Jim Shrosbree received an MFA in Ceramics at the University of Montana, Missoula. His work has been exhibited widely and is in the collections of numerous museums, including the Detroit Institute of Art, Des Moines Art Center, Los Angeles County Museum, Edythe and Ely Broad Museum, University of Iowa Museum of Art and Daum Museum of Contemporary Art. Recent exhibitions include a solo show at Paul Kotula Projects in Detroit.
Shrosbree has been a visiting artist at numerous universities and art institutions including Cranbrook Academy of Art, UC Davis, Bard College and Alberta College of Art. His awards include fellowship residencies at MacDowell Art Colony and Yaddo, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts (Midwest) Artist’s Fellowship. Shrosbree is currently Professor of Art at Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa.
All photographs by Paul Moore.
Q&A with Jim Shrosbree
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Jim! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
I did not grow up wanting to be an artist. I was never sure what I would be doing. Although I recall that many of the things I was involved in were creative, if mischievous.
I have always liked to build things. When I was 5–7 years old we lived in San Diego, and a friend and I would build small forts or club houses. They were made of scrap lumber or bricks from clay we lugged from the bay in our wagons. I remember digging holes in the ground large enough to crawl into with palm fronds and wood on top to cover them. There was always a certain sense of space—the shape of it was important and also that it became a private place. I used to sit in there and read and draw over the texts of used magazines. I liked these pages covered with words that, for the most part, were a big mystery. Each page was essentially a pattern I was holding in my hand, with a secret code.
Cars were a big deal growing up, The shapes of cars and other industrially designed objects, plus houses and buildings became a strong part of my visual vocabulary.
I didn’t do too much about this until I had a couple of years of general study in college. I was going nowhere in school, really. However, I found myself drawing all over the place – on paper, cardboard, objects. It was silly stuff that had to do with the music we listened to, etc., but friends encouraged me.
That summer I took a college drawing course. That fall I became an art major—I had discovered a direction. My whole life became invested in the drawing and painting courses that I was taking. That was a big turning point…huge to find something that was in you that you had not recognized.
Can you walk us through the stages of planning and making a sculpture, in terms of the evolution of the idea to the finished piece?
Drawing is important to my process. I do not necessarily make preliminary drawings. I am always working with the components that make up drawing. So no matter what I am doing it seems to be driven by drawing. This is not apparent in the work if you think of drawing in the sense of marks on paper. It is more that the elements of drawing are inherent in what I am doing, no matter the material or dimension. So I do swing between drawing on paper and working with various materials three dimensionally, but the sculptures are assembled or guided by underlying principles of drawing—basically seeing shapes. In that “swing” one thing feeds the next. The flat work prompts the sculpture and visa versa. The pieces work in tandem and come out of that condition, that structure for working.
Nylon is a material that occurs often in your recent sculptures. Can you talk about the significance of that material?
I started stretching nylon over clay sculpture around 1999, and that led to stretching over objects made of various materials. After a while I abandoned clay because I was finding it was too heavy. The things I was discovering led to working with light, shadow and reflection. The way the sculpture approached the wall was always important but now important in relation to the interaction of what was there and what was not there. From certain vantage points things could appear or disappear. This, to me, correlated with the odd things that might happen out of the corner of the eye as you walk along the sidewalk.
Nylon’s ability to stretch four ways allowed me to create a form over a form. The point to point connection of the translucent material allows the hard form that has acted as an armature, to be perceived inside the sculpture. I learned from a mathematician that the mobius that is formed is related to a term minimal distance in geometry. This phenomenon is influenced by the glue and/or paint that is applied. The skin and how it relates to the rest of the form becomes the issue. Revealing and hiding is significant. It draws the eye in and creates scale while it leads to associations.
You have been working as an artist for a number of years, how has your work changed over time? How has your work changed?
My work has gone through a lot of changes. For 10 years or so, in the 80’s, I was working primarily in three dimensions but the work was flat and it was on pedestals. Around 1989 or 1990 there was an incident with a clay sculpture I was fed up with and cut a chunk of it away and put it against the wall perpendicularly. It took on a dynamic that sent it away from the wall while simultaneously it pushed against the wall. That piece started a new way of seeing the work that is inherent in what i am doing now. I have built on that perception and continue to mine its possibilities. However, one of the reasons I keep doing this is to find out more about myself. Within the complexity of the creative mind there is a viewer. I keep finding myself at the basis of the work as it evolves. I see my process of working continually opening new doors to discovery, for me, at least. In the end, I have changed immensely while not having changed at all.
An oblong sock-like shape appears often—sometimes appearing deflated and other times inflated, sometimes appearing hollow and other times dense—is there is a reference for this particular form?
Structurally it usually starts as a clay cylinder. Then I cap the ends. It has reference to a variety of things – pills, propane tank, lingam, seed form. Even though it becomes a theme that shows up in my work, I avoid any hard references; but try to pay attention to how it behaves under different physical pressure and weight in the making process, and then how it is delivered in different situations. In some sense it has become a seed. It shows so much potential for multiple readings.
