Exploring the “true self” with multidisciplinary artist Laura Shill
Multidisciplinary artist Laura Shill always felt like an outside observer. Her grandfather recognized this in her as a child and gifted her a hot pink point-and-shoot camera, which turned out to be the start for an early career in photojournalism. However, a few years into that career, she felt uneasy about using her camera as a weapon to show people at their lowest moments. Instead, she chose to pursue an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and explore the artistic side of photography. Today, her “brain works more in 3D,” as she puts it, and she focuses most of her art practice in sculpture. In this episode of the podcast, Laura and host R. Alan Brooks discuss the performative and vulnerable aspects of photography, using art to connect with other people, carving out a space for other weirdos, and more.
Links mentioned in this episode:
- Follow Laura on Instagram
- Check out Laura's website
- Tank Studios
- Camp Tintype
- Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (Laura accidentally calls it Spectacle of the South)
- “Phantom Touch” (Laura’s “pink tube” project that appeared at MCA Denver in 2015 as part of the Thief Among Thieves exhibition)
- Watch a video about Laura's work, "Including Other in the Self" (based on the psychological study and subsequent New York Times article, “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love”)
ABOUT LAURA SHILL
Laura Shill is an artist based in Denver, CO, who creates pronounced absences and addresses ideas of disclosure and concealment, agency and emotional risk, desire and discontent, often oscillating between humor and heartbreak, through a combination of sculpture, installation, performance, and photography. Her sculptural and installation work borrows theatrical conventions to blur boundaries between public and private space to immerse participants. These works employ repetition to create environments that bring thousands of hours of invisible labor into material form.
Shill has exhibited nationally and internationally at an official satellite of the 57th Venice Biennale at the European Cultural Center, The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Leon Gallery, The Gallery of Contemporary Art, Colorado Springs, David B. Smith Gallery, Denver, Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, and Durden and Ray, Los Angeles. She earned an MFA in Interdisciplinary Media Arts Practices from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2012. Images from her Hidden Mother archive were included in the 2013 Photographers’ Gallery London exhibition, Home Truths, Photography and Motherhood, and published in the catalog edited by Susan Bright.
Photo by Helen Richardson, for The Denver Post
R. Alan Brooks (00:00):
Hey, I'm R. Alan Brooks, a writer and professor. This is How Art is Born, an MCA Denver podcast about the origins of artists and their creative and artistic practice. Today, I'm joined by artist Laura Shill. Say hi.
Laura Shill (00:24):
R. Alan Brooks (00:24):
That's how they know the difference between our voices. Laura, to start us off, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Laura Shill (00:34):
I am an interdisciplinary artist who is living and working here in Denver.
R. Alan Brooks (00:39):
Oh, right on. Okay, so where are you from? Where'd you grow up?
Laura Shill (00:46):
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama.
R. Alan Brooks (00:48):
Laura Shill (00:49):
And I moved out here to pursue a master's degree in fine arts at the University of Colorado in Boulder-
R. Alan Brooks (00:57):
Laura Shill (00:57):
... in 2009.
R. Alan Brooks (00:58):
Laura Shill (00:58):
And then I just stayed.
R. Alan Brooks (01:01):
Laura Shill (01:01):
I was really embraced by this community and opportunities opened up for me that I never thought would be possible.
R. Alan Brooks (01:11):
Laura Shill (01:11):
And I just, I got to stay.
R. Alan Brooks (01:12):
Okay. So let me ask you this. So when you were a child in the south, how did you first connect with art?
Laura Shill (01:20):
I think photography was really the gateway for me. I didn't know any artists. It didn't seem like a thing that normal people did, but when I was nine years old, my grandfather gave me my first camera and I was a little bit of an outside observer even within my family.
R. Alan Brooks (01:42):
Laura Shill (01:42):
So I think he maybe noticed that and said well, let's put you to work. You can document, you can observe.
R. Alan Brooks (01:51):
So what kind of camera was it?
Laura Shill (01:54):
It was hot pink.
R. Alan Brooks (01:55):
Laura Shill (01:55):
And it took this really small film format. It was like a really horizontal, narrow. I mean, it wasn't a great camera. It was a snap, a point and shoot kind of camera, but it kind of gave a purpose to that outsider position that I had. And then I went on to study journalism and became a photo journalist in college.
R. Alan Brooks (02:17):
Laura Shill (02:17):
I was like the photo editor of our university newspaper. And that kind of having that outsider status, but having an entry point in-
R. Alan Brooks (02:27):
Laura Shill (02:29):
... was kind of how it all started for me.
