Shawn is a brilliant artist who lives in Portland, Oregon. His work explores man’s relationship to the world and how in many cases, humanity has violated humanity, the earth and continues to pay the price. Shawn’s art http://www.shawncreeden.com/ is not for those seeking “pretty pictures.” His work goes much deeper yet also uncovers the beauty of life itself.
“…We also see ourselves as this hapless victim of an indifferent universe or more frequently, of some unknowable higher power. For me, placing the blame on some spiritual entity is just a way of dismissing and deflecting our own responsibility for our actions. Karma is closer, but I still prefer to just call it what it is, cause and effect.”
MICHAEL: Hello Shawn, Your work is raw and seems steeped in the Western landscape, but the landscape appears to be the back drop for a larger concept. What is that?
SHAWN: Hey Michael, Wow, yeah let's get right down to the meat of it! Hmm, how to say this without going on forever. Broadly, the work is about human-nature relationships. Specifically, I am investigating the tools and techniques of control we humans use and have used in our efforts to gain domination over the world around us. How we shape the space around us into a place we deem safe for us, our families and our property. Within that completely understandable drive for security, there is the amazing human ability to invent and create and there is also an insane amount of allowance for extreme, insidious and indiscriminate violence and exploitation. There is the mindset that has been reinforced first by religion and then by capitalism that this planet and everything on it, in it, above it, was placed here for our benefit, use and/or misuse. I'm interested in looking at these complex and often adversarial relationships on a very small scale (a single farmer killing a single wolf for preying on his calves), on a continental scale (the arbitrary subdivision of North America into states, counties, etc) and also on a species-wide scale (making the world "safe" means removing competing predators and other wildlife to make room for the plants and animals we deem to have value and by doing, so upsetting if not just destroying, delicate and beautifully intricate ecosystems that have taken millennia to form. Does conserving them mean we must make even small compromises about our perceived "safety"?).
I know it sounds like a lot to bite off. At the moment, I have been focusing on the American West. It is right here, nearby, it's a relatively recent history, there's a lot to work with and it's been a large part of my personal history. My maternal grandparents were from Nebraska and Colorado and I spent a lot of my summers growing up traveling the country, hiking and camping with my family.
A lot has been written about how the story of The West has shaped our national identity, and I think that as such an influential world power, actively exporting our ideals and culture to all corners of the globe, it is imperative to really understand these parts of our history and acknowledge where we have made terrible mistakes and think of ways to minimize that damage in other places. I do look forward to making work that explores these questions in the context of other cultures. Like in Europe, Australia, China, India or anywhere there are people; anywhere at all really, because many of our activities have wide ranging and unexpected consequences (i.e. global warming).
MICHAEL: The relationship between documentarian and artist can be tricky. How do you do this?
SHAWN: As in my relationships with historical documents or whether I view myself as a documentarian?
MICHAEL: Well, your work has a strong documentary vibe. How do you balance this with being an artist?
SHAWN: Well, I think the distinction between the two has been thoroughly blurred at this point. If you asked me 12 years ago while I was young and bullheaded and studying photography, I'd have said that a documentarian is someone who fools themselves into thinking they can tell a story using other people's words and likenesses in some way which is completely transparent and objective and devoid of their own cultural biases. It felt problematic at best, exploitative at a baseline. An outsider to a situation beaming back images of what they deemed important or valuable, which may be very different than what someone living in that situation would choose to show. Which in-and-of itself is fine, but when it is touted as this objective document, one that’s frequently the only exposure the general public back home has to a given subject, that is where a real danger lies.
This was before the internet blossomed into what it is today with social media,Twitter, photo sharing and the relative ubiquity of technology. Now it's almost impossible to NOT get a chorus of information and voices directly from the people present at a given time and place. So I think that has come a long way from the ridiculously racist outsider gaze of something like The Secret Museum of Mankind, which I think is a fascinating set of volumes, but ultimately did a better job documenting the documenters more than in giving us a real understanding of any foreign culture. And not every photojournalist or documentary photographer is a racist; not saying that. The frame and the language was problematic, yet they are still really compelling documents of that era's colonizing/missionary relationship between the West and the more (at that time) remote regions of the world. But the whole thing has changed so fundamentally and I haven't really thought about it lately.
SO, I wouldn't label myself a documentarian. I draw from historical documents, I make records of my own observations and investigations and the work I do is ultimately based in facts, so there's the definition of documentary, but I don't feel beholden to that objective stance. I am trying to examine these issues of humanity dominating nature in a kind of even handed way, and acknowledge the complexities of these relationships, but at the end of the day, it is inextricably linked to the act of interpretation and representation. I can't help but be the nature-loving boy from the forests of New Hampshire. I try to understand and internalize why a farmer kills a wolf and I can see the financial loss and the threat to his livelihood, but I can't help but feel a sadness and think that on a grander scale, it is part of this tragic, ultimately self-destructive drive, that is what I am trying to make sense of. I think as artists, we take or are given more wiggle room. I can work in any medium, twist and obfuscate and question and reveal in a much freer way.
