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Spotlight: Paper like a thunderstorm

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Christina Stock Photo Roswell Artist-in-Residence Masha Sha in her studio. Choosing the art for her exhibit at the Roswell Museum and Art Center was difficult she said. The artist's favorite media is graphite on tracing paper.

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Roswell Artist-in-Residence Masha Sha’s exhibit ‘Unsaid’ is infused with symbolism and poetry

By Christina Stock

Vision Editor

The written word may connect, confuse, stun, anger or even incite love. Authors inspire with their imagination adventurers and travelers. Translated, the written word connects cultures and countries. Included into art, words reach into the imagination of artists as well as onlookers. This is the case with Roswell Artist-in-Residence (RAiR) grant winner Masha Sha, who’s exhibit “Unsaid,” is inspired by authors such as Rainer Maria Rilke, her encounters with people and the nature surrounding Roswell and her place of birth: Earth’s coldest and harshest environments that is home to a unique flora and fauna and to unique people. Nine hours from Moscow, Sha was raised in an airport that served the Chukotka area, also known as Chukchi Peninsula, the east-most peninsula of Asia in the Russian far east.

Sitting down with Sha during an interview at her studio on the RAiR compound, the artist made sure that her son Sasha was entertained before talking about her work and life.

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Sha speaks in a gentle melodic singsong accent and said, after being asked about her origin, “To tell the truth, it is hard to say where I am from in our days, but I am Russian. I am constantly trying to answer (it) in my art. I am born in Russia, very close to Alaska, so I can confidently say I am from (the) tundra. Out of my window, I could see tundra and rolling hills. It was amazing, seeing no borders. I think it was a huge influence.”

Sha said that the tundra seeped into her and formed her personality. This vastness of space reflects in her exhibit. Her medium of choice is graphite on tracing paper. Working mostly on the floor of the studio, one can see the traces of pencils and graphite. Sha said that she dislikes being restricted by material or space, and that is one of the reasons she enjoys working with tracing paper, which is fragile, but at the same time tough. Her drawings are not limited — Sha decides when it ends and only then does she cut the finished drawing off of the paper roll.

All this Sha traces back to her family and the tundra. “It also defined my destiny, because since then, I moved all over in different places,” Sha said. “It is like three generations of my family I know; they never grew up where they were born, children never stayed where they were. (Her father is from Siberia, while her mother is from Riga, Latvia.) Me, growing up in Chukotka, I went to school there, I moved to Saint Petersburg after high school. I didn’t know what to do with myself, none of my family members are artists. I have never seen anything like this (pointing to her art), growing up.”

Her first encounter with art happened when she came to Saint Petersburg, looking for something to inspire her, trying out different things, she said. Sha found her way into a technical college for photographers. “That was my first step into the art world,” she said. “I was so fascinated, about the image, frame, the angle, what is in the frame, what is outside the frame and who is taking the camera, the intonation, all of this. So much you can see; what is not in the picture and why is it in the picture?”

Sha said that photography and video art — though she still loves the media and never gets tired of human faces — was soon not enough to express herself. After she achieved an undergraduate degree at the University of Culture, she graduated from Pro Arte Institute in Saint Petersburg. The foundation accepted only 15 students and Sha was one to be accepted, despite her saying that she didn’t know anything about contemporary art. “At the time, contemporary art, it was not a big thing in Russia, classical art was very strong,” Sha said. “This was a really crazy first foundation for art understanding. I didn’t come from a classical tradition, I came from the image, appreciation of the image. A lot of people around me were between this world of classical art and contemporary art. And it is still now in Russia, after 10-15 years.”

When a friend of hers received a full scholarship in the U.S., she suggested to Sha to apply as well.

“I applied — it was a few weeks before deadline — I got a scholarship and was able to travel to (the) U.S. It was very important for me. I went to the media art department in Buffalo, New York. I was running a little animation, a little video art, but I started drawing there,” she said.

Sha was discouraged to study drawing in Saint Petersburg because she said students had to be at the academy for up to four years doing only studies of models — typical for a classic art education. When she arrived in the U.S., a new way of life and of arts opened for her.

She received an Master of Fine Arts in media studies from the University at Buffalo, New York as a Fulbright Scholar. Her continued curiosity in the moving image led her to complete The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation in Rochester, New York.

