Shae Irving is a self-taught mixed-media artist who likes to draw. She’s been rescuing lost and injured domestic pigeons for three decades and celebrates their images and stories through her artwork. Shae lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their five pigeons.
Carrie: When did you first realize the importance of art in your life?
I always wanted to be a writer. In 2002, I was offered a poetry residency at a place that also hosted visual artists. That month stands out because I struggled terribly with my writing but found relief by hanging out in the art studios. I was always skulking around, checking out the materials and asking questions. I just felt good around people making art with their hands.
Around that time, I also started to explore process art with The Painting Experience — painting with no concern whatsoever for the outcome. You stand before a blank piece of paper with brushes and an array of tempera paints and listen for the colors, gestures, shapes, or images that arise within you. You follow that energy until your painting is complete. That might take 15 minutes or it might take months.
The process is such a powerful teacher. Process painting taught me nothing about technique but gave me endless insights into the creative impulse and how to work with my mind.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when health concerns caused me to retire from my writing and editing work, that I wondered if I might actually be an artist. I had always assumed that if I had the necessary talents for art, I would have known it a lot sooner. That turned out to be a wrong assumption!
Carrie: How would you describe your art?
I recently participated in a local art walk where so many people approached my work and said, “Whimsical!.” So I’ll go with that. But my work is also deeply felt. It’s taken me a minute to understand that I can make whimsical or humorous work that’s not shallow.
Carrie: What does your workspace look like?
Right now, it’s a mess! But that’s good because it means I’m working.
Our TV broke a while ago, and my husband and I decided not to replace it. Without the TV, we realized we never use the living room. On the rare occasions when we have guests, people hang out in the sunroom by the kitchen.
At the same time, I was bursting out of the passageway where I was making art and we were wondering how to solve that problem. Stewart’s idea was to convert most of the living room into an art studio for me. That’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
Carrie: Can you describe your artistic process to readers? For example, do you follow the same pattern and track when you develop an artwork from idea to product?
I do track my ideas and projects. I keep a daily logbook that lists what I intend to do each day. (It always includes things like “meditate,” “rest,” or “breathe.”) At the end of the day, I usually take time to note what I worked on, how it went, my questions, and my next step. And I often use a mini-photo printer (a Sprocket) to document my work. The photo quality is terrible, but it’s good enough for record-keeping.
In terms of my process with the work itself, it’s a conversation. I talk to my subject a lot. I ask what it wants next. Especially near the point of completion, I’m always asking, “Is there anything else you need from me?”
That feels different from asking myself if there’s anything else I should do. It’s a whole different energy. Sometimes the subject will tell me something I don’t want to hear, like a pigeon will say to me that he wants to be wearing a bowler hat. And I’m like, are you sure about that? Because I don’t know how to do it. The birds always make me figure out how to do things I don’t know how to do.
Carrie: Tell us how your 30-day project after taking Self-Taught to Self-Confident (STSC) led to your current body of work.
Well, several things developed simultaneously. One of my rescued pigeons had passed away after a long, wonderful life and I was really missing her. I felt her asking to be painted. That was my first big “I don’t know how” because I had only been working intuitively in art journals and felt uncertain about launching into a stand-alone, representational painting. But I decided to try it for Ajax.
You can imagine the number of questions that came up for me. One of the biggest was simply, “How do I get the bird on the board?” I wasn’t at all confident about my drawing skills.
It’s unbelievable that only a year has passed since then. Now, after taking STSC and some drawing classes at my local community college, I can draw whatever I want. It requires varying levels of time, effort, and patience, but I can get there!
The 30-day project — drawing a portrait of a pigeon on a post-it note every day for 30 days — was a big part of my confidence building. You had suggested that we set a goal or intention for practice after completing STSC. At the same time, I visited the studio of a wonderful local artist, Rachel Davis, who did an incredible 100-day project in which she drew portraits of women on white post-it notes.
I immediately wanted to do that in my own way, with pigeons. At first, I hoped they would be loose and expressive like Rachel’s portraits, but it didn’t go that way. I became obsessed with getting down to the details. I didn’t do highly detailed drawings every day, but every day I did something.
Ultimately, I had a whole flock of post-it birds and tons more confidence.
Carrie: What do you hope viewers take from your artwork?
I hope the work I’m currently doing will cause people to take a second look at pigeons. Perhaps to question their assumptions about these birds, who are not ordinary or dirty—as they are commonly labeled—but unique beings with distinct personalities, remarkable intelligence, and strong social connections.
I’m happy if someone sees something that makes them curious or gives them a little smile, even if they don’t stop long enough to ask, “Why pigeons?”
