Shara Hughes is ready to step out in Atlanta. Since returning to her hometown from New York three years ago, Hughes has concentrated on taking time for herself, palling around with her dog Chicken Nugget, and creating works that have made her an internationally recognized painter. Hughes recently took on a new project called SEEK ATL to help link artists and encourage dialogue in the somewhat disjointed Atlanta art scene. We sat down with her in her apartment and studio space to discuss returning home and what it has meant to her.
Look for Hughes and her fellow crushes at BURNAWAY’s inaugural Art Crush Bash on February 25, 2012, to score a portrait with the famed Chicken Nugget and to experience other exciting stuff!
BURNAWAY: So, you’re from Atlanta originally? Catch us up on where you have been.
Shara Hughes: I grew up in Atlanta and then I went to Rhode Island School of Design for undergrad and got a BFA in painting. After that I traveled around and did a bunch of residencies in Vermont and Colorado, Michigan, and Denmark. I moved to New York for a little bit and came back here three years ago.
BA: What was your main catalyst for coming back to Atlanta?
SH:I just wanted more space. It’s so much easier here: My family is here, I can have a dog and go out of town a lot, and my mom will take care of her, Chicken Nugget. I just needed some space. Living in New York was starting to get really hard, because of trying to make all the openings, and it’s just sort of exhausting. It got to the point where I wasn’t having fun. Now when I go visit I get really excited, and I can do all the things and be enthusiastic about openings and meeting people and going to studios and stuff, whereas when I was up there it sort of turned into a burden. So, having this space is a nice way to reboot.
BA: So, you are actually one of Atlanta’s hidden, famous artists, like Brian Dettmer was a few years ago. You show regularly in New York and Europe, and support yourself on that, but in Atlanta it seems like you have focused more on the production side of things than exhibiting.
SH:I moved back here and sort of separated myself from all of that. I think I just needed some space to work through some stuff outside of the scene, wherever the scene was. So I didn’t really even start getting involved in the scene here until a year ago. I still feel really new to it, even though I grew up here. I just don’t know all the right people, or any of the people really. It’s strange because I didn’t even have any art friends when I moved back here. It was like my little secret that I lived here, but now I’m ready to not be so in my own world. I don’t show anywhere here—my main gallery is in New York and then I have ones in Copenhagen and Berlin. I feel like I’m just getting to know what the scene is here.
BA: Do you think your work has changed between moving to New York and then back home to Atlanta?
SH: I think because I did all these residencies right after school I didn’t feel like I really needed to be in a specific place to do my work, which is great because I didn’t really need constant feedback, at least with the work that I was making right after school. And when I went to Skowhegan over the summer a lot of things changed. I’m working on a whole new body of work that will be my next show in September. I think that’s the biggest change. So, it wasn’t really about place but timing with what I was going through and which stages. This is my first big change from old style to new style.
BA: Do you think you’d want to do a show here or keep it separate?
SH: Yeah, I’d love to do a show in Atlanta if it’s the right fit. Because it’s so much about the context that I want it to be seen in, and it’s as important to the gallery as it is to the work, it’s important to have a good fit. So yeah, I’m always open to it.
BA: How has it been to break into the community here? Tell us about SEEK ATL and how that has played into it.
SH: I was at the Kehinde Wiley lecture at the High and Ben Steele said, “I’ve seen your work, I’d love to come to your studio.” Then we started talking about how I don’t really know any artists here, and he’s like me. We started talking about starting a group, and it just developed into this thing called SEEK ATL. Our main focus is to keep a vocabulary and a conversation going outside of school. I think its really important for artists to know how to talk about their own work and other people’s work. I think it’s the best teacher, being outside school, because no one is forcing you to do work—that kind of work gets neglected in a way. We started it not only to talk about our own work and get feedback but just to have a type of community where that’s an easy thing to do and it’s not so intimidating. You can get further into people’s studios and practices without just going to shows and meeting them there. It’s been a great way for me to meet new people and see what else is out there. I was never in that circle here. It’s exciting.
BA: So, your paintings are very painterly. Do you have some major references you look to for your work?
SH: I will forever be in love with David Hockney. At one point in college I had to get all his books and put them away because I just started making his painting, which was just not good. I was just copying him. I also really liked Joan Mitchell at the time, and I used to make super-abstract-like messy paintings. Then it turned into solid interiors, and now what I’m doing is breaking it back up again and making it a little more abstract and having simple gestures within the space. I like to suggest how to invite the viewer to create this abstract space with me in a way.
I felt like in my older work—which is weird to say, my older work, because it was only six months ago—I kind of forgot how to be a painter. I mean that in a sense that I got good at this style that I was doing where I could just think it up and do it and have it be done, but it lost this conversation between me and the painting, where you lose yourself and struggle in a way. So, I had to completely restart this summer, which was a lot of pouting and stomping around in my studio. Now I’m rebuilding a new conversation.
BA: There has been an ongoing conversation in contemporary art about whether painting is dead. As someone who functions within this supposedly deceased method, what are your thoughts on this?
SH:I talk about this a lot actually, because I feel like I started to not like most painters, at least ones who are happening now. I don’t want to say that is set in stone because I will never really believe that. I just felt like people were starting to think up ways to make paintings of what hasn’t been done. And I’m just like, why don’t you just make a really good painting? Why don’t you just be a good painter instead of trying to figure out how to do something new? So I feel like honesty has gotten lost in a way with painting. There’s so much information out there that you forget to connect. You’re just thinking, how can I get out there, how can I separate myself from what’s already been done. You’re going to be referencing everything because you’re using paint. You have to get used to not feeling like you have to be so different—just be really good.
BA: Do you have a spirit animal?
SH: Oh, actually at Skowhegan we had a spirit animal party, and I was a shark, so I think that’s what I am. I built a fin that I wore like a backpack, then I had cut off a gray hoody, and put that as a face, and basically made my whole face teeth. And, you know, the fins on my arms.
Look for profiles of our latest heartthrobs on the last Friday of each month.