An important distinction is that I'm not trying to speak for anyone but myself when I make these things. When I made this embroidery of the Navajo Nation, it came out of an experience I had there and is informed by my necessarily limited knowledge. The piece is about space and subdividing land and boundaries of containment and abstraction and intended to raise the questions like the ones I had ("Where is this?" Is always the first question people ask me. It is a sovereign nation nestled right inside our own country, it's borders cross three states and how many of us have even the slightest clue about what goes on there.). But I am not suggesting that I speak for the Navajo Nation or tell their stories for them. I am making a document of my own investigations into this larger force or activity of conquest.
I'm curious about how you would describe the difference, Michael? And what do you think of the work of people like Walid Raad, Taryn Simon, or Pieter Hugo who are working in a documentary mode, but placing that work in a decidedly fine art context? In the case of Raad, he is using the fictional Atlas Group to collect, archive and represent actual historical and political events, which I find fascinating.
MICHAEL: Shawn, I think it all falls under Freedom of Expression which is a double-edged sword. Moving on, Manifest Destiny obviously led to the creation of the West and the U.S. as we enjoy it today. Do you think that the "ultimately self-destructive drive" that you mentioned is tied to Manifest Destiny? Are we experiencing some sort of Karma today?
SHAWN: Yes, I think the two are absolutely linked. There is some motivation or entitlement that we as Americans feel that it's not just our national right, but in fact, a divine duty to take and take and take, with little or no consideration for the consequences. Maybe we are willfully ignorant of those consequences, maybe we are not. Either way, the result is the same. And although these motivations feel deeply at odds with my own internal compass, all of that is still a part of my cultural heritage and identity and that tension is worth exploring, I think.
The idea of Karma is an example of a sort of B-side to the work I am making. We inhabit this sort of precarious duality, at once the brutal annihilator, but we also see ourselves as this hapless victim of an indifferent universe or more frequently, of some unknowable higher power. For me, placing the blame on some spiritual entity is just a way of dismissing and deflecting our own responsibility for our actions. Karma is closer, but I still prefer to just call it what it is, cause and effect.
There's a great scene in Jurassic Park where Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) delivers a scathing critique of the unchecked crusade for "progress" and "discovery. This book/movie/character/idea was quite formative for me as a youth. Subfracking or mountaintop removal mining or factory farming or predator eradication or whatever you want in there. We have no idea what the short or long term repercussions of pumping millions of tons of chemically treated water and sand into the earth's crust may have, yet we are doing it anyway. I want to know why this is the destiny we are manifesting for ourselves.
MICHAEL: Bravo. Cause and effect. It's definitely the state of the world. Are you concerned though that you may be making your work too "preachy"?
SHAWN: For better or worse, I absolutely do consider that. I try to be careful about how I present these relationships. Things are nuanced as hell and insanely complex and that is really central to how I think about the work and the world in general. If we really are the intelligent, insightful species we purport to be, then we should take the time to really think through our choices, but we rarely do that. Or perhaps we cannot see our ignorance through the rhetoric and dogma. People are similar to ants in many ways; individually, we see our own little sphere of experience and that is it. You can't blame one single farmer for wanting to protect his cows, family and property or one trapper for getting as many beaver pelts as he can while the gettin's good. People back in Europe love the hats! But zoom out and there is this larger, and in our case, more sinister thing happening. Manifest Destiny, like fracking or the Keystone XL pipeline, was not this undisputed doctrine. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and many, many others opposed that kind of American continentalism. But it still pushed forward. And I don't claim to be outside these kinds of systems. I am here, I am complicit to a degree. I am trying to understand.
I grew up in punk and hardcore music, used to be straightedge when I was younger and have eaten an essentially vegan diet for the past 14 years. I've experienced how a heavy-handed, preachy, hard-line stance can bond a community, while at the same time can be really alienating and discouraging others from what can be a really rewarding way to live one's life. I was asked recently about what I thought the difference was between my work and activism. Not in a hierarchical way, like why are you doing this and not that, but just about where the two stand in relation to each other. What I feel I'm doing is exploring and dissecting this history and formalizing it somehow in a way that hopefully reveals something to a contemporary audience. Awareness is an important first step toward changing the way a society thinks about something.
