Shanna Robinson, 63, moves fluidly between media. “I’m a fiber-sculptor,” she said, “but I work in whatever medium suits my idea at the time.” The Horton Bay resident, newly retired from academia, lives a five-minute walk from Lake Charlevoix, and it’s this part of Northern Michigan that suits her temperament and feeds her work: translating the personal and conceptual into visual forms, informed by her surroundings. This interview took place in August 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.
What draws you to the medium in which you work?
The tactility of it. I like having the ability to manipulate materials in space. I want to be able to manipulate materials in a three-dimensional way. I’m more interested in that than making an image on a two-dimensional plane. I think more clearly about it. My ideas takes shape in space.
When you say you “think more clearly” when you work in 3-D: What does that mean?
I think through my hands. I make sense of the world around me through my hands.
Did you attend art school or receive any formal training in visual art?
My formal training in the arts started in high school [Tecumseh High School, a Michigan city located between Ann Arbor and Toledo, Ohio]. I had a really great high school art teacher. It was the thing I was good at and committed to in high school. When I went to college, I had an unusual college experience. For various reasons, I went to five different colleges, and kept trying different places, always studying art and general studies. I just kept moving around, and actually, that served me well. It helped me understand what really worked in education for me. By the time I got my bachelor’s degree — I joked that I did it on the eight-year plan — I was old enough to realize what I wanted to get out of [her education] … I also have an MFA. Both degrees [BFA and MFA] are, finally, from Eastern Michigan University.
How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?
It introduced me to the world of ideas, images, mediums, messages. It opened up the whole world to me. It also gave me mentorship. It gave me time and space to experiment in the visual realm within prescribed [creative] problems. That taught me to think about what kind of problems I might want to set for myself. And, also, to think about problem-solving within a structured set of criteria or rules, and how this enables creative thinking.
My formal education also gave me access to constructive feedback, which is critical to growth in the visual arts. It gave me access to others who took the development of my work seriously — that was a big thing. And, peers I could work with and work against — not in opposition, but bump up against them and their ideas. My experience in the last two years of undergrad and grad school were exceptional. I think that Eastern Michigan University in the 1980s was the perfect way for me to study …
Describe your studio/work space.
My work space/studio space: There are three of them in and around my house. One is a bedroom — it has two giant looms in it, and a lot of storage space my husband built for me. And then I have a loom in the living room as well. The upstairs of our house is a 200 sf bedroom space under the eaves. That space serves as a [storage space for] two-dimensional work. I have my sewing machine there. This year, I also took over the garage. We have a stall of the garage that is my studio space. I wanted to make big work and I wanted to make it out of natural materials — like branches — that would barely fit in the house.
How does your studio/work space facilitate + affect your work?
Even in grad school, when I had a studio, I shared it with a really great studio mate. I always felt like I didn’t have enough space to make the things I wanted to make, so I learned to make units, or components that become a whole. I don’t know which came first — if I always thought like that and the studio space reinforced it; or if the studio made me think like that. When I was in graduate school, there was much of the work I made for my MFA show that I’d never seen until I put it in the gallery. I’d made all the parts, but I couldn’t put it together because I had no space to do that. It was little nerve racking … I made the things that would fit in the space that would gang up, group up to become the thing I wanted them to be.
What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?
Being human. And being a human in the world. And what is my place as a human in this world?
What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?
Things just come into my head. I’m going to say: walking, being outdoors, looking around, kayaking, interacting with the world around me. Sometimes reading. Sometimes my dreams. Sometimes learning a new technique makes me think about things in a new way. I’m not sure where they come from. I recently discovered the work of a woman whose name is Ann Coddington Rast. She had a quote that I thought was apt. She said, “Feeling over thinking, always.”
How much preplanning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?
It depends on the project. Some projects are planning-intense. If I’m weaving something and I have to warp the loom, there’s a ton of planning that goes into that: math, sampling. Often the planning I need to do, for the things I like to make, is technical problem solving. This is a common one: How do I get this thing to look like it’s standing up on a tiny, spindly, little legs, and supporting a lot of weight, that looks like it should fall over? Since undergraduate school, that’s an idea I can’t let go of. A lot of my work seems tenuous, precarious, and so there are often technical issues about how do I solve the physics of this?
Do you work on more than one project at a time?I do. With various levels of intricacy. Right now I’m making these twined vessels, and they’re really hard on my hands so I have to have something else to go do so I don’t injure myself. So, yes: a variety of projects going at the same time, in various states of completion.
Do you work in a series?
I do. Often. I don’t know if it comes back to that idea about making small things that group together to make a whole, and they end up being a series of work; or, I make one and I think, “Oh! Then I could do X!” and so I make another one. Different ideas, different problems arise as I’m working, and those beget more in a similar vein.
What’s your favorite tool?
My hands. Because I think they’re the easiest extension of my brain for me to facilitate. For instance, when I worked in clay I was always a hand builder by choice. I could throw on the wheel, but I didn’t care for it. I didn’t like that machine between me and what was happening. Which is funny. When it came to firing of the thing I made, I wanted the process to have input into what came out of it afterwards; but in the beginning I want it to come from my hands …There’s something about the use of my hands and some hand tools and mechanical things that feels true to me. I’m not sure why.
