I first met Sheri at an artist retreat center in Leavenworth, WA. She had been finishing up work on a stunning performance piece over the previous month. I had the privilege of experiencing the piece – all about identity, culture, and embodiment. We were delighted when she agreed to be interviewed for The Stories blog.
When did you first self-identify as an artist? Tell us a little bit about how your identity relates to your art.
There’s a self portrait in crayon I made was around four or five with the transcription: “This is me. This is my dress. I am an artist.” So, I guess since then!
A real turning point for me was attending Oxbow, a semester long arts boarding school for high school students. Oxbow opened me up to the joy of learning, of finding a question and burrowing into the spaces it led me into-and doing this within my art. After that, art wasn’t only a technical accomplishment, a way of decorating, or a meditative activity – all of which are still valuable ways to practice – but also a strange and wonderful vessel for the questions I had about myself and the world.
Oxbow was the beginning of my current journey in art. But was that when I first self-identified as an artist? I’m not sure. Identity is a complicated thing, and as much as I might want to claim my creative spirit as my own, it is impossible to know what my life would be like without people and privileges that nurtured that inclination: my sister was interested in drawing and so my parents enrolled us both in art lessons, I grew up upper middle class and my parents had the resources to support my creative ambitions, etc. etc. I do believe that I have always had, and always will have, an inner impulse to create, it is just a matter of how that manifests itself.
What other artists, writers, or themes have influenced your own artmaking?
I remember being slightly scared of Louis Bourgeois’ work when I first saw it. Her artwork has this visceral anguish and anger—and I love that it comes from a little fireball old woman! When I made my series, living woman, very much influenced by Bourgeois, with its fluid fleshy forms, I was somewhat taken aback, shocked even, by what I had made. But really, in the contemporary art world, it wasn’t shocking at all—and one of the reasons is that others such as Louise Bourgeois, have already made art about the body which was much bolder. Bourgeois started in paint and then moved to sculpture and installation, perhaps because they could be more like a body.
My movement is inspired by Butoh, a post WWII form of dance created in Japan. It’s hyper slow movements, improvisation, and attention to the inner life creates a meditative presence that I thrive in. Yoshito Ohno, son of one of the founders of the form, taught me when I had the opportunity to visit his studio in Japan, and I and am thrilled to have recently discovered a local Butoh dance group, Oneness Butoh, led by Judith Kajiwara. Butoh makes me aware of my body in a new way, and helps me exist within opposites. One of Ohno’s exercises is to imagine yourself as Mary, so happy at Jesus’ birth, but so anguished at the knowledge of his death. Another is to be a flower, roots deeply buried in the ground, with your head towards the sun. I’m interested in liminal spaces of transition and growth, and find that Butoh helps me dwell there.
The only exhibition I’ve gone back to three times is a Corita Kent retrospective. Though my palette has been pretty muted in the last several bodies of work, I’m anticipating expanding it, to feel more of the joy and vitality that is so potent in Kent’s prints. She is awake in every possible sense: awake to the beauty in a bag of bread, or a grocery sign, or grass; awake to the immanence of God and the laughter of Mary; awake to poverty, to the injustice she reads about in the newspaper. I think bright colors and poetry can be a balm to the pain, and also a point of entry / empathy.
Why does art in general matter in our current social, political, or global climate? How does your own art speak to a challenge (large or small) in the world today?
I’ve never thought of myself as a political person, probably because of my relatively privileged place in society and my penchant for looking inward (which can either lead to wise thoughts or navel gazing, depending on the day.) But, it has helped me to think about politics as whenever a shared end is pursued. And to imagine a shared end, we need materials to put the imagining into so that others can see, edit, understand it. That’s (one aspect of) art! For a more in depth description–and a concrete example of this–I highly recommend this interview with Gabriella Gómez-Mont, who is the founder of Mexico City’s Creativity Lab.
With the extreme political divides we have today, art’s capacity to hold multiple meanings at once, to display nuance and draw connections, is a timely gift. I hope to tap into that in my work. In my art, I re-contextualize rituals from Christianity to include other aspects of my life and identity, such as in Sanguine: Way, a series of fabric collages of the menstrual cycle as Stations of the Cross (see header image above). A viewer pointed out to me how the stations of the cross often depict Jesus as this manly man, which contrasts the tender, vulnerability of my stations. I think it is important to imagine the sensitive side of the divine, and to recognize the sacred quality of this painful, routine physical experience. We often treat our bodies as a tool for labor, or in opposition to spirituality; I want to create work that recognizes the body’s spiritual capacity.
I look at ordinary moments through the lens of religion, recognizing the spirituality of non-religious experiences. feast: BREAD is a video of a poem, which addresses eating, or the difficulty of eating, as a spiritual activity. feast and other poems I am working on chronicle my religious history. Many evangelicals/post-evangelicals in America have been working through what their faith is, and I hope this work speaks to them and helps recognize an embodied spirituality.
Who are your greatest champions? Tell us a little bit about your friends, family, or mentors.
The first time I wrote an exhibition statement, I had no idea how to put all my thoughts and feelings into sentences. So I called up my sister and by the end of our conversation I had my statement typed up. Jenny has an amazing ability to take my ramblings and find the words and meaning I am looking for. She has an analytical mind and tremendous emotional intelligence, and she totally gets me. I’m so grateful for her, as well as the support of my parents. My mom went above and beyond when we were kids, teaching us art lessons because we wanted it, even though she is not a visual artist. My dad hangs my paintings in his office and always communicates how proud he is of me (even though he secretly wishes I was into computer programming like him!)
Fernando Orellana was my Digital Art teacher at Union College, and the professor I worked most closely with during my undergraduate degree, who got me into video. Strangely enough, he actually started out as my advisor for a body of paintings. He then convinced me to take a Digital Arts class, and after that, I was hooked! He recognized that I was a performance artist before I even saw it. I also had the opportunity to be his studio assistant during two summers, and that helped me learn more about the day to day practice of an artist, and the evolution of a body of work.
There are so many more friends and mentors I could list, but I’d like to give a special shout out to two of my art friends, Melissa Beck and Rachel Verity. Rachel and I are high school friends, we were in art class together back in the day. She went into animation instead of fine art, but still has one foot in the art world. Last year, she gave me really helpful feedback and support when I was in crunch time, trying to make a few new works for pending deadlines, while also navigating some personal matters. Melissa is an amazing artist (check out her work!) who has been my go to person for graduate school questions. She edited my artist statement numerous times and encouraged me in the early stages.
What advice do you have for young artists?
Oh, I still feel like a young artist! Here are some principles I try to live by.
Follow Sheri on Instagram @sheriparksheripark, and visit her website, here.