Sha said there is still worldwide tension between scholars favoring the classic arts versus contemporary art. She said that it may be because a small group of people consider themselves more educated in the arts, looking down on the younger generation who confront them or want to try something new.

“When I was teaching, I would tell my students after the class you can come to the art walk, you don’t have to know anything, you just let it speak to you,” Sha said. “If it doesn’t, it’s OK. Not all art will speak to everybody but you don’t need to be afraid or expect that you are not smart enough or good enough, you just put this away, just let it talk to you. Maybe it does something for you, maybe not.”

The exhibit “Unsaid” at RMAC will feature Sha’s drawings, though she said it was very difficult to decide which ones of her body of work she should select. The ones remaining at the studio are just as thought-provoking as those in the exhibit.

The drawings themselves show more than the obvious. Sha said that most people, when they hear the word drawing, they think of portraits or a landscape in museums. Drawing is more for her, Sha said, “Drawing is traces of the car on the dirt road or airplane marks in the sky. A drawing, it’s a mark. What is fantastic about drawing, it’s so unique, it’s like a handwriting. You can see it through this little small thing; you can see the whole persona. This mark of treasure, honesty, immediacy and unpredictable thing — drawing. It is always a reflection (also with the public), that’s why the material is lately graphite, because it is a reflection.”

Some of her artworks in the exhibit are based on road signs, others are distorted or rearranged words with hidden meanings. She said she would like to see the audience having the same reaction to it as she had creating them.

“One of my inspirations are road trips, just traveling — it is my art process,” Sha said. “It is really long and tedious and meditative like with those ones (at this point of the interview, she pointed at the remaining art in the studio). It is like driving at night for eight or nine hours. You are alert but you are not super-focused, focused in a different way. It is something like being with yourself in this kind of way, a state you can’t control.

“There are two drawings in the show, they are Roswell observations, I let you discover it,” Shaw said.

The choice of art material is important to Sha, “You have to fall in love with your materials,” she said. “And I am in love with this, when I found this tracing paper, I couldn’t stop drawing — graphite and pencils: I completely fell in love with these materials. And when you move them, the sound, it is like a thunderstorm.”

Sha said the tracing paper fits her traveling spirit, and she compared the rolls with medieval travelers’ rugs they took with them and her ancestors who were nomadic Tatars, their history reaching back to the 5th century. The Tatars later became part of the armies of the conqueror Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. Sha said she could carry her entire body of art in just one large bag.

Asked if she felt home in Roswell, Sha said, “You are so right. When I went to Bitter Lake and looked at this yellow grass and space — why does it feel so good? It took me a few months, and I said, ah, this looks like tundra. Because I do believe in this kind of imprint you have as a little child, it does something to you.”

Sha said the silence surrounding her at the artist compound amazes her, especially at night. One of her drawings reflects that vastness. “It is not literally stars,” she said about the drawing. “But when we are looking at the stars, it’s mostly two moments: You’re either really happy or super-distressed. It’s more like some kind of map.”

Sha said that when she looks at stars, she is thinking of her grandfather who said to her, “Masha, you should not only look at your feet, you should remember to look at stars.”

Asked why she chose the title “Unsaid,” for her exhibit, Sha said, “It is really a strange time and place. Sometimes you can’t trust the environment because you are scared and don’t want to be hurt, but sometimes (it is) unsaid because you don’t have to say to understand. It is a strange place, which could be very comforting and lovely, or a place of distrust.”

“Trust” is the title of one of the drawings in the exhibit, a fractured text shows its fundament. “It is such a painful and hurtful thing and can be easily broken,” Sha said. “How to deal with that? Is it possible, and you have to rebuild it, if you want to move forward. Some are beautiful quiet things, you don’t want to share because they are sacred. Sometimes it can’t be expressed between two people or the words not found, you can give it a shape but you can’t express it.”

Sha said that she is planning to remain in Roswell after her residence is over.

Sha received the International Award of Recognition from STRABAG in Vienna, Austria (2014) as well as the Young Artist Prize for “Innovation” in Moscow, Russia (2006).

Sha’s exhibit “Unsaid” will be at the Marshall and Winston Gallery in the RMAC, 1011 N. Richardson Ave., until June 11.

For more information, visit roswell-nm.gov/1259/Roswell-Museum-Art-Center or call 575-624-6744.

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