San Francisco native Shawn Barber is an artist without boundaries. His work invokes a multitude of themes and constantly leaves his admirers curious as to what heâ€™ll create next. Taking on religious subjects and adding a twist of eroticism is just one of Shawnâ€™s specialties and he is willing to share his expertise not only by producing art but also by teaching it. Already booked solid for solo shows through to 2010, Shawn took time out from his myriad roles to talk to Format…
“It seems that American culture is more interested in the lives of celebrities than dealing with their own miserable lives at home”
Format: Many artists dedicate themselves entirely to their craft. When and why did you decide to teach art at a University level?
Shawn Barber: I think that I have always had the tendency to want to share what I know and help others. As a student, I was a teaching assistant and became ever more motivated to follow the path of sharing knowledge. Soon after, I started teaching on a part time basis and gradually moved into a full time teaching position. I quickly learned that you can’t do everything to the best of your abilities, if your hand is in too many things. I cut back my schedule and started teaching part time, to dedicate more energy to making art.
Format: How do you balance being an art teacher, illustrator/painter and tattoo artist?
Shawn Barber: I have ever changing sleeping habits. I take naps and efficiently multi-task. When I was teaching, I was still doing commercial illustrations, full time. Slowly, I spent more time and energy painting full time. I also became interested in tattooing.
I realized that I had to quit teaching at the University level to focus on my two, true interests. Now, I travel to tattoo conventions around the world, teach painting seminars, paint and sometimes tattoo… It’s starting to all come together.
Format: One aspect of your work that makes it appealing is the fact that you’re not afraid to diversify. Youâ€™ve been known to paint religious figures, erotic images, doll portraits and dabble in tattooing. How are you able to fluently move from one discipline to another?
Shawn Barber: I’m an artist. That’s it. I’m open to new ideas, collaborations and explorations. Teaching has opened my eyes to infinite ideas and possibilities, in art making and life. All artists have egos, but I try to keep mine in check, stay humble and hungry for progression. The more I do, the more I learn.
Format: Some of your work is provocative and raw (Anathema, 2008). Have your risquÃ© paintings got you in any trouble?
Shawn Barber: Not that I know of… Surprisingly. I’ve gotten very positive feedback on these paintings.
Format: You seem to be a very experimental artist, what medium would you like to experiment with next?
Shawn Barber: I’m always willing to play and experiment. I’ve done some sculptures in the past, and can see myself pursuing it more so in the future.
Format: How did you land the gig of designing the cover of the Wall Street Journal with your portrait of Barack Obama?
Shawn Barber: The Wall Street Journal called my commercial agent and I painted his portrait. I’ve been doing commercial work for over ten years; this was just another commissioned painting.
Format: How often do you use live subjects as your muse? Do you hold a personal connection with the subject(s) or are they simply nameless models?
Shawn Barber: Outside of the Anathema Series, all of my paintings are of very specific individuals. I paint mostly artists; and many of these artists are my friends and colleagues. The artists that I have painted literally live around the world and it’s impossible for me to paint them from life. I take a lot of photographs and use them, along with my personal experiences with the artists, to dictate the direction of each painting.
Format: Do you prefer working from live subjects or painting from photos?
Shawn Barber: I would prefer to do a little of both. Some live drawing and head studies, then a photo-shoot and work from all three references.
Format: Are there any commercial clients you desire to work with or for, that you havenâ€™t already?
Shawn Barber: I’ve worked with hundreds of different commercial clients and fortunately, many of them are ones that I aspired to work with. My focus now is on painting and tattooing. I will continue to do commercial work when it’s interesting or financially beneficial, but I’m not actively pursuing any specific clients.
Format: On your blog, you have posted some very strong opinions about the effects of mass media. How does it affect you? How does this opinion influence your art work?
Shawn Barber: I think that the Doll Series and the Anathema Series are my responses to cultural subjects that I have a very personal, opinionated reaction towards. I don’t own a television. When I travel, I watch the news and see what people are reading at airports and what shows are on TV; it’s completely mind numbing. It seems that American culture is more interested in the lives of celebrities than dealing with their own miserable lives at home. Every news station is feeding you with opinionated ‘factual’ bullshit, where each side has its own set of ‘facts’ and ‘statistics’. The economy is spiralling negatively, out of control, and professional athletes are still making millions and millions more than they did last year. It’s disgusting how majority of Americans feed into it, pay for it, and then complain about how shitty their lives are. It really is disgusting and sad. There is no accountability and no one wants to take responsibility for their own actions.
Format: What challenges you as an artist?
Shawn Barber: Progression challenges and motivates me. My peers, artists from the past and my own insecurities challenge me. I challenge myself to try things and explore ideas, directions and techniques that I am uncertain of, intrigued by, and motivated to learn from.
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