I definitely have my opinions on this history, but I actively try to steer clear of some of the tropes in things like PETA videos that are a little too blunt and cause many people to just turn off. Those tactics have their place and for some people, they resonate strongly, but it's not what I want to make. I want to have a more thoughtful conversation that acknowledges the complexities and yet still asks, "WTF is up with all this?" So far, I think things have been going well. People come to my studio or my shows, see things like the trap sculptures and immediately sense the latent, potential violence and it is balanced aesthetically by the arrangement and there is also this fascination with the objects themselves. Trapping was THE major industry in America for a long time and the reason for a lot of exploration into the interior of the continent, but how many of us have seen one, let alone been placed in the position of potential capture?
MICHAEL: You are brilliant. This next question pales in comparison to what we've been chatting about, but what do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today?
SHAWN: Ugh. I mean does anyone besides the 1% and the blue chip galleries and auction houses that service them think things are functioning well? I don't know. That is a whole mess of a thing that really feels pretty far removed from my personal reality. It doesn't seem very sustainable or healthy for the system to be based solely on the patronage of a small number of wealthy individuals. But hey, isn't that how it has always been? Three cheers for late capitalism, why change it right?
In my ideal alternate reality, there would be much more of a priority placed on arts education from a young age, so kids would grow up understanding the non-monetary value of art and feeling comfortable with a sort of baseline of arts knowledge right next to math, science, etc. Then when these kids reached adulthood, artists, teachers, musicians would enjoy the same cultural positions as scientists, doctors and financial advisors with the same incomes and could have the means to enjoy the beautiful and myriad results of this moment of unprecedented cultural production.
MICHAEL: What's your first memory of art? When did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
SHAWN: From a young age, I pretty much knew that my life was going to look the way it has. Something inside me has always known I wouldn't make it in the cubicled offices I saw in 80's TV sitcoms. And it wasn't long before my dream of being a zoologist or field biologist evaporated in the wake of my utter incomprehension of any math north of algebra and good God, chemistry 101 was an embarrassing nightmare both times!
MICHAEL: I know! I barely tried because I knew chemistry wasn’t happening for me.
SHAWN: Overwhelmingly, I knew I wanted to make things. I have always drawn dinosaurs, comics, maps, mythical beasts, etc. I wanted to be like Picasso or Calder. Not necessarily that I wanted to be the most famous artist in the world, but rather to be someone who could work confidently and with joy in any medium, to make paintings and ceramics and prints and books and pay for luggage and dinner with a drawing and all that.
My mom was and is crafty and my dad made paintings when he was younger and came back to it in the years leading up to his passing in 2008. There was freedom and support from my family to explore whatever I wanted to, but to be serious about it. My older sisters were engineers and educators and followed a course closer to that of my parents. There was never really a role model for me anywhere in my community. I didn't know any artists, but drawing and being imaginative and outdoors and creating things was always strongly encouraged. So I've been kind of figuring it out as I go.
I've always been resigned to the fact that I would be poor. Classic starving artist conditioning combined with a complete disdain for money. And I've done all that. I lived in my car in New York City for the first year I was there, lived in a warehouse in Providence with no heat and more mice than running water and there have been long stretches of time when thrown out bagels were my primary source of calories. Things are better now. Portland is cheap and all those experiences really taught me about my personal thresholds and what I can and can't handle physically and psychologically. Turns out I can handle a lot, which is great because it removes a lot of the fear of failure.
MICHAEL: I feel like you're my brother. I always feel so bad when I hear artist's stories like yours. Things would be so different if society valued and understood art. As I've gotten older, I've seen a direct parallel between erosion of society and lack of respect for art or the arts in general. I mean, people don't have to LOVE art like I do, but what's with the total disrespect for art? What do you think?
SHAWN: Ahh, jeez. I've been trying incredibly hard to keep my very real misanthropic, anti-capitalist, nihilistic side from derailing this interview and I don't want to spoil it now...
This question actually hurts to try to synthesize into a non-ranting answer. Teach all kids art in school. Kids love to draw and sew and make things until they are told that it is dumb or they are bad at it or that it is not as important as this other thing. Tell them it's just as important. See what happens. Art is the joyous, celebratory side of our culture. Why not give every kid access to that? We've got 50,000 years of history and art has been right there the whole time. Sure, give 'em some dusty, history stuff, but also the exciting stuff that can act as a gateway. Show them Corey Archangel's video game hacks. Show them William Wegman's early video work with Man Ray. Show them anything by Misaki Kawai. My 10-year-old nephew heard John Zorn for the first time in the car this summer and absolutely loved it. He put down the tablet and listened to John talk about shedding distractions and about the satisfaction and happiness found in a singular dedication to one's work. My nephew was all, "This guy is very inspiring." Kids aren't born with an inherent definition of "art," they are taught. So that's where the solution lies. And learning about something in school doesn't mean you are going to do that for a living. It's about using your brain in a fundamentally different way, and about giving someone the tools to see their world in a new way. Google it. Studies show it's a good move.
