The physical manifestations of Christopher Shaw’s creative practice are set against dark walls within the PACCAR gallery at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). Strategically placed lights illuminate the muted tones of his minimalist works in the exhibition “Algorithm:Archetype.” Shaw wanted to create a womb-like feeling in the room: a place of endless generative possibility.
“That’s really the place where I feel my mind is when I am creating and what I was hoping to kind of invoke,” Shaw said. “Dark, warm expansiveness.”
“Boundary Conditions (Soul Progression)” is a collection of 20-inch-tall sculptures. They resemble slats of wood but are stoneware. Shaw said each one began as a much larger slab of clay and was precisely reduced to its final form. “Heaven (Ginen)” is a sculpture made of stabilized soil, dolomite and fabric. Both works represent the material ambiguity Shaw finds exciting.
The Seattle native created the works for the audience to consider the language of design and form. He posits that material culture, including objects, is one way our identity is recorded; our worldview is preserved with them.
“In this work, I’m not trying to necessarily resurrect some specific language that we’ve lost,” Shaw said, “more so create objects that are created with the intention of investigating that mechanism.”
In “Untitled Vessels,” sprigs of flora flow out of three stoneware sculptures. The free-flowing, organic material is in contrast to the other fixed works in the exhibition.
“When I work with clay, it’s oftentimes a very cathartic experience for me,” Shaw said. “They’re very expressive and very fluid with my emotional self.”
NAAM Curator Hasaan Kirkland was drawn to Shaw’s abstract sculptures because Shaw’s style and genre are uncommon for Black artists. In engaging with the artist and his practice, Kirkland described the combination as an oracle of thought and visual language. Kirkland appreciates his detailed precision as well as the union of culture relevance and creative expression.
“His minimal design and engineered dexterity with clay, metals, fibers and order is both challenging and inspiring,” Kirkland said. “His dutiful work with clay, slips, temperature and blends of chemistry delivers an insight and connection to who he is as a man, person and vessel of thoughtful craftsmanship.”
Further, Kirkland believes Shaw’s artwork allows his viewers to become elevated, creatively and intellectually.
Shaw became a fanatic for clay in high school. He described himself as a clay nerd who was in the studio every chance he could get as he was driven to learn and develop his skills. He immersed himself in learning ceramic techniques, aesthetics and history. Part of his study included trips to KOBO, an artisan gallery featuring Japanese and Northwest fine crafts. Those visits have now come full circle as he is no longer just admiring what’s on the shelves: “The feeling of having work in one of their shows is really sweet and nostalgic and special for me.”
“Artist” isn’t the only title Shaw holds. He has a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College and is a licensed engineer who works in design. Four years ago, he opened his own firm. He works in conjunction with architects on mostly residential and some commercial projects.
His engineering skills are also utilized by artists who are creating public art commissions and public sculptures, including Tacoma artists Kenji Stoll and Jasmine Brown. He recently provided his expertise to artist and architect Kimberly Corrinne Deriana’s “Brings The Medicine Sundial.” The temporary sculpture consisting of six Douglas fir lodgepoles is in front of Seattle’s King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s work he described as rewarding and meaningful.
“Those projects are really special because as an artist I feel like I can bring a level of understanding to a collaboration,” Shaw said. “I want their project to be successful — I want their work to get the support it deserves, and that’s not always easy to find in my discipline.”
Being an artist and an engineer were once parallels in his life, but now blend together. Shaw credits collaboration with helping maintain harmony between the two disciplines.
Shaw fires his stoneware at Seward Park Clay Studio, where he’s a part of a community of ceramicists. He now has a home studio where he made most of the works in the NAAM show. While in the workspace, he’s listening to various podcasts. Music is also a go-to, specifically free and spiritual jazz.
Through his expertly constructed works, Shaw has created an environment one doesn’t want to rush through. He approaches art with curiosity and hopes the audience will do the same.
“Not necessarily a curiosity for this work, but curiosity for the way that they relate to things that they see and experience in their life,” Shaw said. “I want their experience of this work to change the way they feel about other things in their life. And to question the meaning in those things.”
WHAT: “Christopher Shaw: Algorithm:Archetype”
WHEN: Runs until April 5, 2020
WHERE: NAAM, 2300 S. Massachusetts St.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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