R. Alan Brooks (02:31):
Well, so I want to run it back a little. So when you got that camera, what kind of things were you taking pictures of?
Laura Shill (02:38):
Mostly, it was my family.
R. Alan Brooks (02:38):
Laura Shill (02:40):
And honestly, I probably used it more as a weapon. I was like kind of exposé. Like, "here's the seedy underbelly of the birthday party" kind of thing. And it took me a long time to figure out and I had to have good mentorship for this to figure out how to be a good photographer and also a good person. And ultimately, I think that's why I didn't stick with photojournalism was because I really did... Sometimes I would feel monstrous, the images that I was making.
R. Alan Brooks (03:11):
Laura Shill (03:13):
I would rather intervene or allow people to have more authorship of their own representation than to try and hide behind ideas of impartiality and so that was really kind of what opened the door for this more collaborative way of art making.
R. Alan Brooks (03:30):
Well, Laura, that's really interesting. So are you... I mean, what's interesting is having the dual journey of developing as an artist, but also developing as a person, a good person, like you said. So just, I guess, so that I understand, did you feel like you were capturing people in photography just in ways that were unfair or unflattering or?
Laura Shill (03:56):
Well, as a young photographer, I think I probably, I was trying to repeat images I'd seen before in a way.
R. Alan Brooks (04:05):
Laura Shill (04:06):
It's like you learn by copying or like, okay, I got to get the spot news so I need to be on the scene for this bad thing that's happened to someone or... Yeah, it really was like I would be capturing people in a really dire moment in their lives and not really able to ask how that's impacting them. Like for instance, I showed up to a fire in a rural part of Alabama where a woman and her son, he was 62, she was 82. It had gotten so hot that summer that some ammunition they had stored in their garage had caught fire.
R. Alan Brooks (04:45):
Laura Shill (04:45):
And just burned up everything that they owned. Everybody's standing outside, all the neighbors. It's hot Alabama summer day. And it looks like how... It looks like the stereotype in a way. And I come in with my camera blazing, with maybe little regard for the dignity of those people. The question of like what does this image serve? Who's it helping?
R. Alan Brooks (05:17):
Laura Shill (05:18):
Was one of those things that just kind of... It was almost a decisive moment for me where I was like oh, I'm not going to be good at this because I can't intrude on these people suffering like this and then what, make it public? Who is that serving? And so I went on to... My favorite form of photography became the environmental portrait where it's like this collaboration between you and another person and you're trying to, in image form, let them tell you who they are.
R. Alan Brooks (05:46):
Laura Shill (05:46):
And so it became a thing where I wouldn't even get the camera out until I'd spent time talking to somebody and getting to know them and kind of understanding what's important to them.
R. Alan Brooks (05:58):
I love hearing about that whole journey. That's really interesting. So you get your first camera at nine, you go through high school and kind of stick with it. Was the camera kind of present all of those years or just came and went?
Laura Shill (06:12):
R. Alan Brooks (06:12):
Laura Shill (06:13):
It really wasn't. I took art photography in high school, but in high school, I was an athlete. I was trying to be like an academic high achiever.
R. Alan Brooks (06:23):
So you found your way back to photography in college? That's when you focused on it.
Laura Shill (06:28):
R. Alan Brooks (06:29):
So how was that? Did you immediately think it was going to be like journalistic photography or were you just kind of open?
Laura Shill (06:34):
I think it was like a career that I could name.
R. Alan Brooks (06:39):
Laura Shill (06:41):
And so I really did kind of come from sort of working class parents. My mom did go to college, but it was like when I was a child, she went back to school. And so I really wanted to prove that I could earn a living at it before I would even name it.
R. Alan Brooks (07:00):
Laura Shill (07:01):
And so I started... You know, I was photo editor of my student paper and then I was like freelancing for the alternative paper in town and in exchange, they would let me in to see shows for free at this bar that they also owned. And then I had a fine art photography practice going alongside and so I kind of created this digital divide where the stuff I was doing for money, I was doing digitally and then I was still keeping that film practice alive.
R. Alan Brooks (07:31):
Okay. And so that moment that you had where you felt like you didn't want to exploit people in their most vulnerable moments, was that before you got the MFA here?
Laura Shill (07:43):
R. Alan Brooks (07:44):
Laura Shill (07:44):
And I should say that there are photojournalists who do their jobs beautifully and don't exploit people and just show us humanity. And that's what I wanted to do and I just didn't feel like I could do it in that form.