MICHAEL: What's the "art scene" like in Portland? Do you feel embraced as an artist there? Are everyday people there "into" contemporary art?
SHAWN: Portland is great. Lots of people doing their own things (everyone is an artist or a musician or curator or a graphic designer or makes comics or animations etc.), some great institutions and contemporary art centers and there is not a lot of pretension. I don't feel like I fit into any particular "movement" here, but the cost of living is so low I can afford the time and space to do my work, which is pretty slow and labor intensive.
People in general are really supportive here and there's a strong do it yourself, work ethic. A big project for me for 2014 is that I'm going to be starting a gallery in my studio to show both my work and that of all these great people I've met here and while traveling and at residencies. I am excited to flex those parts of my brain that have been pretty dormant since I left New York. There are a couple of dozen films I'd like to screen and I am friends with a lot of great poets here and I have some ideas about things I'd like to see that take place at the intersection of the visual arts and the written word. So yeah, lots of exciting stuff happening.
MICHAEL: Art and the written word? For some reason, that strikes a chord with me. Did you not make inroads in New York? Why did you leave there?
SHAWN: Oh no, I loved living in New York. I carved out a great, little niche for myself there. I've actually always planned on going back and I look forward to bringing this work there. I came out to Portland for what I thought would be a year-long sabbatical. I had a lot of friends here from the east coast including my best friend who had a room opening up in his house. I had been through town on tour and to record and loved it and at the time my bandmates were moving here. My father had just passed away after a long battle with cancer. And then a friend of a friend needed their van driven from Jersey to Portland and they would pay for gas. So I said "what the hell" and piled all my shit in the van and set off.
I was making different work back then, related work, but different. I was also putting a lot of time into music, which is something I really enjoy, but have never intended to make a career out of. Things were going pretty well, actually. I was very lucky and very naive, plugging away in a way that felt good. I was showing a lot, had some people who were buying work on the regular, and I was helping some friends with a nomadic exhibition space in Brooklyn called Grotto Gallerie. I also didn't have to work too much at my day job, which I think really helped me retain a positive view of the city. I had a zoo membership and would spend three or four days a week at the four zoos and the aquarium that are all within the city. I loved that. Being able to take the train up to the Bronx or walk out my door and go to Prospect Park and spend time around all these amazing animals. A sloth reached out to touch my hand once at the Central Park Zoo. And obviously the museums and galleries. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it.
MICHAEL: I could go on and on with you Shawn, but I'll make this the last question. What's the point of art? I mean, what purpose does it really serve in the world?
SHAWN: Well, I'm not one who usually thinks in terms of absolutes, and as you could probably tell by this point, I am also not the type of person who dishes out succinct nuggets of truth.
MICHAEL: Uh, no. I could not tell at all. LOL.
SHAWN: Art is as important or as pointless as anything we humans do. Art can serve an infinite number of purposes for us. Just now, when I opened this email, I am DJing a book launch/house party and I asked a couple people around me what they thought, in a couple words or less. "Protest," "catharsis," "expression of the unutterable," "tangible analogy," and "rigor & friendship" were their responses, and they all make sense. For me, art is something to do. It is better than the alternative. It is a way to understand and make sense of ourselves, our place and our world. It can communicate and bring us together and beautify the spaces we build for ourselves and it can scream in the face of what once felt like an unassailable authority, but now the cracks are showing and there's no way to contain all of this outrage. It can predict the future and dismantle the past. And in a hundred or a thousand years, when humans are gone, it will all be mulch.
MICHAEL: Wait. You're DJing a house party? Who are you? Armin Van Buuren? Moby? When did this come about?
SHAWN: LOL. Yeah, I dee-jay with my childhood best friend Joel. We are the New Dadz <http://facebook.com/newdadz>. We've been at it since I moved here and I love it. I have attention deficit problems and I forget people's faces a lot, so even though I love being out and socializing, sometimes it is difficult to interact with people. It is nice to have a job at the party, especially when that job is listening to music. I love really loud music and getting drunk with friends. I feel more like an Andy Warhol character than a Van Buuren, like I'm getting all these people together and setting the scene and then watching ‘em go nuts. We're Party Facilitators.
MICHAEL: Are there any similarities between DJing and creating art?
SHAWN: Work Hard, Play Hard. Or (Insert social practice joke here)
MICHAEL: Thanks Shawn. Have fun. Great and unusual chat.
SHAWN: Thank you so much Michael. This was fun. Take care!
Check out Shawn William Creeden at http://www.shawncreeden.com/.