Carrie: What do you wish you knew that you now know about your creative process?
As I mentioned, I worked as a writer for many years, but what I did was never enough for me. I always felt like I was trying to push a boulder uphill. I was often unsatisfied and felt like the boulder kept rolling back over me.
Since art making came for me, my experience has been the opposite. I’m just trying to keep up with all the energy, ideas, and opportunities flowing through and around me. It’s weirdly choiceless; it’s what life wants to do with me.
I had always heard that this is what creative inspiration feels like, and it would have been great to arrive at this place in my life sooner than I did, but life doesn’t work that way. Everything else I’ve done, struggled with, and learned has added up to this.
Having all this energy for art doesn’t mean it’s “easy.” I’m always grappling with some new thing I’m learning, but I love that. Even when I hate it, I love it.
Carrie: What strategies do you use to help yourself when you feel “stuck?”
First, I know it will be okay. When I’m frustrated, I’m careful not to act destructively. I don’t tear stuff up or throw it out. Usually, I only need to take a break and listen for the next little thing that wants to happen. There’s always a way through.
Often, I’ll ask myself if I’m being quietly called to do something that I’m refusing to do — for example, use a particular color, make a bold mark, or let something come into the piece that might not “fit” with my fixed ideas.
Even when I sense what needs to happen, I sometimes need to talk to someone about it before I can do it. It’s essential to have a few people I trust where I can just go, bleah, I feel that I need to do this, but I’m freaking out about it. It’s important not to feel alone in the face of scary new steps, even though, ultimately, I’ve got to face the piece and do the thing under my own power.
Sometimes, I want to put a piece away when I’m frustrated. I pay attention to what my energy is like at those times. If there’s a feeling of rejection or turning my back on what I’ve done, I prefer to keep the piece out where I can stay in relationship with it.
I can think of only once in the past year when I’ve put a piece away in despair. It was a piece I was creating for a friend in memory of her most beloved bird, and I felt that I had ruined it. I wanted to destroy what I had done and start over, but I negotiated with myself to just put it out of sight and out of mind for a while.
I’m so glad I set it aside instead of throwing it out because several weeks later, she and I were conversing about her bird, Moose, and I suddenly saw the piece differently. What I had seen as a terrible mistake turned out to be an important part of the piece and the doorway to a new approach.
Carrie: What has been one hurdle you’ve overcome as a creative and how did you navigate that problem?
Oh, gosh, you and I went around a few times about whether I would make a website for my work. I didn’t feel I was enough of an artist to warrant it but you kept encouraging me. Now I’m glad I’ve done it.
I got through it the only way I know how to tackle a big project: break it up into small, manageable tasks and get help when needed. When I got stuck, I had success hiring experts through Upwork. I especially needed help understanding Mailchimp and making email sign-up forms for the website. It was so nice to turn that over to someone else.
Carrie: What is one creative resource you can’t live without?
Other artists. I get so much inspiration and practical support from artists further along the path than I am. You’re very high on that list. Maybe I should say that you didn’t ask me to pitch what you do. (Hey everyone, Carrie didn’t ask me to promote her teaching or support services!) Stumbling across Self-Taught to Self-Confident was another happy “accident.”
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
Seriously, having feelings for a subject is my main inspiration. Materials also inspire me. I feel driven to put my hands on stuff.
Out in the world, I’m inspired by signage — especially amusing uses of language, intentional or not — as well as shapes, colors, odd bits on the ground that I want to pick up and use.
I love looking at other people’s work but if you gave me the choice between going to a museum and walking down an interesting-looking street I’ve never seen before, I’m probably going to take the walk.
Carrie: What does the word artist mean to you?
That’s such a hard question. I looked it up on dictionary.com and it says:
a person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.
I don’t even know where to start with how unhelpful that is.
An artist is a person who has an undeniable impulse to create something meaningful. In my experience, artists have unusual sensitivity to their internal and external environment — to other beings, to what’s not obvious or readily visible, to beauty, to pain, to how these things are ultimately inseparable. It doesn’t mean you have to suffer terribly, but you do have to be aware. You have to feel.
I get hung up wondering whether being an artist requires an audience. My gut says art lies primarily in the intention to create. But taking it a step further, the purpose of that creation will usually be to communicate. Of course, the response is up to the receiver. A response may occur soon after the artist creates the work, or a hundred years later, or never. Think about artists whose work was discovered accidentally, like the photographer Vivian Maier. Her work might never have been seen, but she navigated the world as an artist. There’s no doubt about it.
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