R. Alan Brooks (07:57):
Laura Shill (07:58):
So I worked professionally as a photographer and I had this fine art practice going on the side and I was organizing art shows with my friends in friends' studios or their backyards or like an old synagogue that didn't have plumbing and an ice house in Kentucky or this all ages punk rock venue in Birmingham. And so that was kind of where I found my place and was just building this community. And we would just kind of have these temporary one-night shows.
R. Alan Brooks (08:35):
Laura Shill (08:35):
People come and it would be like oh, there's more of us than we thought.
R. Alan Brooks (08:39):
Okay. And so when you're doing those shows and kind of connecting with the alternative community, was that the photography that you were talking about where you're getting the environmental...?
Laura Shill (08:50):
So yeah, I'm shooting environmental portraits of my friends who are like other artists and musicians or just weirdos. And then I'm also doing this experimental kind of stuff where I'm teaching myself different processes and my weird kind of Southern Gothic stuff that was sort of just a rebellion of the place that I lived in and how confined I felt there. And so a lot of that work, early creative work for me was directly in response to growing up in a culture that I felt like didn't see me and didn't want me to exist. And so it was really a practice of going out into spaces and getting comfortable with my embarrassing ideas and being weird and letting people see that and getting over that fear.
R. Alan Brooks (09:38):
Laura Shill (09:38):
So like my work now, it does not resemble that work in any way because it was very sort of confrontational and very much sort of a backlash to feeling like there wasn't a place for me.
R. Alan Brooks (09:52):
Right. Well, it's interesting that you talk about that stuff because a lot of these conversations, we talk about basically what your art means for you, what place it occupies in your life. Like for some of us, it's a way to heal ourselves. For some of us, it's a way to have our voice heard. So at that point in your life, it seems like it was about kind of finding your place. Would you say that was right?
Laura Shill (10:17):
Yeah. Like carving out a space for other weirdos.
R. Alan Brooks (10:19):
Laura Shill (10:21):
Shining this light that says hey, there's others of us over here. You all are welcome.
R. Alan Brooks (10:27):
Well, so now because you said this stuff then is very different for what you do now, so what is art doing for you now?
Laura Shill (10:42):
So in the past, I'll create these elaborate scenarios that sort of draw people in and I've often joked that my art is a great way for me to lure people into a friendship with me, but it's become more complicated since the pandemic because all of our worlds have gotten smaller. We've had to create distance from each other. So it's been a way of processing things for me throughout that experience but it's also just kind of my way of engaging my curiosity with the world and just kind of following a question wherever it leads. And if I need to learn a new skillset to properly engage it, then that's what I'll do.
R. Alan Brooks (11:26):
Okay. And it seems like people have always been central to your photography practice.
Laura Shill (11:33):
R. Alan Brooks (11:34):
Laura Shill (11:35):
Although I did spend about a year working with a natural history collection at the University of Alabama, where I would go in every Friday and document every... Well, it started with every endangered or extinct species that they had in their collection but then it became like much more a project where I was interested in the motivation of the collector themselves.
R. Alan Brooks (11:58):
Laura Shill (11:58):
So like even in this roundabout way where I'm photographing dead animals, I'm still trying to get to the humanity and the impulse behind collecting in the way that we might want to impose order on things or keep things together, even if decay is the natural state of things. So yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (12:16):
No, it's interesting because I talk about the idea of how art is very good at taking the intangible and making it into something tangible that we can wrestle with, think about, whatever. And that, it seems like what you're describing is interested in what motivates a person or what makes them who they are and then trying to represent that visually. And, I don't know, that's a really kind of cool thing.
Laura Shill (12:42):
Yeah. I mean, I think too, I'm a pretty introverted person. And so I'm always trying to use my practice to create some system that can promote some social thing happening, whether it's in the way a work is produced that I need help and so people will show up and help me or whether it's like this environment that I create that I can then invite people into or whether it's just having to ask somebody can I make your portrait or that I'm always trying to build these ways into my life that will draw people in or draw me to other people.
R. Alan Brooks (13:26):
Yeah. Okay. So the degree that you got at CU Boulder, how did that affect your practice?
Laura Shill (13:34):
Well, the main way that it... It was just kind of my way out. I didn't really know how to leave Alabama because I spent my entire life there without having a place to go. And so I chose CU Boulder because they had just built this brand new building. And so it felt like I would be arriving in a time where I could help build something, like help be part of the start of something new. So when I got there, having worked for a few years, I was a really motivated student. I didn't need a lot of instruction. They have phenomenal resources. And so I just was able to get in there and start experimenting. And I should say too that before I quit my job and moved to CU Boulder, I had seen this commercial for an HP product, a printer, where a three year old takes a digital camera, photographs her goldfish, takes that image, downloads it to a computer and then prints it out and it's like this three year old just did my job. How can I compete?
