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From the Vault: Unsaid

Submitted Art “Lover,” by Masha Sha, 2021, graphite and black lead on tracing paper

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Roswell Museum and Art Center

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

Masha Sha was born in Chukotka, Russia, the easternmost and least populous part of the country. That close to the Arctic Circle, the land is mostly tundra — cold, expansive, and flat — and Sha grew up under a wide open sky. Eventually, she made her way to Saint Petersburg to study drawing and video art, but had to fight against the classical traditions of the Russian art establishment. Sha then made her way to the United States, getting a MFA in Media Studies and later attending the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation in Rochester, New York.

Though her drawings may look simple and straightforward, Sha thinks deeply about her work and about art itself. She understands that art does not have to duplicate reality, nor does anyone have to draw in a prescribed way. Sometimes she draws letters and words, which is a different process from writing, both physically and conceptually. Other times she draws abstract shapes and lines, feeling her way across the paper, but also aware of how her emotion will later be commodified. Sha is open to chaos, emptiness, contradictions, absurdity and playfulness, and she revels in each unique moment as an opportunity to make an original mark.

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Aware that most people think of drawings as small objects, Sha challenges their expectations by making her drawings enormous. Using only a few basic materials, Sha combines thousands of tiny lines to create her oversized drawings. Her primary medium is graphite, a soft mineral with a slight reflective sheen. This gray material, the same that is used in standard pencils in differing levels of purity, is a form of carbon and one of the three oldest minerals on earth. It’s also an excellent conductor of electricity and Sha enjoys the idea that her works might be actively moving energy around. She uses a very pure form of graphite for her drawings, as well as black lead — essentially charcoal, another form of carbon — if she needs a darker color for contrast. Sha occasionally uses other media as well, like crayon, but generally sticks with the graphite and black lead. For paper, she prefers tracing paper. It’s thin, light, easy to hang, and easy to roll up and transport. Plus it comes in rolls rather than sheets, so her work is not constrained by the size of the substrate.

In terms of process, Sha needs complete solitude in order to free her mind and draw. She is not project-oriented and doesn’t approach a drawing with the expectation of making a specific kind of work. Sha reads poems. She takes walks. The desert reminds her of her childhood home in the tundra with its wide open spaces and flat, barren landscapes. Both are mythological places of strength. Sha takes inspiration from other artists, as well. She points to Kazimir Malevich, the Russian artist who forwarded abstract art in the early 20th century through his suprematist movement that sought to develop a form of expression where pure feeling and spirituality reigned supreme.

Another artist that inspires her is James Castle. Born Deaf in rural Idaho in 1899, Castle was a self-taught artist who is often included under the label “folk art.” He made ink from soot scraped out of the family stove, mixed it with his own saliva, and applied it with tools he made himself from sharpened sticks and bits of cotton. His drawings are raw, real and spontaneous.

The title of Sha’s exhibition, currently on display at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, is “Unsaid.” While looking over the drawings she produced during the pandemic, Sha noticed that many of them addressed a breakdown in communication. Either this breakdown was physical, as in the works that contain the words “breathing” or “wind” — because air is necessary to speak — or it was a breakdown in connection: A lack of trust, withholding that which needs to be expressed, or fearing that your deepest truths will go unheard or be unwelcome. These concepts appear in the show in the words “unanswered,” “disappearing,” or “lover,” which starts a cheerful white but soon shades to black. Sha says that the unsaid is a place that is problematic but full of potential and opportunities to bring honesty to yourself. If you’d like to see the show and consider what you have left “unsaid,” the exhibit is open until June 11.

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