Shea is a life long resident of Austin who attended the School of Visual Arts in New York. While studying design, bookmaking and printing, he began to run in an ever tightening circle with Jana Swec and Joseph Phillips. Together, they formed the SODALITAS Art Group, working in a collaborative group that churns out intricate graphic laden works depicting the urban environment and finding beauty in a steady sense of decay and worn imagery.
In addition to the collaborative work, Shea endlessly draws and takes notes in a series of sketchbooks, gathers rusty and discarded materials for his own works.
Shea also has contributed heavily to Austin’s visual arts scene, by co-creating East Austin’s Bolm Studios, a working studio and gallery space. He also was one of the founders of the annual East Austin Studio Tour, which has grown from 35 artist studios to 75 in three years. In addition, Shea also was one of the lead contributors in starting the Texas Biennial, which represented artists across Texas and debuted in four spaces across Austin in the spring of 2005.
Shea and I met for drinks and dinner over the noisy din at Casino El Camino. I asked him five questions and here were his responses:
1. In the past few years, there seems to be a lot more activity churning up from the artists in Austin. Is that a sign that the city’s art scene is maturing?
Yes it is maturing , but it’s still in a grey area, in-between where it can potentially be and being something that it is still just sort of floundering. It’s great, there’s basically a ton of artists, but exposure for those artists is limited and hard to come by, and the inspiration for those artists is pretty limited. The Museum – is first off, a good museum, I can’t say anything worse about the museum since the EAST interview when I said, ‘Austin has no museums, you have to turn to the artists for inspiration.’ The museum is good, Arthouse is good, but that’s still not enough, its not bringing in a big, broad range of national art, and its not bringing in the major artists and art shows to town Austin needs to see that stuff. So, there are a lot of factors that limit the art scene, but what’s here and what’s happening is really good, and we’re on the cusp of potentially becoming a great art scene. It’s a good art scene today, but we’re just in the developmental stage of it right now.
2. You’ve been part of a gigantic force pushing through Austin’s art scene. You’ve help establish Bolm Studios, put together the popular and growing East Austin Studio Tour, and last year corralled a group of interested parties and put together the new statewide Texas Biennial. Do you feel artists have to do all the pushing right now?
Austin is really an artist driven environment, The city does some stuff, Art in Public Places, and there’s opportunities there, but they’re not really out there to help alternative or independent spaces. I don’t even know what they could do – give us tax breaks? It’s pretty much artist driven, but that’s my own perspective. I’m pretty blind to what the institutions are doing – I know the museum has its own stuff going on, but they’re set in their ways, trying to make it an established museum that has a rigid, set schedule and shows. I sat and talked with Dana (Friis-Hansen, AMOA’s Executive Director) recently about the Texas Biennial. We went and talked with him and had an informal chit-chat session where he gave us some advice and we threw out some ideas to him. We mentioned the Biennial possibly showing in the museum, and he said, “You know what, I appreciate the offer, but it’s not something we’re interested in, we have our schedule, we’re doing this, this and this, we’re showing Texas mid career artists, national artists and we’re showing a national traveling show”, and that was their schedule for the year.
So they have their position in Austin and they’re not really pushing anything, they’re just an established museum doing what they want to do. Arthouse is doing their thing, outside of that, I just can’t find any other corporate groups that are doing what they should be doing. But again, talking with Dana, he talked about alternative spaces that host events like the Texas Biennial. Eventually, artist run spaces have a tendency to become corporate, acquire non-profit status, and the artists that started it begin to back out. Soon there’s a board, and structures come in and the corporate structure runs itself and do what they do as a corporate business and it loses its artistic edge. I like the idea that things are artist driven. If there is going to be an ArtPace for Austin or Diverse Works, it will probably begin as an artist driven thing.
3. A couple years ago SODALITAS acquired a third bay at Bolm Studios and started a gallery space. Now that the space is recognized and maturing, what do you look for in the art and artists you show?