Shanna, that’s an interesting point. We live in a world that equates time with money. Because of your preference for hand work, you are by design a slower worker.
Yes. It drove me crazy, and it was a curse when I was younger. And then the slow food and slow fashion movements happened, and suddenly all the things I believed in and loved became part of the mainstream art world. Suddenly, what I loved to do, and the time it takes to do it, no longer seemed ridiculous. It’s hard to do slow work when you have a day job because it takes so long … Sometimes I think I’m so obsessive about working these things but it’s because I’m working through these ideas and it takes a long time.
Do you use a sketchbook? Work journal? What tools do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?
I always wish I were better at that. I have a sketchbook and I don’t use it as much as I should; but I do sketch and write notes in that book when I have an idea I don’t want to lose. Off and on throughout my life, I’ve kept a written journal poems and quotes from other people. My response when somebody asks me about a sketchbook is that I’m really bad at that. I always think a “real” artist would make sketches. I do make little three-dimensional maquettes, and they’re pinned up all over my garage studio so I can see them out in the world instead of having to open a book.
How did you think about hand work before you began practicing seriously?
It was the 60s and the 70s, and I thought [hobby handwork] was what women did; but not serious women out in the world. I thought that it was like being told I could be a nurse or a secretary. It was gendered ghettoization. And then Second Wave Feminism came along [when] I was old enough to be aware of it, and they were using women’s work to make a political statement. Suddenly I realized, because I loved to do all those things, all of the important women in my world knitted and crocheted and sewed. My grandmother sewed for a designer, and they were accomplished at those things, I felt — once I realized I could be serious about it — somebody was giving it back to me in a way that was powerful, and I was off and running. I was taught to embroider from a sampler that somebody else designed. I was taught to crochet from a pattern that somebody else designed. I was taught to do those things, but not to think about them as a broader creative expression of my ideas.Why is making-by-hand important to you?
First because I think with my hands. I believe that humans, at our very core, in order to be whole, we need to use our brains and our emotions and our physical self. I think it has been a huge disservice to the human race, at least in the Western world, to remove the making of things and reduce it all to a click. I think the making of things is part of what makes us human and fully human. Without it, we’re only partway there … That’s why we have opposable thumbs. Right? To make things with our hands.
How do you come up with a title?
We’re back to feeling-over-thinking. I always want to name my work something that will allude to my purpose in creating it, my feeling about it; but I don’t want it to be too obvious. I want the viewer to do a little work, to think about what how that title might apply to that particular work. I want the title to allude to my ideas about the work but leave enough space for the viewer to have their own ideas about the work. I want some mystery to still be there. So, if I painted cows, I would not call it “Cows.” I’d call it “Field Work.” I like to use titles that people who are dedicated to figuring int out might have to look up. I love words. And I hope I can encourage other people to love words through my artwork.
The way in which you talk about titling your work implies a confidence on your part — that you don’t have to take the viewer by the hand, and explain it all to them in one title card.
There are two things playing into that. The first is: There were two very influential institutions in my artistic development, and one was called Marylhust School of Life Long Learning, right outside Portland, Oregon. I had an art history professor there who was extremely influential because he believed in me and thought I had ability and skill, which at that point was very needed. He would take us to the museum and say, “Do not look at the title card. Do not look at anything written on the wall. Look at the art first. Decide what you think about the work, and then you can read.” That was his rule. We were not allowed to read anything until we’d had our own thought process about the work. That was very influential for me.
The second thing that happened was I taught at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, and many of my students never had an art class, weren’t art majors, were taking art history or one of my studio art class to fulfill a humanities requirement, and they came to the work, to looking at and talking about the work with a surprisingly sophisticated ability to process what they were looking at. I was so impressed by that, and it made me believe I had not been giving people enough credit. I decided that my penchant for being mysterious in titles was probably good … It became clear to me that my students were completely capable of [understanding her titles] if somebody had the faith in them that they could do it, and asked them to. It made me say, “OK. I don’t have to tell people everything on my title card.”
What’s the job of a title?
The title should leave the viewer to think about the work; but I don’t think the title should tell the view how to think about the work. It should open a pathway for the viewer to think about what the artist might be saying. The pathway should be wide and open rather than narrow and prescribed.
When did you commit to working with serious intent? What were the circumstances?
I think that I actually committed in high school, but I didn’t know how to do it, and then I …. went to Eastern Michigan University [and studied with] Kathy Constantinides. It was the first textiles class I’d taken in college that really got my attention. She took my work seriously. She took everyone’s work seriously. It was art. Not craft. I had taken weaving at a small college, and I had learned how to use a four-harness loom, and that was great. But the focus of it was making functional goods, and that’s fine, but I found what I really cared about was what Kathy trying to teach in her textile class: the world of ideas expressed through fibers. It was Kathy who introduced me to artists like Harmony Hammond and Jackie Windsor who were taking women’s processes and applying them to political problems of gender and identity in the 1970s and 80s.
