of wonder and openness, all this land behind our house. We had free rein to run around about 40 acres, just tearing through the woods.”

She can’t remember a time when she didn’t make art. Starting at around age 4, “I would shut myself in my room and draw and talk to myself, talk to my drawings, create worlds.” She and her brother and sister all had learning disabilities, so for a time they were homeschooled, getting up at six to do lessons until noon, then heading out to play or ski, maybe take an art class at the Anchorage Museum. Later, returning to a regular classroom, she benefited from the art and music education that thrived in Alaska public schools then. At home there was no TV, but always craft projects. Her mother, “a big crafter,” would have bead parties for Sienna and her little pals. In high school, Shields would get together with friends to make quilts.

The backdrop for all this creativity was a culture of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, in the time before the big-box stores came in. “There was a real can-do spirit of ‘Why buy something when you can try to make it?’ ” she says. “We were also so far behind in fashion and style. Everything was just kind of cut off from the Lower 48. We called it ‘the outside.’ ” She feels nostalgic for that Alaska.

Still, after graduating from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, in 1998 with a degree focusing on Caribbean and Latin American history (she loved history and thought she should pursue a “serious” field), Shields was hungry for a taste of the outside and went to San Francisco for an internship at a historical society. She enjoyed the work, but wandered off that career path to do what she really loved, which was make art – quilts, paintings, beaded jewelry, whatever she could put her hands on. She stayed in the Bay Area for three years, working all kinds of jobs – barista, bartender, house cleaner – “anything to support my art habit.”

She had always dreamed of living in New York. Moving there in 2001, she instantly felt at home. “New York and Alaska are so opposite, they are exactly the same. They’re both lands of hyperbole. Alaska is the epic state: You can’t get bigger  – bigger spaces, more wilderness, more danger in the wilderness, just more life than anywhere. And then there is no city in America like New York, with its own urban wilderness. Alaska has the old ‘sourdoughs,’ idiosyncratic people who couldn’t hack it anywhere else, just a real celebration of the individual. I found the same in New York.”

She probably couldn’t have landed in a more idiosyncratic place than the Dumba Collective, a diverse group of artists who had taken over a 5,000-square-foot former print and photography building in the now-trendy but then-desolate Brooklyn neighborhood called DUMBO (“down under the Manhattan bridge”). “I found it on Craigs­list,” she says. “It was just wonderful – at all hours people playing music, painting, filming. I was like, ‘This is the place for me.’ ” For five years she lived there with up to 24 roommates, all in little warren-like spaces that once had been darkrooms. “I think in the whole place there were maybe five windows. People joked it was like a mall or a casino: You just kind of lost track of time.”

By the time the collective lost its lease in 2007, Shields’ work was attracting attention – and buyers. With money from the sale of some collage paintings, she flew 13 friends to Alaska for the summer. They hiked around the state, performed outdoors, and filmed the whole thing, traveling and sleeping in an old school bus Shields had purchased; it was the beginning of her experiments with film and video. Back in Brooklyn, she lived for a while in another artist commune, this one in Flatbush. Today, when she’s not abroad or visiting her folks in Anchorage, she’s again in DUMBO, in her own studio but still near her circle of friends (including her partner, painter and photographer Chuck Close), often collaborating with them artistically.

That connection, she believes, goes to the heart of all of her work. “It’s really just about friendships and  community, even though a lot of what I do is kind of solitary and labor-intensive,” she reflects. “When I started living in communal situations with lots of other artists – people who were so excited to do music and different kinds of art – it was the life and the world I wanted to be in. It wasn’t so much about success in that world. It was more literally about these relationships. And they have continued.”

Shields never formally studied art or craft. At one time she yearned to go back to school but couldn’t afford it. Instead, she has crafted her own apprenticeship over the years, observing, asking questions. “New York is its own grad school if you really apply yourself. I just found people who were willing to teach me something or let me watch them.” Every experience offered some lesson. She had no interest in the fashion world, for instance, but a brief stint as a model allowed her to go to Paris, learn photography, and hear about the strange lives of teen models from Eastern Europe, Brazil, and the Sudan: “I felt like an undercover anthropologist.”

As her work evolves, she continues to embrace new adventures. In fall 2010 she did a residency in Germany at the Akademie Schloss Solitude (“ ‘Castle of Solitude’ – the best name ever”), an old summer palace converted into art studios. Just recently, again with money from art sales, she took a dozen artist friends to Paris, where they attended a conference on black portraiture and also staged some performances.

There is still much to do, see, and make: “The point is the process and the learning,” Shields says. She may not know the destination, but she’ll ground herself in the knowledge that “the journey is the important part.”

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.