I've been wanting to ask these questions of René for some time, and I was so very happy when our schedules allowed the time to make this happen. A little background: I knew René's work years before I knew René personally, and I quietly watched her work grow and evolve from the sidelines. As an artist and curator, a big part of what I do is pay attention to how creatives and thinkers are responding to the world. Watching the work happen is a beautiful thing to behold, and I draw from this collection when I put exhibitions together or pair artists up to collaborate. It's like being a composer, a poet, and a philosopher all at once! When I finally met René we were fast friends, and I always have her work in mind when I'm in the world and thinking about what the world needs - more slowing down, more curiosity, more dream following, more wandering, and more, well, hope. René offers this. Enjoy our Q+A! xoHope
Hope Hilton: I've always wondered - at what point did you know you were an artist?
René Shoemaker: At a very young age I was always creating and seeking inspiration. One of my earliest creations - way before I was 5 years old - was a horse that I pieced together from the cloth of my Mom’s sewing discards. I cut out the pieces and sewed them onto another piece of cloth (some might call that ‘applique’).
HH: When did you decide to pursue your art full time?
RS: Oh, man, this has been inside of me for a long, long time. I had a “master plan” to retire from The University of Georgia absolutely the MOMENT that I could - not because I didn't like my job as Library Director/ Librarian / Gallery Director (I did like it, tremendously) - but so I could practice my art full time. I had been making art all along, always, but became more serious about it in 1998 when I returned from a summer working in Cortona, Italy. I was in a job there surrounded by artists and art-making people (not to mention the gorgeous Italian hillside architecture and use of the land!) and was completely inspired. Once I began making art more intently, I also discovered how time-consuming the business of art is. Retirement allowed me this time.
HH: Ahhh, retirement... you are doing it right, in my opinion. Now that you have this freedom, you can go anywhere, do anything. I love that you've settled in France and cannot wait to visit! How has being an artist there differed from being an artist in the States? What is something that's easier to get accomplished in the States and vice versa?
RS: I have the feeling that the French have a different attitude toward artists here. It’s not different as much as it is in the States. Here it's just another job description, a part of life! I also discovered that being an artist, and having an exhibition scheduled and about to open so soon after my arrival, was a wonderful introduction to my new community. Who I was and what Harvey and I were doing there was open to the public. In our new place we seemed to be integrated into the community a lot quicker than if it were otherwise.
It’s easier to work here in France because there are less distractions. At home I have a schedule, I have friends, I have social obligations. Here, I have my studio, I have my house, I have Harvey, and the landscape that calls to me every day. Everything, everyday, is an inspiration.
HANDS DOWN it’s easier to find the art supplies I need in Athens, Georgia. I will never, ever, ever again take for granted the fabulous service that The Loft and KA Artist Shop offer to the artists and creatives of the region. I would not be where I am today without the support - and the supplies - from KA and The Loft.
HH: I think I take internet-ordering for granted, too, in terms of art supplies. And, yes, we have this amazing community here in Athens that supports artists through all levels of their work. I wanna talk about your new work, the work I respond to the most. Much of your new work is an investigation and commitment to a specific community, and because architecture has been a big part of your work (and life!) in the past, did this just happen naturally, or did you know that you wanted to encounter a whole city?
RS: I know I want to conquer the world, and what better way to do it than city by city? I’m not sure where my connection to place comes from... Well, now that I write that, I can imagine that it comes from exploring and the sense of place I created by living in the woods in a handmade house. Traveling in France, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands gave me a sense that there are other ways of doing things, often the everyday things that we take for granted. (i.e.: architecture and living spaces and the differences abroad versus home). Christopher Alexander’s book “A Pattern Language” had a big impact on me and my viewpoint.
I also moved at age 17 from everything I knew (not so early in life, but a transformative experience for me) and this provoked new sensations, a kind of "feeling" of spaces. I was searching for the meaning of life then, and also tuning in to the details - loving the sound of the tires on the pavement as I traveled down the road - usually in a friend’s car or by hitchhiking. Later on, in my own car (an International Harvester pickup truck!), it was me and my Great Dane, Eric, having marvelous explorations. Feeling spaces became something I noticed then, and it has continued.