What role does social media play in your practice?
I really love Instagram. I’ve discovered many wonderful artists on Instagram. It exposes me to things I might not find … It’s a tool for me to open up what I’m exposed to.
What’s its influence on the work you make?
It’s a barometer. I don’t know if it influences the work I make, but it often tells me things about what people like about the work I make. And sometimes the feedback I get from social media surprises me about what is popular, or what people like about my work.
Give me an example of being surprised.
I make these very simple tree ring drawings with walnut ink. I’m quite a minimalist, and often think people don’t respond to my work because it’s not intricate. When I put those drawings on Instagram I get so many comments from people about how much they enjoy them … It made me feel validated. I really wanted to do this. I thought I was just doing it for myself, but guess what? Everyone else is really responding to it as well. I often think my work is too simple for a lot of people to really notice it.
What’s its influence on how you let the world know about the work you make?
It was huge influence on me. I started doing posts [in 2016] on Facebook of the This Is My Path [series], pictures of where I was walking. I stopped doing it. I decided that after a couple years [of posting] that was enough already, that people were probably not that interested in it any more; and I got so many inquiries: “Where’s your Path pictures?” I went back to doing it. I do think of that as part of my practice. It was directly influenced by social media. I would have stopped; but they said, “No no no, you gotta do it.”
What do you believe is the visual artist’s role in the world?
It’s our job to show people things they wouldn’t see or notice, and that might be the world around them; that might their interior world. It’s our job to draw attention to things we think are important to notice.
What part or parts of the world find their way into your work?
The natural world — especially up close pieces of the natural world. And, the interior world — mine and, hopefully, it illuminates other peoples’ interior world. I always want people to think about my work; but I always want to feel something.
How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice
Living here has opened me to a regular interaction with the natural world, with the outdoors around me, and that includes woods and water and sky in a way I hadn’t experienced them where I lived before. Sometimes I lived in a city. Sometimes I lived in a small town; but I’d never been as intimately involved with the natural world as I have here. It has opened my perspective about what materials are available for me to work with, especially the plant material, rocks. The things that are around me are starting to figure more into becoming part of my work. I don’t know if that would have happened if I hadn’t lived here.
Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan? Would your work have a different look or appearance?
I think it would. It’s hard to say. I can tell you that the work I make now looks very related to the work I did when I lived in Southeastern Lower Michigan. I believe if I had stayed there my work would have become darker and more urban … Coming here, while the formal aspects of my work are similar, the feeling of it is softer and more natural. It’s the power of the water, and the vastness of the water, and the up-close experience of the natural world.
Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?
No. My sister, who’s older than I am, did know one painter, and he was that starving artist stereotype: drank too much, lived in the little cabin down by the river, and he was kind of disheveled and unkempt. And he was a man. And, he was a painter.
Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?
I would say those professors I mentioned: Kathy Constantinedes; [Marylhust art history and contemporary art professor] Paul Sutinen; Jay Yager, [sculptor, Eastern Michigan University]; and [the late] Richard Fairfield, who was my printmaking instructor at Eastern [Michigan University]; and my sister Jeffyn Peterson. She was a second mother — she’s enough older than I am and my parents both worked full-time — and Jeffyn moved out and started having a family when she was young. She often took me under her wing because my parents were busy. And she was an artist. Not a professional working artist, but always interested in painting and needlework. She’s always been a big influence on me, in a good way.
Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?
Barbara Bushey. She is a quiltmaker and art historian who teaches at Hillsdale College, and she was my studio mate in graduate school [1985-88]. We developed a friendship, and a very strong relationship around being to talk about our ideas with one another. And we do that a lot still. We talk about what we’re trying to do, and it’s very beneficial.
What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?
It makes me finish stuff. Sometimes it makes me think about new ideas; but mostly, it has a role in thinking about a body of work, and finishing the body of work.
You had a day job.
I taught art and art history at North Central Michigan College [2003 – 2020], and before that at Eastern Michigan University and Henry Ford College for about 25 years total.
How did teaching cross-pollinate with your studio practice?
I don’t know if I know how it cross-pollinated; but I know that it did. The first way: Being able to articulate and communicate ideas effectively to my students made me think hard about articulating those ideas to myself. And caused me to put my ideas into concrete terms that the kids could understand.
And I think seeing their work develop probably gave me a lot of faith in the process of each person developing their own ideas, and the validity of each person’s own process for doing that. It caused me to have a lot of faith in my viewer. When my students demonstrated to me that as people who weren’t art majors and may have never have had an art class in their life, their responses to the things they were looking at gave me total faith in the viewer.
What challenges does teaching present to practicing your own work?
It ate up all my time. I was teaching often five different topics each semester, so I had five different prep. And, I was the department head because I was a long-time faculty person, so I was in charge of all the equipment and supplies for the whole department. My time was consumed. And my brain space was consumed. If you want to be a good teacher, it requires a lot of thought and care.
See more of Shanna Robinson’s work on Instagram [@shannagrobinson].
Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.