Laura Shill (14:50):
And so I said well, I guess I'd like to take it back to the beginning and learn the earliest photographic form, the one that democratized photography in the US and I think completely upended our society. And so I decided to learn how to make tintypes.
R. Alan Brooks (15:08):
Laura Shill (15:08):
With the wet plate collodion process. So I wrote a letter to this man in upstate New York, John Coffer, who lives like a 19th century lifestyle. He lives off the land and he teaches this photographic process.
R. Alan Brooks (15:23):
Laura Shill (15:24):
And so he responded to my letter, said I could come and I drove up to New York to learn wet plate collodion because that's what I wanted my research to center on when I got to CU Boulder, so.
R. Alan Brooks (15:39):
Okay. Before we go further, I know what tintypes are, but I don't know what the word you're saying. Wet type collodion?
Laura Shill (15:44):
Wet plate collodion.
R. Alan Brooks (15:45):
Wet plate collodion.
Laura Shill (15:46):
Yeah. That just, it describes the materiality and the way that it's made. So like a tintype is a metal plate. Should be tin, but now a lot of times it's aluminum with a black surface on it.
R. Alan Brooks (15:59):
Laura Shill (15:59):
And you pour collodion, which is this syrupy material that smells like rubbing alcohol. And it was actually used in the civil war to close soldiers wounds. It behaved as like a second skin. And that's kind of what it does on the plate too.
R. Alan Brooks (16:16):
Laura Shill (16:16):
So then you dunk the plate into the silver nitrate, which is the light sensitive material and the collodion holds it on there. So it's wet. The whole thing happens in your hand. It's wet, it's alive, you're moving it around. And then in order to fix that image permanently, dunk it in cyanide. Which I think just speaks volumes about photography and the image itself.
R. Alan Brooks (16:40):
Yeah. I was just, I'm glad you explained that because that's-
Laura Shill (16:40):
R. Alan Brooks (16:43):
... superhearing like Nickelodeon, like-
Laura Shill (16:45):
R. Alan Brooks (16:45):
... the commercial from when I was a kid. Nickelodeon.
Laura Shill (16:48):
R. Alan Brooks (16:49):
That's not what she's saying. Right.
Laura Shill (16:51):
Sorry to get jargony.
R. Alan Brooks (16:53):
Oh no. It's good because it's a good chance to kind of learn more about that kind of stuff. So you went and this guy taught you about this process.
Laura Shill (17:00):
R. Alan Brooks (17:00):
And how long was that?
Laura Shill (17:02):
So I spent a week on his farm and you stay in a tent.
R. Alan Brooks (17:06):
Laura Shill (17:06):
There's a cauldron for bathing and the composting toilet and you drink milk from his cow.
R. Alan Brooks (17:12):
Laura Shill (17:13):
And he has these big cameras that are from the 19th century or early 20th century and he supplies all the materials and you just live it for that week and there are other artists there so you get to collaborate and help each other out. They call it Camp Tintype. Exactly what it is.
R. Alan Brooks (17:37):
Okay. Well, so learning this new process, did it do something for how you approach things artistically or is it just? Yeah.
Laura Shill (17:45):
It did. Because then I was like well, what do I use it for?
R. Alan Brooks (17:48):
Laura Shill (17:49):
For me, the form needs to match the material. And so it, for me, I didn't want it to be arbitrary. I wanted it to engage those questions.
R. Alan Brooks (17:59):
Laura Shill (17:59):
That sort of the photograph itself in its infancy was engaging. So of course, there's like preservation and loss. And I realized that the types of images I was making when I was living in Alabama were all about documenting things that I was afraid of losing. And when I moved to a new place and I didn't know anybody, I didn't really have that same impulse.
R. Alan Brooks (18:27):
Laura Shill (18:27):
So I started to become more interested in that moment when the image becomes democratized, becomes inexpensive and available to the masses instead of being the territory of only the wealthy get to have themselves rendered and existing beyond their own lifespan and how like Americans would show up to... So at the time the photographer would be itinerate and would travel around from town to town and would pitch a tent and the tent would serve as both the studio and the dark room. And so people would come in and they would perform their identities for the camera. So if you're a man, you're typically dressed in whatever your trade uniform is, sometimes you have your tools. If you're a butcher, you've got the saw and the apron.
R. Alan Brooks (19:15):
Laura Shill (19:15):
For women, it's more about the fashion of the day. Soldiers perform as soldiers and there's a sort of aspirational performance that's happening in front of the camera. And I think that's kind of how we still use the photographic image is that we aren't necessarily showing who we are. We're showing who we want to be and who we want others to think we are.