After having wandered for over 10 years, and landing in Athens... You know, it's a very small town - only 10 square blocks in the downtown area - but it feels good. The spaces are intriguing, the juxtaposition of new and old architecture inspirational. I love looking at the old Otasco building (now the Holmes-Hunter) as I cross Broad Street to North Campus at the University. Harvey and I had a small business downtown and I spent 30+ years on North Campus, so downtown Athens was like a home... I had an art studio there, and I felt very happy to be there.
HH: And now MY studio is on the exact floor where yours was, years later! I loved the day you told me about that. I looked at the space differently, I envisioned it as when you inhabited it. Not a lot has changed but someone put carpet in the halls and painted the stairs... it's a different space now. But the same place. What prompted you to explore places to begin with and how has this idea changed for you?
RS: For my first solo exhibition at Clayton Street Gallery in Athens in 2001, I offered two proposals - one of exploring the town of Athens and one an exploration of my house (handbuilt, octagon-shaped, in the woods). The Director chose the house proposal and we named it “Ethereal Spaces.” We also decided to pursue the other proposal the following year, and “From Here to There” was born from my explorations of Downtown Athens and the University of Georgia. Then and there, my career was born.
Also, I don't want to forget that when I first moved to the Florida Keys in 1969, way before University, I took a drawing class from a local artist. He took us around to the various locations in the Keys, and what I remember the most - what had the biggest impression on me - were the old weather-beaten structures on Pigeon Key. There I discovered the beauty of lines that are not straight. I learned how to draw perspective from that artist, and I also learned how to veer away from true perspective with confidence.
HH: I love that, when teachers share with you all of the levels of things, and everything involved, and how to just approach it with enough lack of fear to evolve it into a confident mark or gesture. How cool that you were exploring the Keys as part of a class! Now that explorations of place are revered in the art world, especially in prominent museums and galleries, your work is part of a large canon of artists that focus on community, history, and exploring. One of my favorite movements in art history were the Situationists (in France in the mid 20th century!), and one of their best projects, in my opinion, was setting the intention to wander. They called it a dérive: to wander without knowing why or where you'll end up. How do you feel about connecting to this great idea of the past to now?
RS: I‘m happy to hear that explorations of place are now revered in the art world -- can we schedule a show of my work at a major New York City museum now? :) I love your connection of my sense of exploration to the Situationists’ quest for an “unplanned journey”. There are so many things that point to the fact that I must have lived in France in a former life, as in my name: Re =again né = born... there is no French blood in my family to invite a French name be given to me, yet here I am. Wandering... being alive...
To wander! This is the perfect way to exist. No maps, no guidebooks, only discoveries.
And the past? The Situationists were not so long ago. The past is connected to the present. Always.
A wonderful consequence of the work that I do - exploring a place through its spaces - are the stories I receive in return. This was an unexpected result of putting my art out into the world. My visual stories encourage others to explore, and see, and remember, their own discoveries of a place.
HH: In my opinion, the stories and connections are the best thing to come out of creating and sharing art. Why do you think we are craving work like this again, work that connects us?
RS: Are we? In this life of disconnectedness (especially in the States), I believe there is a strong urge to connect. Families are changing. Nondescript strip malls have taken over America. The concept of “belonging” constantly changes. People wander. Others ask questions. I, myself, was disconnected and rootless for over 10 years, from my late teens to late 20’s. I haven’t consciously made that connection before (of my work related to place and my disconnectedness in the past), but maybe this question will lead to the answer for me?
I believe in the beauty and simplicity of line and color. This quiet beauty is what I am trying to share with the world.
HH: And sharing that with the world helps us rest, connect, recognize, wonder... And I want to understand, because you headed to France at such a tumultuous time politically (newly elected president here and there, immigration politics and terrorism, etc.), what are the conversations like about the States there, if there are any? How do you see us represented or generalized across the pond?