I read the world in terms of opposites—formally and psychologically. The possibility for those opposites – any two – to work together and to trigger a reaction or charge the space around them is related to their ratio, how much of this to that. The relationship of two lines or shapes might turn out to hold a lot more power as a catalyst for the imagination than could ever be anticipated without first making the marks.
For a couple of decades I have been working primarily with the wall as part of the sculpture. Recently a lot of work has been freestanding. Gravity is at play and, due to association, in the last few years I have recognized a kind of laziness in the forms and have pushed that as a theme. Lazy, yet alert. So not really sloth but more like an alligator. He may look ‘lazed-out’ but he is waiting, you know like in Peter Pan with one eye open. He waits. We all wait … and in that sense the theme is patience. In relation to process, it means that there is a connection between condition and outcome. Creative conditions foster relationships.
I like what Picasso said about searching—that, for him, it had no relation to painting. What he was interested in was finding, not searching. This attitude implies being set-back and allowing things to unwind in an open way. Trying to make something is a strain versus letting new things be born out of the same place.
The sculptures often rest upon a cloth, or a surface that becomes part of the work. Can you tell us more about these components and how they relate to the objects above them?
This is approached in terms of ‘this against that,’ and I would say formally—how materials feel and how they prompt each other and trigger associations. Simple things are at work when the pieces work. One part needs to marry with another and all with the whole. It is usually based on trial and error and things that happen in the studio by having that material around. All the materials and surfaces that I have once used become a vocabulary. From that set of tools I can put together worlds. Taken apart these components do not necessarily speak to each other and are complicated to read. Together they become simple.
Your work often appears attached to a wall in some way, often with strings, carefully balanced or cantilevered to the vertical surface. Can you tell us more about the choice to exhibit them on the wall
The wall becomes a part of the dynamic of the piece. Wires are functional, holding the piece in place by counteracting its weight. Lines or shapes, drawn or painted on the wall, rhythmically extend the form onto the wall. The interaction of light, shadow, reflection and the transparency in the piece….creating perceptual changes and questions in appearance, when viewed from different angles. Scale also becomes a factor. Viewing requires entering the sculpture and this ‘between’ space that has been created.
Are there any overarching themes that you keep returning to in your work?
That is always hard for me to answer, yet easy to engage in. It is like answering the ‘what is your work about?’ question.
At bottom, I am looking into the nature of reality—what is there and not there, what is inside and outside, material and non-material/ ethereal, growing and fading, being and becoming? — I wrestle with the delivery and interpretation of that.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
So many…... It seems that we are always influenced.
Getting married seemed like the natural thing to do at the time. No question, an important step in my life, though. A couple of years later when our daughter came, that was a huge turning point. She has had a great impact on our creative lives.
Starting to meditate was like taking some layer of fog away.
I remember a couple of turning points:
Jim Melchert came as a visiting artist when I was in graduate school and opened up a door in my thinking, especially in terms of performance. He engaged us in workshops that allowed us to notice the world around us and situations that brought to life what might otherwise be thought of as mundane.
John Duff visited my studio when he was in residence here at the university in the early 80’s. One comment about the spatial connection on the interior of a form shifted and clarified my understanding of what I was making. Both of these artists are now good friends who have supported my work and I have continued to interact with and learn more from over the years.
What is a typical day like for you?
I have a pretty steady routine and am actually pretty boring.
I like to work in the studio every day. Some days all day and others only part, due to teaching responsibilities. I get up early and go to bed early, and fit in some meditation and exercise–i swim regularly.
Family is close so we spend a lot of time together. Watching movies, reading, or listening to music in the evenings is also in the mix. These are some of the ingredients that repeat themselves.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Over the long haul the big influences are: Constantin Brancusi, Man Ray, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Peter Voulkos, Sculpture from various parts of Africa, tribal objects and ritual painting traditions from New Guinea, Japanese Joman Pottery (6000-12000 BC), Native American Indian pots and tools, Mayan and Incan pottery. I am always taken by Agnes Martin and enjoyed the show at the Guggenheim as well as the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Whitney. There are so many other artists that have stoked my imagination and influenced my work.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done?
I have a studio at school where I do most of the larger or more involved work, especially sculpture. I work on a daily basis painting and drawing. I draw and make small works on paper a lot and I usually find a way to work every day, wherever I am. That is a kind of glue that holds the whole thing together.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
I like it quiet for the most part.
How have artist residencies impacted your practice over the years?
I have had great experience with residencies. They provide a quiet, beautiful space to work in. They feed you good food and they foster camaraderie and friendships that may last a lifetime. You are there with a diversity of artists in various disciplines and are pitched out of your own boundaries through conversations with people who may, on a deeper level, operate with a similar or common process, but they work with different tools materials and subject matter.
I am not sure where, if ever, I have been appreciated as an artist more than at Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc, that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I read sporadically and all over the place in terms of topic. I am reading a few things concurrently. Right now, Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, Theft by Finding by David Sedaris.
