In the Studio with Nora Shields

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The work of L.A.-based artist Nora Shields feels more relevant than ever. Her architectural pieces, which often blend the crumpled metal masculinity of John Chamberlain with the soft and swaying fringe of a feminine flapper costume, seem to embody the current emotional landscape of many American women today: strength in softness.

Shields’s aesthetic is, in part, due to her previous experience working in theater and costuming. There is movement, plumage, personality. Her circular relief sculptures bloom from the walls, a sort of incongruous explosion of color and materials. The work feels at once self-contained and ecstatic, heavy and weightless. It is a deft marriage of utility and frivolity.

Since receiving her MFA. from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Shields has regularly shown her work at galleries all over the country, including one of our local favorites, The Pit, in Los Angeles. Below, we caught up with Shields to talk early Calder exposure, uncertain results, and the inherent theatricality of loaded materials.

nora shields

Former occupation and your most notable memory there:

I started working when I was 14, but I have worked as an interior designer, fashion and prop stylist, window dresser, costume designer, and teacher.

Your first experience with art as a child:

When I was four years old, my parents took me to the National Museum of Modern Art in DC. I saw an Alexander Calder mobile. I was so impressed by the scale and color; it was so compelling and awesome. The forms were red, and it was suspended. The shapes were floating, and moving slightly. Prior to that, really my first experience with art/representation was through being read to and seeing the illustrations that would accompany the pages of the books.

nora shields

What did your parents do for work? Were they interested in the arts or design?

Both of my parents were interested in art and design and literature. There was a lot of encouragement around going to museums, seeing art and theater. Reading was also a big part of our growing up. My mother was–and still is–a costume designer. She has worked in theater, film, television. My father was an English literature major. Reading and politics were very important to him. I also have two brothers who are also artists.

Can you describe how a work typically gets made–the process of going from an idea, to a sketch, to a fully formed piece?

I usually spend time in my studio with the objects I have already made. I try to understand the impulses and desires that brought them into existence by looking at them carefully. This experience often generates new thoughts and possibilities, materially and conceptually.

I make a lot of drawings, and I physically move things around in my studio, placing works in relations to other works, thinking about how things interact with each other spatially. I might move a sculpture next to a corner piece or place a wall work on the ground. I experiment with color and volume to arrive at a final composition.

nora shields

How do you find/discover materials? Is it something you just gather over time and then use at a later date or do you find them and use immediately?

Sometimes you understand what material is needed right away to conceive a piece. Other times, you are in a place that has materials–such as a fabric store or metal shop–and in theses places, I can become excited by a surface or shape or the pliability of material or textile and want to work with it. Often it is something that I don’t know how to work with, so I cannot be certain of the result. There is a lot of experimentation and failure with my materials until I find the way to work with them and hit the right spot with the piece.

When did you begin using fringed trim in your work?

I have always be interested in materials for art-making that come from other worlds–not necessarily “art” materials. I am interested in ideas about how the feminine is constructed in visual culture. Something like a fringe has so many associative connotations for a viewer. There is a theatricality, and a relationship to costume, interior decor, and maybe dance and movement.

nora shields

I read that you worked in theater and costuming before diving into art. Was that a natural progression for you?

That is an interesting question. It implies a linear progression in an artistic career/life, where one thing follows after another. The other disciplines that I have worked in inform the art work I currently make. I try to think about the interconnectedness of the arts I am interested in–such as theatre, fashion, architecture, and interiors–in formal and conceptual ways. I enjoy thinking about the relational aspects of these professions in my work.

How did you find your current workspace and where is it?

I found it through another friend who is an artist. It is located close to the city of Vernon, East Los Angeles.

What do you eat for breakfast?

Coffee, a smoothie with bananas, chocolate almond milk, and frozen berries–or just coffee if I’m in a rush.

nora shields

What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?

Wake up. Have breakfast. I do Muay Thai kickboxing training three times a week at a gym right next to my house. I try to surf once a week in the mornings the days I don’t box. After that, I check my calendar and I make a list of things that I need to do for art, work and personal, and then I go through and prioritize. I get busy answering emails and try to deal with logistical things first. I may have to drive to various parts of the city to get supplies and then back to the studio to work. Around 8 p.m., I usually cook dinner or meet up with friends, walk the Silver Lake reservoir….

Do you listen to music while you work? 

I don’t usually listen to music while I work.

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What are you currently working on?

I am working on new drawings, a large paneled screen/sculpture and smaller wall reliefs that are monochromatic.

What material do you go through the most of?

Bristol paper, aluminum, acrylic paint, rivets.

nora shields

What medium/ tool/ color are you most interested in presently and why?

I’m really into white and black, green and blue, but I am pretty obsessed with all colors…

What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?

There are so many to list but here are two. Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch. I saw it after I had recently visited Detroit. The visuals of Detroit and Morocco were beautiful and became characters themselves. I loved the sets, lighting, Tilda Swinton’s wardrobe, all the brocade, books, velvet curtains, embroidery, Moroccan tiles, Ray Bans at night, and the theme of an immortal romance! Also, my friend Kim Fisher gave me The White Album by Joan Didion for Christmas. There is a five-page section on Georgia O’Keeffe–she has always been an artist I admire. There are a few sentences on how her flower paintings have been sentimentalized. That is interesting in terms of viewership and perspective, the position of artist and the general public.

What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Live in abundance.

Photos by Tyler William Parker for SIXTY Hotels

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