RS: I’m living in a very rural area, and am not completely fluent in the language, so I’m not sure I can say much about the mood of this country towards America. These days I don’t read the news, nor do I watch TV... Although people do shake their head in disbelief if the name of our current president comes up. Otherwise, I find that the USA is still well respected, and that there is still a memory that the United States helped France immensely in WWII.
HH: That's really good to hear in so many ways, as I've received emails from friends across the globe offering help and support. I like focusing on the local, on my small town and my amazingly diverse state, and doing my best. I also haven't been the best at keeping up with the news. Perhaps this is showing up in our art? I have noticed changes in your work since you were in France! Being in new spaces often brings along a shift that's usually quite strong, and often quite brave. So you're in this new place, and it's yours so you can settle in, and just... do your work. It sounds like a dream! I've watched your work shift in the exploration in and around other new spaces - from working in pencil and pastel at your Penland Residency to working HUGE at the Columbus Museum… and I'm not the only one who is noticing! This question is from your dear reader Maureen:
Maureen: My question is about the use of threads sewn onto your work. What inspired you to add that touch?
RS: Moving to France gave me the freedom to release myself from any boxes I had placed myself in, even before the move actually happened. There was something about the fact - in my head - that the people here were not familiar with my work, and that I could be free to try any method, medium, idea - there were no expectations of who I was and what my work had been in the past. The only person who had any idea of my previous work was M Wilfried Celerien, the Adjoint au Mairie of Felletin, whom I had made the original proposal for my current exhibition to - and I am happy to say he was delighted to see my new direction(s).
Thank you, Maureen, for always asking such thoughtful questions! I have been considering adding stitching to my silk paintings for quite a while but was unsure of how I would approach it, and how I could make it “different” from other artists’ work. My framed silks always have an element of stitching, as I hand stitch the silk to the mat board - but often these stitches become invisible to the eye.
When I arrived in France and was faced with a deadline to create and complete a body of art for an exhibition in a short period of time, my resources were (very) limited and I was free to experiment with new materials. I located embroidery threads with the right colors at the local recycle store. There are two layered silk paintings in the Felletin exhibit, and as I didn’t have an embroidery hoop, I had no way of keeping the fabric taut while I worked on it. I stitched through the mat board to add texture to the flowers in one design, and to highlight the wooden shutters and metal door slats on the other. It seems crazy, because it was only a few stitches, but I really could go on for hours discussing the reasons behind my actions!
And as a side note - I have always had an element of working large with my art. From my senior BFA exhibit when I had weavings, embroideries, and monoprints at a 6’x6’ size, to motion drawings I created at Penland that were 4’ x 6’, to a silk painting installation at the Ramsey Center at UGA that was 4’ x 12’ (x3). I feel comfortable working large, so working small here was also a new experiment.
The Short answer?
I wanted to add texture and color to a simple design in a subdued way.
HH: So, are you afraid of anything?
RS: Rien. If I am afraid of something, I try hard to identify in and overcome it. Consciously.
HH: Any advice for young artists?
RS: Work hard. Never give up. Look inside and don’t forget who you are. Trust your instincts.
HH: And what's next for you?
RS: Taking over the world. Exploring new media and pushing the boundaries of the work that I do. A museum exhibition in Mississippi in 2019. An art show in Bordeaux, France in 2017. I am always searching for opportunities, and I look forward to exhibiting again in Athens!
HH: What is your life’s force?
RS: 1. Perseverance furthers. 2. A sense of constant amazement at what I experience, and the fact that I am constantly amazed by the NEGATIVE SPACE shape of the sky against a building’s roofline.
HH: Any questions for us?
RS: I love feedback and stories. I’d love people to respond to this interview by writing about their experiences with my art. This helps me more than they can ever know.
HH: It really is such a huge part of it all, that conversation and that community. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Dear readers, please feel invited to share below any stories or inspirations. Let René and I know where you wander, or what currently inspires you.
RS: Thank you, Hope Hilton!
- René Shoemaker
July 17, 2017
La Creuse, France