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Shu Mei Chan: The Artist is Present

A skeletal netted form is taking shape piece by twiggy piece on the laundry line behind the workshop. Gillian Jagger Legacy Artist-in-Residence Shu Mei Chan is behind the sculptural growth, carrying tubs of what look like bones of various sizes to the site and unpacking them in piles before linking them into the slowly-growing sheet of white.

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As a “clay-based installation artist,” Shu Mei is interested in the way pieces become part of a larger whole when they accumulate and interact with their environment. “I think of myself as a collector and constructor of moments,” she says. “So It’s not really the objects I’m interested in, it’s in accumulations that become spaces or moments.”

Shu Mei, who has also worked with paper, string, and new technology, is attracted to clay for its “skin-like” tactility. As a post-bacc student in ceramics at Alfred University, she met her mentor Anton Reijnders, who would tell her: Pay attention. Concentrate. The most important thing was relaxing, being present and letting go of any overwrought agendas in artmaking, to let things happen organically.

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The philosophy clicked: “It just seemed the most honest, the most real, way to make art,” she says. Her process is rooted in the belief that often, despite the best intentions, things don’t go according to plan. By fully attending to what naturally happens during her practice, Shu Mei stays open to happy accidents and detours that are often “a lot more interesting” than even her best preconceived ideas.

Shu Mei’s knotty porcelain “sticks” are spindly and delicate, clicking softly like metal when they’re handled. They’ve become a staple of her recent work, but their form itself came about accidentally as she was trying to make slim, smooth skewers – an unexpected detour that shifted her ideas about what she could do with them. Each branchy, eerie piece weighs almost nothing on its own. But for Shu Mei, the magic happens when they tangle together to create larger temporary sculptural landscapes.

“It’s not about the ceramic thing,” she explains. “It’s always about clay in relationship to other things – ceramics as a resonator of sound, or ceramics as a weight or heaviness.”

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Breezes, gravity, sound, light, bluetooth technology, and video projections have all interacted with her quiet netted masses to meditate on permanence. The sculptures expand and compress into different configurations and spaces to respond to their environment, playing quietly with some mischievous polarities: material and non-material, individual and collective, precarious and stable, positive and negative.

Shu Mei has spent her studio residency at WSW testing different clay bodies and stains for her sticks and exploring new ways of incorporating cast paper. And now, finishing up her final two weeks, she hasn’t been able to stop meditating on the image of line drying white sheets. Could she build a sheet from her sticks? Could she build several? What if one of the giant walnuts that have been dropping nonstop from our trees smashes into the porcelain and shatters the fragile net of twigs?

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Shu Mei is unfazed and even laughs at the prospect: “That’s the idea! Or, we’ll see what happens.”

Two buckets of green walnuts sit next to the line, the result of her relaxed responsiveness to what’s been happening around her during her residency. “I’m always in a state of feeling there’s something new and exciting just around the corner that I need to find out.”

 

Shu Mei Chan is a nationally-recognized, clay-based installation artist who “would really, really love to have a party with Sol LeWitt”. She has exhibited across the US and was most recently an artist-in-residence at the Guldagergaard International Ceramic Research Center in Denmark. She holds an MFA from Indiana University, and is currently based in New Jersey. See more of her work at www.shumeichan.com.

Check out more info on WSW’s Legacy Residency Grants, which are hand-selected by our annual gala honorees, here.

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