I like Nabokov and recently read Laughter in the Dark.
Man Ray, A Self Portrait was a book I read as a student. The interesting life and gravity of his relationships in Paris had an impact on me. It was like a peek into a real world of art that I imagined I could have some day. It is always interesting to reread after many years, something you felt was important at the time. I am due to reread that one.
Time and timelessness are something I think about a lot. Being around and not being around. Material and nonmaterial values play into it. Recently, I saw a documentary about Joan Didion, called The Center Will Not Hold. The element of time and how it plays out in life struck me.
Music has always had a strong presence. I have only dabbled with instruments, but I listen and find a real connection to my work. On a structural level, time is there in all forms of art. It transfers over from the situation of life and the strictures we are given to explore. The ratio of sound to silence and the intervals that structure that rhythm are the bones of music.
They are also the bones of painting/sculpture, if you consider that quiet areas give to active areas and visa-versa. Managing the busy-ness of the picture plane, a sculpture or a room becomes, in some way, a task of sorting out active and quiet elements.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
Mostly what is going on in the work. If I listen to music it is usually when I am cleaning or organizing some part of the studio.
Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
The studio that I maintain alternates between painting and sculpture depending on how I am working at the time. Walls, light space and ventilation are good. Because I often work in clay, a kiln is necessary. It is a constant struggle to keep the place organized. The various stages of disarray, I think, play into the rhythm of the work. The features and condition of the studio have an effect on the work.
How do you navigate distraction or lack of motivation while working?
I have learned to know my limits and to go with what is happening. I know that I cannot be working to the same intensity or time commitment all the time. Understanding that rhythm is important.
There is a lot to be said for paying attention to what is happening in life on a day-to-day basis. Taking the world in—absorbing and being wakeful to the flow of the day—that comes out in the work.
Conditions are important and they answer so many questions. Creative work comes out of a condition. That fact puts distraction on the back burner. Having the studio set up and the way it is set up and with what materials.
Immediacy is important for me. I use what is at hand and learned a long time ago that if I want to expand my vocabulary of materials, I need to have them right there, physically present. Not in my mind or at the store or some other place. That is such a simple principle …. and powerful because it allows me to react and get out of my own way and not get caught in my head.
More fundamentally, it is about relationships of shapes, surfaces, textures, colors, or an idea – they are all brought together to give value to each other. This is the poetry of the thing. It is the real beauty of the process and what comes out of it may be art but it has to do with paying attention to the language of relationships.
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc.
Again that is a condition, right? My studio is only a couple of miles away so that is fortunate. I am in the process of building a studio on our property. It should be ready in late spring. One advantage is that there will be a more seamless situation on a daily basis that will allow me to be a few steps away from the house and into another world. I suspect there will be less distractions and I will be more spoiled.
Living in a small town in the Midwest affords a quiet life and it has its own characteristics. This works well for me because i have close friends, many who are artists, and a great teaching job with interesting students. So I am part of a creative and diverse community. For me, it also requires that I travel to be closer to the pulse of the world. I like the swing between these two worlds.
How does teaching relate to your practice as an artist?
Teaching feeds what I do in the studio. Even with the challenges, and I think they increase every year, each course is a growth experience for me.
Students give me a lesson in not taking things for granted. There is a degree of planning necessary and that has to do with setting up for a creative experience for the group. But most of it is being flexible to ride out the things that come up – whether they are going south or north – stay with it and use what you have to make the best situation for the students. I find that there is a direct correlation with the kind of attitude and discipline that is required in my own studio.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
‘Do something, even if it is wrong.’ This is from my father. It meant get off the dime and things have a way of working themselves out. A good part of working at anything has to do with the energy that is put into it. Once you take a direction, that will be supported, or not, by the circumstances. The next time you can adjust the direction.
It speaks to the fact that thinking is good but it has its place. Too much thinking can shroud the event. It is a matter of degree how much thinking and how much doing is needed. These are opposites that are always in need of reconciliation.
I like the simple and powerful advice from Brancusi—“don’t work too fast and don’t exhibit too often.”
His statement, “when you see a fish you do not think of its scales and fins, you think of the flash of its spirit. I want just the flash of its spirit.” —That’s good!
What is one question that you wish people would ask about your work?
Maybe something about the ‘flash of it’s spirit’. Or maybe that it slowed them down enough to appreciate some of the deeper connections and how they resonated with them.
When someone is deeply engaged in the work, their questions or comments come out of an experience…it is empirical not theoretical, and it is not rehearsed. The authenticity in that is enough to be a catalyst for a meaningful exchange. Usually the more unexpected the comment, good or bad, the better the exchange, even if I don’t have the presence of mind to deal with it.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I received a Pollock-Krasner grant, (2017). It is allowing me to expand and transform my garage to a studio. It’s great to just focus on that while working in my present studio, with no other big commitments for the moment.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Jim and his work, check out his website.