Like many people, Becca Shewmake never anticipated where she would end up in life. It was a seemingly unfortunate event that led her to become an artist in sunny California.
Born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Shewmake remembers a wintry childhood in a working-class family. By the time she reached her junior year in high school, she had been to several different schools and found solace in creating art.
After high school she went on to become a factory worker, which was the norm in her area. Although she despised her job, she didn’t know how to attend college or what else to do.
“I toiled away in that factory, and my mind went crazy,” she explained. “For 12 hours a day all I could think about was how I was going to get out of there. Finally, after a terrible winter and a lot of car troubles, I was fired for being late. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I didn’t know it then, but that started the chain of events that led me to college– which led me back to art, to a BFA, and now, an MFA.”
The events and the decisions she has made have helped her become who she is today. “Taking the path of an artist has had mostly positive outcomes for me,” she said. “It led me out of the factories, into college, out of Wisconsin and into California, where there are so many more opportunities for artists, or for anyone doing anything. It’s all here.”
Shewmake uses a variety of materials to produce vibrant and often bold paintings with a three-dimensional feel. She experiments with different mediums until her piece begins to form, at which point she refers to her sketchbook, which is mostly used for writing and brainstorming.
Fabric, dirt, resin, cotton and glitter are just some of the many diverse materials she uses in her paintings. “I find materials wherever I can and use them non-hierarchically,” Shewmake said. “This base materiality can reference bodily waste and excretions in the form of thick puddles, discolored resins or furry, hair-like clumps. Hopefully, it comes across as both funny and pathetic.”
She also noted that she began working with a lot more texture, while utilizing space for larger works. Although her artwork and technique have developed dramatically over the years, the ideologies remain the same. Her pieces are often conceptual and reflective of pollution and her background as a factory worker.
“My paintings explore the dark side of the human psyche but, through a lens of humor,” she said. “I work with themes of ugliness and beauty, and tragedy and comedy, to create dysfunctional worlds that reflect our own realities. Environmental issues emerge in the form of polluting bio-machines and acid-rain clouds, while societal problems appear through various manifestations of oppressed-versus-oppressor themes, such as experimenter versus subject, hunter versus prey or consumer versus consumed.”
She said the biggest challenges she faces as an artist begin when she enters the studio, her work evolving slowly (for months to years) until she can complete it. The process of completion may be gradual, but she is appeased when she observes people’s responses to her work.
“It’s satisfying when people laugh initially but then find reasons in the work to question their laughter,” she explained. “The forms in my works are abstract, but their multitude of visual associations open up opportunities for narrative while never pinning one down. I find it interesting to hear interpretations of the work, especially when the interpretation is one that hadn’t occurred to me. I am open to any interpretation. They are all valid.”
Currently Shewmake is working on pieces for her MFA thesis show, titled Uncombed, which will be open to the public at California State University, Long Beach on Sunday, April 28.