R. Alan Brooks (19:41):
You're saying people don't represent their real lives on Instagram? [laughter] I don't believe it.
Laura Shill (19:47):
I'm saying we are always performing a self we'd like to be in the hopes that maybe it'll stick.
R. Alan Brooks (19:56):
Laura Shill (19:57):
And so I started making these installations in my studio that would be really involved and really brightly colored and I would always have fresh baked cookies and leave my door open. And when people would walk by and become interested, I'd be like "hey, do you actually want to come in and perform for my camera?" And those started becoming the tintypes. And then I learned of the hidden mother images of the 19th century when they would photograph babies and small children, they would often have the mother hold the baby because there would be a several second exposure time. You'd need the child to be very still. But instead of it being this Madonna-and-child-style portrait or even a portrait of a woman achieving the feminine ideal for the Victorian era, the women would be covered in blankets, appearing as ghosts. Sometimes it's a hand reaching in from behind a chair or sometimes her identity is scratched from the plate entirely.
Laura Shill (21:01):
So I became really interested in how this practice seems to be completely up against this idea of this democratic performance of the self in the image. And there, really there wasn't any academic writing on it at the time. And so I was like this is my thesis.
R. Alan Brooks (21:19):
Laura Shill (21:20):
I have to know what this is and very quickly amassed large of hidden other tintypes because tintypes are still only a few dollars.
R. Alan Brooks (21:32):
Laura Shill (21:32):
They never seem to get expensive.
R. Alan Brooks (21:34):
Laura Shill (21:36):
So built this image archive, I started to follow this inquiry.
R. Alan Brooks (21:39):
That's really fascinating. So earlier in your journey as an artist, you had that moment where you were thinking "what is the value of showing a person in this situation?" And so you moved your attention towards learning who people are and then photographing them in an environment that showed who they are. And I'm thinking about that in contrast to your idea that people are constantly performing. And so I wonder just what your thoughts are about the value of capturing a true self or what is a true self or just what do you think about that?
Laura Shill (22:14):
I mean, that one, like the idea of a true self is tough for me because I don't... I'm a person who tends to believe that anyone can be transformed with enough care, effort, and time. And so the idea of a true self, are there things about us that are indelible that make us us or can we always change? So I don't know about a true self or being locked in as one thing from birth, but I do think that certainly in my practice, there are a lot of things that I think should just be allowed to exist without documentation. I think the fact of knowing you're being watched and documented changes.
Laura Shill (23:11):
This is something I think about a lot. I've read Guy Debord's Spectacle of The Self, this idea that all lived experience will become representation at some point in the future. I think we've long surpassed that, but that difference between performing and making an image versus just living and being, it's something I think about a lot but I have no conclusions on it except to say that in my own life, I've chosen to document a thing many times. Like on a vacation, I'll give myself the assignment to photograph every stray dog that approaches me and that will change that entire experience into one where I'm in pursuit of an image.
R. Alan Brooks (23:59):
Laura Shill (24:00):
Versus other times when I've decided to just enjoy the way the sun feels on my face and not think about what the image is. And those are two very... They're just so distinctly different.
R. Alan Brooks (24:13):
Right. I guess what is guiding your photography right now?
Laura Shill (24:20):
Well, can I back up though actually-
R. Alan Brooks (24:22):
Yeah. Let's do it.
Laura Shill (24:22):
And ask you about what you think about that question of the self?
R. Alan Brooks (24:29):
Well, so, it's an interesting thing because I deal largely in fiction, but in fiction, I'm trying to represent something true and essential and human. I think that we are born with natural inclinations -- predispositions, I would say. And so it is not impossible to change those things, but we have to be very deliberate and consistent. Whereas like other things that are not within that predisposition and we can just pick up and change a lot easier. I was always very quiet and shy. We talked about being introverts before when we first met. And my father, when I was like 26, he was like, "Alan, when you were a kid, I was so worried about you because you were so quiet, you were so shy. And I struggled with shyness and I just didn't know how it's going to be for you. Then I don't know what the hell happened." And it was just, when I was a teenager, I really just decided I want to talk to girls so I had to figure how to do it.
Laura Shill (25:36):
R. Alan Brooks (25:37):
And so I would just throw myself in social situations. So that was something that was sort of fundamental to who I was that I was able to change, but that definitely took will and consistent practice.