We originally started the space to show our own work, and the whole idea was just to expose ourselves, but it quickly became a ridiculous stab to fill the gallery the whole time. So now we’re under the task of filling the gallery in some way. We are going to offer it up to pretty much any artist that is doing contemporary or interesting work and the work and artists don’t need to be established in any way. I think our main goal is to have our space filled and showing work but not really having a rigid structure to who or what. So we have done some New York artists in there, and we’re lucky we have friends in New York who bore the cost to come down and show. That’s kinda the mission statement of the gallery. Anybody who is willing to go to that effort and come to us and talk to us. That’s what it is, the artists who take initiative, and put themselves in front of us. We’re not curators, we’re not going out and finding people. Let’s make art, build a gallery with other artists, do E.A.S.T. and push everything to the backburner, and hopefully push the art to the front.
Is it hard to believe in a city like Austin, with so few good venues to show in, that you don’t have artists knocking down the door to show?
We’ve had a trickle of artists who are kind of interested in showing there. But that’s the thing, people come to us and they say they verbally want to show at your gallery space, and we ask for jpegs or to see their portfolio and talk to us, but that’s usually where it ends. There’s no follow through. That’s one of Austin’s biggest problems, everyone talks, but not everyone follows up on what they talk about.
4. Obviously success is relative, but in the years since SODALITAS was founded, you’ve gotten a lot of press and various shows – you were in this year’s 22 to Watch Show at the AMOA, shown throughout Austin, San Antonio and California. How has this recognition benefited you?
The (Austin) Chronicle likes to recognize us, but we want to get in to Artlies, and not just mentioned as a collaborative group that did an 18 panel painting that is hard to understand. We’ve had pretty good things happen in Austin, Rachel (Koper) has written pretty good reviews, but we haven’t had any good reviews in relation to the 22 to Watch show. We’ve been in Artlies, Glasstire, but I feel like they’ve glazed over our work. Austin is a perfect hometown, a great place to show our work and do our work, but we want to get out and show our work in Houston, definitely New York, and even Chicago. The idea is to get out of Austin and have our work represented by other galleries. Austin is such a buddy-buddy town, writers we know here might feel obligated to write about us. It’s one of those things, you don’t complain. We hit a vein and now we can only hope to ride it out before they tire of us.
5. You weren’t trained at the SVA for fine art, but its become your life’s work. How do you balance your work against the collaborative group?
I went to school as a high school artist wanting to make art. On my application, when choosing my major, I checked eight out of ten of the selections. They wrote back and said ‘check one major, sir’. Photography, design, illustration, I wanted to do all of those. When it came down to it, I picked design, because I could get a job. I was lucky in school that I could study under a teacher who was really more about communication and not about having a computer. Understanding communication comes back to fine art, so I do feel like my schooling is more about how I communicate with the audience, and that translates back to SODALITAS. I haven’t done my own work since almost college. I was doing a few paintings during college, and I have to pick that back up. I’ve done a few things here and there, but they usually turn into SODALITAS projects. Right now I’m more interested in us as a group. One of my influences right now is writing, and individual people act certain ways, and as a group they act a totally different way. And that is really hard to predict how Joseph and Jana will react, and that’s really affected our work. That the three of us can’t predict what we’re gonna pick up next and go into our next work is something that keeps me doing that work. And every time I do my own individual work, I look at it and ask myself ‘what would Joseph and Jana do?’.
Does that worry you at all?
There’s always the potential for my solo work to be different. But I’m very comfortable in what I do now and where I am as a collaborative. My voice is heard, and in some paintings, my voice is dominate. Although it may not be obvious to the audience, I know I was the driving force behind it. I think that says a lot about if I ever go off and do something outside SODALITAS, but I don’t know if I ever will. But if and when that ever happens, that’s going to be the time when I probably really start to understand how to focus more. I would say off the top of my head, yeah, maybe it would make me stronger, a better artist in the long run. But its about finding your voice, how an artist comes into their self, learns how to put what they want to in front of the audience. I think the collaborative stuff is doing that for me now.