OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Austin Sheppard

All That Glitters (detail)
Mixed media

AUSTIN SHEPPARD's mixed media sculptures and drawings are self-reflective and phenomenological in the sense that he begins from his personal experiences as an individual. But through the vehicle of the human figure, he also explores the shared human condition by expressing emotional experiences like anxiety, anguish, endurance and resilience. Austin earned his BFA in Studio Art from University of North Carolina, Pembroke in 2007 and his MFA in Sculpture from East Carolina University in 2010. In 2013, he was a finalist in the Young Sculptors Competition for the William and Dorothy Yeck Award at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 2014 Austin exhibited in Lilliputians March at Purdue University and was an Artist in Residence at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Previously, he's been an Artist-in-Residence at Franconia Sculpture Park (2010), Salem Art Works (2011) and has participated in International Sculpture Symposia in the UK, Finland, Costa Rica and Latvia. Austin lives and works in Davidson, North Carolina.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In your statement, you talk about your work growing out of a personal narrative, but do you think of your work as self-portraiture?

Austin Sheppard: All of my current work is either a literal self-portrait, or it is designed specifically for me to wear, which serves to alter or enhance my perception of self. While this may seem egotistical or vain, it’s simply the work of a strict individualist and self-reliant person. My work is simultaneously a diary and a therapist, and a perpetual attempt to firmly establish an identity. Its somewhat ambiguous nature (as the viewer is concerned) is a reflection of my difficulties with expressing my emotions to others.

Apocrypha (Unread Letters)
23K Gold leaf, mixed media
30" x 22"

OPP: Words that come time mind when looking at the facial expressions of your sculptures and drawings are anxiety, anguish, angst. Is one more accurate than the others from your point of view?

AS: I would say they are all equally applicable. I think a lot about the struggles of navigating life as a human, particularly when it involves interaction with others. I think many of us go through periods where our minds are filled with regret, second-guesses and thoughts of missed opportunities. I try to constantly remind myself that these times are temporary, like seasons, and they are also a natural part of life. Though the work seems filled with negativity, the anticipations of better times are tucked away in there, too.

OPP: But you definitely don’t explore the joyous seasons in your work. How come?

AS: Oh, they are there, just in a more subtle way. For example, if I say there's a "dry season," that implies the existence of a wet season. When Winter is at its coldest, we know that Spring will be coming soon. If I present an empty birdhouse, we think of next Spring when the birds may return. I put indicators of these things in the work, but it's up to the viewer to pick up on them.

I will concede that by presenting these seasons in a more desperate manner, we suddenly find ourselves in a holding pattern or a waiting cycle. I think a lot about unfulfilled hopes, the danger of lingering too long and trying to decide when it's time to let go.

Model C

OPP: Your figurative sculptures often evoke torture devices. Often, the body is pierced, as in Model C, or disembodied mouths, hands and heads are treated as relics. While I do read this as metaphoric, I'm curious if horror movies are an influence for you?

AS: You’re close! I was raised on Sci-Fi films and TV. Trippy stuff. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Ridley Scott’s early films, and Guillermo del Toro’s work are among the most personally influential.  Metropolis, Alien, Blade Runner all have a sense of struggle at their core, which is really what my work is all about. They all explore the darkest corners of the human psyche in a variety of ways. The main characters navigate their way through this setting while questioning their assumptions about themselves and others. Another major influence is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is my favorite book of all time. The title character must confront his dark side in the form of a monster of his own making. This is a direct correlation to the way I perceive my work as I'm producing it and my primary motivation for making it.

I also just enjoy sci-fi visuals. Del Toro's work is pure eye candy. The elves from Hellboy 2 were really great, and they relate to the seasons that have appeared in some of my work. A new favorite is George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. Gorgeous color pallet, and the costumes are outrageous, but in a very practical way. I've started to look at a lot of this stuff as I'm becoming increasingly interested in making wearable work.

Cathedral 3

OPP: Could you talk about the Cathedral pieces from 2009? What is being worshiped?

AS: The pursuit of Knowledge. As a kid, I would go visit my grandfather, and he always had a cathedral radio sitting on his workbench. It was a relic of the days when he owned a radio repair business before the war. My Grandpa always taught me to never stop learning. . . and the recurring motif of the cathedral relates to this notion. In my work, this idea is slowly evolving from a personal challenge into the burden of the ceaseless desire for improvement. The idea of never quite being good enough relates back to the anxiety, anguish and angst.

Split Decision
Cast iron
Figure is life-size

OPP: To me, “the burden of the ceaseless desire for improvement” seems like a collective problem exacerbated by our culture. What do you think?

AS: It depends on how you define "improvement.” I think most of us don't really know how to find a sense of fulfillment. TV says we need a new car or a larger house; this is really a form of societal peer pressure. So we have learned to equate "more" with improvement, which is problematic in my opinion. I think every individual should define the concept of improvement for themselves. That's what I'm trying to do through my art; I'm trying to figure out what improvement means for me.

OPP: What's the role of isolation in your work?

AS: It’s a beginning, a middle and an end. It serves as inspiration, response and subject matter. There is certainly a precedent to the idea that isolation breeds creativity, and my most recent work in particular deals with the ramifications of this practice. David Bowie sang about it in Sound and Vision, and of course the Buddha was said to have reached enlightenment only after a great period of isolated reflection. 

To see more of Austin's work, please visit austinsheppard.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia recently completed an installation for Chicago Artists' Coalition's 2015 Starving Artist Benefit and is currently working towards a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, for O’Connor Art Gallery at Dominican University (River Forest, IL). The show will open on November 5, 2015.