Mixing her Black and Asian identities in a multi-hyphenate cereal of sculpture, digital art, wood stain and animation, U.S artist SheWill 별초롱 colors outside of intersectional lines with pieces that celebrate the many layers of her identity and express complexities of consciousness through a lens of social awareness. Having recently been made aware that her mother had disowned her a long time ago, her current work “Treatise on the Absence of a Mother” is a celebration of all the phases of her relationship with the concept of “mother” even in her absence.
In our conversation with Sheena we talked about healing from childhood trauma & her latest piece, drawing inspiration from people who move us, and her family history’s influence in her work.
Hi Sheena, for people who don’t know you: who are you and how did you get into art?
Ah, who I am is a trick question haha. I don’t know if I can answer it in the traditional sense. And when I say I don’t know, I don’t mean it in the way that I can’t accurately point to the North Star in the daytime. I mean that my constellation is still being crafted as we speak. Many of us don’t have the privilege of being able to genuinely answer that question even at my age because society has already pre-packaged so many identities for us. But I will say that after healing up to this point, I am closer to an answer to that question than I have ever been.
I got into art through pain. Pain is a family friend and although I’ve distanced myself from him now, I had no choice when I was a little girl. Pain was inescapable in my childhood so I just didn’t talk much. It was the only thing I could control. I didn’t necessarily feel hardened in pain but rather fortified from it when I didn’t speak. Talking too much might mean more pain. It was a superstition I added to my imaginary worlds of chocolate waterfalls and space travel. So instead, I drew my pain on lined sheets of paper and hid these drawings in folders I’d carry around with me like a vestigial thunderstorm of acid rain only I could feel eating away at me.
Those memories have since calcified in a way where I can examine them objectively just as you would take a second look at a coat rack that casts a peculiar shadow in the moonlight. But the habit of diffusing my feelings into art has thankfully stayed with me.
I think the thunderstorms of a young girl have become the nourishing rains of a healing woman. Maybe that is a part of who I am: healing.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work, more generally speaking?
You know that metal thingy in your kitchen, the one with all the thin metal loops that you use to blend flour with eggs. That is my work. And I’d like for it be considered as plainly as that. I mix things and I’m not certain if this proclivity is because I’m racially “mixed” but I’ve found that things are good in juxtaposition but better when completely, homogenously infused together.
I digitally illustrate Black characters in a manga style to bring light to how software and social algorithms don’t factor people of color into their formulas. I paint faceless Asian women wearing African patterned kimonos as a commentary on the ambiguity of identity and the social dehumanization of women. When we mix color, we not only make something new but we can better reflect on that process of transformation. So, when our primary ideas become secondary, we create a conversation.
You know that metal thingy in your kitchen, the one with all the thin metal loops that you use to blend flour with eggs. That is my work.
You recently published the first panel of “Treatise on the Absence of a Mother“, a very personal piece…
I don’t want to give too much away because more panels will follow but over the summer, my mother was found. She left when I was four and never came back. In my mind, there had always been this idea that she just needed to find me. But just as quickly as she was located, came the realization that she had moved on with her life, a life that won’t include me. I had been disowned a long time ago and just never knew. And in this realization, I felt a very rounded sense of peace and completion. That was the most remarkable discovery out of receiving that news. My life up to this point, had prepared me for this. The weight of the pain I had discarded so long ago had gathered to a point. I had become a mountain.
The vantage point I have acquired was put into such sharp focus. So, I realized that I really wanted to pay homage to the little girl that had waited so long for her mother to come back. She deserves a gravestone I thought because she had played so many imaginary games about having a mother. She had hoped for so long and carried the secret of being motherless so well. She had been a very good girl. My piece A Treatise on The Absence of a Mother, will be that marker, not only of the challenges my younger self had to endure but also the strength I’ve acquired to lighten the weight of it. I am very grateful to my mother for teaching me these lessons.
On your website you write “I owe all my inspirations to every person that has ever moved me.” Could you talk a bit more about that?
Sure, this idea starts with a dead frog and my Gramps. My Gramps killed a frog a long time ago. This is family lore. There was no malicious vendetta against the amphibian but he wasn’t necessarily framed for it either. So, he found himself a bit stuck in the realization as he stopped his lawn mower and inspected the sad remains within its metal rotar. In his mind, he had inexplicably done something horrible in the pursuit of completing something very, very boring. I don’t even think he liked mowing the yard. And legend has it, that intricate burial rites were performed for the unlucky frog next to my Grandma’s vegetable garden. An empty shoebox, a few hand-picked flowers and a prayer were dispensed immediately. The lawn could wait.
So, when this story was recounted to me years later as a child, I could still hear a hint of shame my Gramps had for what he seemed to still consider an accidental murdering. A kind of inadvertent assassination. The reason it came up was the same reason everyone asked my Gramps about frogs, he had by that time, amassed an enormously monumental collection of frog memorabilia: Frog ties, motion activated frog quartets that sang the blues, plush African frogs, frog decals pasted to walls and frog t-shirts. His collection spanned every flat surface of his home, extending from an entertainment system, to the countertops of his kitchen and even adorned toilet paper holders.
He had built a shrine to the memory of that one frog. This frog fan club consisted of only one member that even turned the word ‘Frog’ into the acrostic mantra “Fully, Rely, On, God.” You see what he did there? I realized at a very young age, through this lovely display of atonement, that if you’re brave enough to feel deeply about even the smallest, or most troublesome experiences, you yourself may become a more palpable version of you. Everyone – even a frog, can mean so much if you seek out connection.