Laura Shill (25:53):
R. Alan Brooks (25:54):
But I'm still like inclined... Well, during the lockdown for example, I was so good. Right? Like I was so good. Not having to go out, not having to make small talk ever because for as awkward as Zooming can be, there's not much space for small talk. So to have that cut out of my life, I'm like yeah.
Laura Shill (26:14):
R. Alan Brooks (26:16):
Yeah. But the reason I ask that question of you though is because you are capturing some version of a person's self and I just wonder what is important to you to capture? Is it important to capture who they are in this moment? Is it important to capture who they want to be in front of the camera in this moment?
Laura Shill (26:41):
To be honest with you, I have not picked up a camera since probably 2012.
R. Alan Brooks (26:51):
Laura Shill (26:52):
That's not true. I've done it, but not in a consistent photo-based practice way.
Laura Shill (27:03):
I was building these big installations to create both a backdrop for the image itself and then also leaving those as part of the exhibition to create the context for viewing the works. And then it's like that work kind of took on a life of its own. And then I kind of became a sculptor and-
R. Alan Brooks (27:29):
Well, my next question going to be-
Laura Shill (27:29):
... sort of working conceptually.
R. Alan Brooks (27:29):
Oh yeah. My question was going to be, because you mentioned interdisciplinary at the beginning so I was going to be like what's the rest? So let's talk about it.
Laura Shill (27:40):
Well, so I started making those installations to lure people in to do these performances that we would negotiate together. And then those objects seemed to be able to have a life on their own without a person inhabiting them. So that just started to build on itself. A lot of my practice is sort of repetition of form and amassing things over time and that could apply to the image archives that I build or even the sort of soft sculptural environments that I make. So probably a lot of people, MCA people are most familiar with the 18-foot pink tubes suspended from the ceiling that create this sort of permeable architecture within a space. And it's that same idea of transformation.
R. Alan Brooks (28:33):
Laura Shill (28:34):
Then using that material to create a sort of context within the space that didn't exist before.
R. Alan Brooks (28:43):
Well, so moving from such a strong focus on photography and people into sculpting and other things, I don't know, what was that like for you? Like...
Laura Shill (28:55):
If I'm looking for a through-line, I think it's absence. The thing that you photograph that isn't the thing, it's the absence of the thing. And then with the installations, without a person engaging them, it's just a room full of stuff. And the same thing with a lot of the sculptural work that I do, which will often be like my hand repeated over and over and over again. It's not me. It's a representation of me. It's the embodiment of my absence. And so I think I'm often creating these pronounced absences with images or with other materials.
R. Alan Brooks (29:51):
Okay. So we've kind of talked about this journey that you've had as an artist. One of the things that we like to talk about here on this podcast is when you're planning things, sometimes things don't go according to plan, sometimes things fall short. I guess, first of all, can you think of an example you'd like to share where something... And this is specifically for people who are listening who are afraid of failing quote-unquote.
Laura Shill (30:17):
R. Alan Brooks (30:19):
And then also like, so if the first question is can you think of an example, second is how do you deal with it?
Laura Shill (30:25):
Yeah. I mean, I fail mostly. Part of where the ideas come from or what motivates the work is just a sense of curiosity and I try not to apply a judgment to that. I try not to say oh, that's actually a really dumb question. Why are you doing that? Because they're just so... It's so easy to talk yourself out of doing the thing because often the thing makes no sense.
R. Alan Brooks (30:53):
Laura Shill (30:55):
So play is really important in my studio. And so a lot of times, I'll go in there with unstructured time and just kind of play with my objects and make pairings. It's hard for me to choose a specific failure because it's like probably 90% failure where it's like "no, this doesn't make sense." And then something will happen where it's like "oh, this is it. This is the idea. Follow this where it takes you." But yeah. When I was teaching, when I was learning how to do casting and mold making, for a solid year, almost everything was a failure. Material failure. And I just had to persist. Persistence always pays in the studio.
R. Alan Brooks (31:46):
Laura Shill (31:47):
So sometimes it's not easy or ideas feel bad and you just have to show up the next day and try again. I imagine it's similar to being a writer, right? They say put in your eight hours every day.
R. Alan Brooks (32:03):
Oh, right. Yeah. And they also say most of writing is rewriting.
Laura Shill (32:07):
R. Alan Brooks (32:08):
So inherent to the practice is that the first version was a failure and you have to keep rewriting it.
Laura Shill (32:15):
Yeah. I mean, that was a, sort of during the pandemic, I was working on a solo show and one of the rules that I gave my myself was you can only use what you already have. And I started like going through all my stuff like what do I need to get rid of? What's just standing in the way of the next idea. And I kind of gathered all these things together and I was ready to donate them. And then I was like actually, I'm going to bring you back in. And through that time and care and effort, I'm going to try to restore some sense of purpose to you.