Family seems to be an important topic in your work- could you put into words how making pieces about your family makes you feel and why you choose to create them?
I’m so glad you were able to glean that from my work. That makes me very happy. The concept of family has been very challenging for me. Like I mentioned earlier, there was so much I was creatively mired in when I was younger and much of it had to do with the difficulties within my family. I hadn’t realized that it’s important to respect your level of healing when you choose to process trauma through your art. Maybe that’s why they put those warning stickers on side mirrors: Objects are closer than they appear. I found that just because I survived to look back, didn’t necessarily mean I had enough distance from those events to effectively rehash all of those complex emotions in acrylic, gouache and oil.
I needed to just cry first. I needed to cry a lot. Perhaps those tears were the “nourishing rain” I referenced in your first question but I remember times where I didn’t even need to add water to my watercolor paintings. My tears were more than enough.
And now I have lived more years outside of my trauma than within it. I’ve been keeping count. This distance has helped me separate those feelings of pain from my family in a way that has allowed me not only to forgive but examine aspects of my trauma more objectively. I am so grateful for this. So, when I make pieces about my family now, I smile. I choose vibrant colors to try to capture the essence of who those important people really are to me. Most of them have passed already but for every piece I make about them, I bring their beauty back to me.
I remember times where I didn’t even need to add water to my watercolor paintings. My tears were more than enough.
Two of your pieces that I’d like to speak about are “Not as much as I love you” and “The Dissonance of Life”…
These are both pieces about conversations I had with my grandmother at two very different times in her life. The Dissonance of Life is about the point in her life where she forgot who I was. Sometimes she thought I was a part of the dining staff at her care facility and sometimes she would just stare blankly at me as if I had accidentally sat at the wrong table and was just a stranger awkwardly trying to strike up a conversation with her. It was heart wrenching.
Before dementia, when I was a little girl, she had washed me in her bath tub and had sang to me on long car trips. I wanted this piece to feel sharp and fragmented to convey this layered social quicksand. It was like jumping from one floating ice shelf of her memory to another, just so that I could get a little bit closer to her. There were times where we could overlap and then I’d take a breath and she’d be gone again yet still right there in front of me. Her hair smelled the same and her hands were still thin like glass but her presence was a pendulum with an unpredictable swing.
Not as Much as I Love You was actually my healing response to The Dissonance of Life because I wanted to remember lighter moments with my Grams. It’s about the only time she spanked me as a little girl. She was not one for corporal punishment at all but she thought my offense was so egregious that she had to resort to it.
That conversation went like this: She told me she loved me in passing. I had responded, “Not as much as I love you.” That was it. That was the thing that she couldn’t let stand. And as I remember returning back to Sunday school with my friends, I had no idea what to tell them when they asked what was wrong. Nothing was wrong. My Grams loved me more than I could know. These two pieces are aesthetically connected in the use of clear shells to convey a sense of clarity. But in Not As Much As I Love You, I also wanted to show that what’s underneath that framework is love, familiarity and comfort.
Could you share some of your creative process with me, from a starting point to a finished piece?
My process begins long before I have an idea for a piece. It is how my art has become my way of life. As I get older, I’ve come to really honour the odd ways in which my mind works and I know that the peak of my creativity can only be reached when I view the needs of my well-being in a holistic way. I maintain a challenging workout regimen that is more play than procedure. Mobility exercises, cardio and strength training have heightened my mental acuity and imagination. I fast regularly, not only for my health but as a practice in gratitude and counter conditioning against societal norms of excess. It regularly gives me new outlooks on how I utilize my energy and perceive the difference between needs and wants.
It’s also creatively vital that I experience life regularly.
I think it’s very easy when you get into any craft to assume that you’ll only get better if that’s the only thing you’re doing. Which is true to an extent but creative plateaus are real and kaleidoscopes are only as vibrant as the colors you put into them. So, for me, experiencing life can be as simple as befriending someone at the grocery store or riding my motorcycle through the woods. I climb miles into caves sometimes just to see what most have not and the damp openness of those caverns becomes catalogued into the living imagination within me. I’ve found that living in this way makes me more present in my artistic process and ensures that my mind and body are at the highest caliber to create.
What would be your advice for fellow emerging artists?
It is art as soon as you think of it. You, as the vessel of art, are an artist even before you create that piece. And that is, of course, whether it is sold or not. Many emerging artists that I’ve spoken to struggle with the validity of their craft as it relates to social recognition, likes, comments & follows. But a well holds water. People come to the well to draw that life preserving water out of it. So, the well becomes a representative of that water no matter how many people dip their buckets into it.
You are an endless well, the depths of which couldn’t possibly be tabulated and you hold within you an abundance. Don’t trouble yourself counting buckets.
Any emerging artists you’d like to recommend?
Yes, always! ZeeZingah is an Asian American digital artist that creates work centered on intersectionality and healing. Draco is a multi-faceted Spanglish rapper, artist & photographer who engrains their work with authentic depictions of their Indigenous culture. Storm is a disability advocate and writer that utilizes her eye for photography to convey messages that represent her push against the status quo, her voice & growth. Wiisagi-ma’ iingan is a queer, neurodiverse artist that showcases their Indigenous roots through textiles, digital illustrations & paintings.
And last question: What are your hopes for the future?
I hope for peace. I always hope for peace in every shape and form. I hope everyone has the means, access and society’s compassion to realize a peace that replenishes what life’s struggles have taken from them, gain what their imaginations have created for them and accept all the beautiful scars they’ve accrued on their own journey. Everyone deserves that kind of peace.
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Written & edited by Sheena Williams and Nina Seidel
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