Laura Shill (32:52):
And one of the ways that I did that was by destroying things and thinking about brokenness, not as sort of an end-state or a place where you then cast something away. It is like this site of transformation and this beginning point that just because a thing is broken doesn't mean it can't be repaired and it doesn't mean you have to take it back to how it was before.
R. Alan Brooks (33:16):
Laura Shill (33:16):
It actually opens up this great potential that you wouldn't have realized had it not been broken to begin with. I don't know if that applies to the question you asked me.
R. Alan Brooks (33:25):
No, that was really actually helpful because I was thinking about how... I've heard the expression don't compare your insides with someone else's outsides, right? So people seeing me do this interview or seeing me on wherever, wherever they see me, they typically think oh, he definitely doesn't deal with fear. Right? And then on your website, you have the cool artist photo -- I've seen it -- and you look very confident and cool, right? And so that's why I think it's important to talk about how we deal with fear. And so some of what you're talking about like changing how you see brokenness is really interesting. Are there other ways that when you feel like an artistic insecurity arise, how do you cope with it?
Laura Shill (34:09):
Well, it always arises when a project is close to being put out into the world.
R. Alan Brooks (34:16):
That happens to me too.
Laura Shill (34:16):
Yeah. That self-doubt is always there and just kind of understanding that it's there and that I just have to power through it is helpful. Just knowing that that's a normal part of the practice.
R. Alan Brooks (34:29):
Laura Shill (34:32):
I guess back to brokenness, if we want to make a relationship between failure there, that failure is like the most rich place for learning and potential. So of course it's scary. You don't want to feel publicly, but there's no reward without risk.
R. Alan Brooks (34:55):
Laura Shill (34:55):
So. And I think too that even failing publicly, there's also a great benefit to showing people your vulnerability. That typically people are really rooting for us to succeed.
R. Alan Brooks (35:11):
Laura Shill (35:11):
And so when they see us in that vulnerable state, typically it just draws people closer to you. So it might be a challenge to the ego and it might be hurtful and it might bruise you, but it might also have these unforeseen benefits that you couldn't have known about.
R. Alan Brooks (35:31):
Alright, let's switch to the other side of things.
Laura Shill (35:36):
R. Alan Brooks (35:36):
Alright. So what is it like... Do you have a clear moment in your head where you feel like somebody really connected with your art in a way that you didn't expect that was really pleasing to you or surprising or anything like that?
Laura Shill (35:46):
Well, I did a project here during the pandemic for the Citizenship: A Practice of Society exhibition, that ended up being kind of interesting and coming full circle. We invited people to do with each other in person at a pandemic-safe distance within a sculpture that we created, Arthur Aron's "36 Questions to Make Any Two People Fall In Love" with the hope of generating intimacy between any two people.
R. Alan Brooks (36:22):
Laura Shill (36:23):
Feeling as though the isolation of the pandemic and just the divisiveness in our culture in general was something that could be overcome with like intention and effort and care and time, those things. And I got an email from a woman who had tried to participate in the project and the person that she was supposed to meet -- We had it set up so that strangers could do the project every second Friday or something. And the person who was supposed to meet her stood her up and she was really upset. And so I got an email voicing her frustration and I said that "sounds really hurtful. It was really pretty great that you were willing to participate and be vulnerable with somebody. And if you want, I'll do the questions with you."
R. Alan Brooks (37:17):
Laura Shill (37:18):
And this was at the end of the project so we couldn't come to the museum. We ended up going to a park and doing those 36 questions together over the course of like three hours and really kind of bearing ourselves to each other in a way that profoundly impacted me. And so maybe it's a situation where it actually impacted me more than her or who knows, so.
R. Alan Brooks (37:46):
I think there's just this sort of beautiful thing of whether it's your art itself and I'm saying you in a general sense, like the art itself or the practice of creating it or exhibiting it, that creates this space for people to share their most vulnerable places.
Laura Shill (38:07):
R. Alan Brooks (38:08):
I hosted this open mic at Ophelia's for about three years before the pandemic hit and maybe eight years before that at the Walnut Room. So I would rap and I would have like a jazz keyboard playing and drummer and they would improv behind me. And then anybody who got on stage to do their songs, my musicians would listen and improv with them. Right? And the highlight of hosting that event would be when I met people who came to sign up who were really awkward and struggling with their confidence, maybe that couldn't make eye contact, but then they get on stage and this whole personality comes out, right?
R. Alan Brooks (38:45):
And part of making that event happen was I would make, I would at the beginning tell the audience we are all doing this together. So everybody who comes up, we got to cheer like we've been waiting our entire lives to hear from them. I'd be like we're going to practice it and announce somebody fake just so they could practice. Like "Coming up: Donald Duck!" And then they would "Aah!" Right? And so like just that somebody could come and share these songs that they wrote in their bedroom or something, right? And get on stage and then actually do an amazing performance. Those are the times where I'm like okay man, I've helped to facilitate and create this environment. I perform first, I open it up and then to see these people might not have any other place in their life where they can be that part of themselves, but they have it here on this stage. And it's just such a beautiful and wonderful thing. And your story kind of reminded me of that.
Laura Shill (39:40):
Yeah. Well, I mean, what you're describing sounds like intimacy, like having your innermost self seen and validated by another.
R. Alan Brooks (39:48):
Laura Shill (39:49):
Like you created an environment where that's possible for people where they could be seen and then it's, like, supported.
R. Alan Brooks (39:58):
Right. All right. What else is under the interdisciplinary?
Laura Shill (40:00):
Oh, I guess we kind of covered the conceptual. Yeah, which I've been questioning like the role of objects. Like am I relying on the objects to do all the work for me? And can I have a more direct connection, I mean? In some ways I wish I was a musician because it's just such a direct line to people. I'm going to stand in front of you, use my voice or my instrument, my vulnerability to just directly connect. And so I always have these convoluted ways of generating those connections with people typically through objects and typically done in my absence. So the kind of conceptual work has been an attempt to really get in there a little bit more and be more intentional. But I'm kind of always called back to the objects because I think that's just... My brain is activated through the hand and through touch. And so much of my work does engage touch. So yeah. I'd like to get back to the image and to the two dimensional, but right now all my ideas are sculptures.
R. Alan Brooks (41:19):
Do you have an idea of what it would look like if you got back to 2D or was it just?
Laura Shill (41:19):
I don't know. I feel like I'm ready to be out of my house and to be in the world and to... So much of my practice had to do with like interacting with strangers, whether it's at the thrift store. I would ride the bus just to try and make friends with people. So I expect my practice to change as my world starts to get a little bit bigger again, but I don't know what it'll look like. I'm just trying to keep my mind open to what that might be.
R. Alan Brooks (41:54):
Okay. All right. So you're hanging out, out in the artistic world and you encounter a young Laura Shill. What advice do you give?
Laura Shill (42:10):
Don't be afraid of your embarrassing ideas. Usually when you feel that embarrassment, there might be a wound there and you should dive into the wound. That's where you find truth.
R. Alan Brooks (42:27):
That's good advice. I love that. Because I think so much about how much fear has robbed the world of brilliant artistic voices. I know so many talented people that the world may not hear of ever because they're caught in their own cage of fear. And I'm constantly like, "Come on man, you got to make it. Come on, we can do this. We can do it together. I will help." And I just think fear is such a tragic beast that robs the world of beauty.
Laura Shill (42:58):
R. Alan Brooks (42:59):
All right. Well, where do you see yourself going next artistically? You did mention getting back to 2D. Do you have some upcoming stuff here?
Laura Shill (43:06):
Well, I'm hoping to go to a residency later this month.
R. Alan Brooks (43:11):
Laura Shill (43:12):
So, and it'll be out of the country, so excited to have a practice of walking and observing and looking from a different cultural perspective and yeah, just being outside of my house will be nice.
R. Alan Brooks (43:32):
That sounds exciting. All right. Well, so then if people want to follow your work, where do they go?
Laura Shill (43:39):
I guess my website. I will say I'm, yeah, I'm not that great at having a digital persona, but I am on Instagram and you can see my things there too.
R. Alan Brooks (43:51):
Okay. Do you want to say your website so that people?
Laura Shill (43:54):
Yeah. It's laurashill.com. Also, you can find me at my studio's website. I share a space with many other artists working in Denver. We are called Tank Studios, tankstudios.org.
R. Alan Brooks (44:09):
Hey Laura, I appreciate you taking the moment to talk to me.
Laura Shill (44:11):
Same. I enjoyed this.
R. Alan Brooks (44:18):
Thank you to today's guest, Laura Shill. Visit mcadenver.org/podcast to learn more about her work. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe for more and leave a review. It really helps us out. Check out MCA Denver on YouTube and subscribe there, too, for behind the scenes clips that don't make it in the episode. How Art is Born is hosted by me R. Alan Brooks. Cheyenne Michaels is our producer and editor. Courtney Law is our executive producer. How Art is Born is a project of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.