Shana James has been exhibiting her art for 23 years, and has been making art since she was a young child. But it was during high school that she found her true artistic voice. . . ever since then, her artwork has been inspired by poetry and song lyrics.
Alyice: How has your art evolved since high school?
Shana: The art I create today has been a gradual evolution, there was no real beginning point. I think I create art better now than I did in high school but it has always been the way I work.
It’s kind of like your handwriting—it just comes out that way.
Alyice: What’s been your greatest success as an artist?
Shana: I get a buzz every time someone buys a piece from me. Recently a buyer tracked me down. She had kept an image from an exhibition I had in 2000. She told me she didn’t have the money to buy anything at the time but she cut out an image from the brochure for the exhibition and put it in a photo frame. She had it hanging on her wall for 10 years.
Now she has more money so she found my website and arranged a studio visit. She bought an oil painting and a framed collograph. When I tried to give her $100 off for buying 2 pieces she refused, insisting on paying full price. A couple of weeks later she posted me a card saying how much she enjoyed owning the work. Now that has to be the high point for me.
Alyice: Many artists dream of having solo exhibits. You’ve had seven. Can you tell us how you got started?
Shana: I loved art at school and went straight from finishing high school to a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Curtin University. When I finished art school I saw an advertisement asking for artists to apply to Artrage, the Fringe Festival in Perth Western Australia where I live. I applied to exhibit with a friend (seemed less daunting) and we were accepted. In the end she pulled out so I had to fill the space myself. That was my first solo exhibition.
A couple of years later, after backpacking around Europe, I applied to be the artist in residence at a small community art centre and was accepted. The residency finished with a solo exhibition which I called “In Progress,” as I felt I was still finding my way and wasn’t as coherent as I would have liked.
About a quarter of the work sold so I took the remaining three quarters around to commercial galleries, always making an appointment first. About four galleries said no, then the director, Briggitte Braun, of Artplace said she would take some work. Even though I wasn’t offered a solo exhibition the work sold well and she offered me an exhibition the following year.
This was the start of a 10 year relationship with a fantastic gallery. So when the gallery downsized its artists and moved to another city, choosing to concentrate on indiginous art, I felt a bit lost. I tried to find another gallery but everyone seemed to have their artists and weren’t interested in expanding.
My sister asked, “What do you need a gallery for?”
I thought about it and decided to have two solo exhibitions myself. I currated and organized everything with the help of my sister. It was then that I realized why galleries need to charge 40% commission; it IS a lot of work! Both of my solo exhibitions sold well, thankfully.
It was also at this time that I got my first website. It was very static and I was unable to update it myself but it was an important part of the exhibitions. The exhibition and the website worked together with people being able to preview the show or discuss work afterwards with a friend or spouse; sometimes even buying the piece afterwards.
Three months ago I got my new website and I am again booked with a gallery for an exhibition. I did 10 paintings and started approaching galleries. This time I got 9 rejections before finding the right place.
Alyice: What was your first showing like?
Shana: It was all drawings, pastel, and colored ink on paper. I made the work sitting on the bedroom floor of a large, turn of the century, house in Fremantle; a house I rented with three others. The drawings were about looking inside people and seeing their emotional state of mind.
The exhibition was called “Looking Inside” and was held at a small independent gallery in the city as part of the Artrange Festival.
All the work was unframed and the gallery offered to frame things people bought adding the cost on. I was 21 and living off a part-time job in an art materials store so I didn’t have the money to frame the exhibition.
I was so amazed when people started to buy my work; so flattered that they liked it enough to hang it on their walls.
Alyice: You’ve had 7 solo art exhibitions, and several group showings, in your career, does it get any easier?
Shana: I think I make better art now than I did in the past. I am more patient and more discerning about what I exhibit. I only show my best work and if it is not my best work I keep working on it.
I’m less shy, more comfortable talking to buyers about my work, and more confident in general. It is still difficult to make a living as an artist. I have always needed to supplement my income with other part-time work. Currently I have the best part-time job, teaching art to adults.
I still have to consciously work at categorizing my time to make sure I spend enough time creating art because without studio time I get grumpy.
The other thing that’s difficult is knowing what to spend time on in terms of finding opportunities. Should I send letters to publishers about children’s book illustration? Should I spend more time on my blog or my Etsy site? Should I be making cards of my art to sell? The list could go on. While I find the artwork gets easier, the marketing has always been difficult for me.
Alyice: How do you go about putting a collection together?
Shana: I keep a sketch book of ideas. Ideas come to you when you’re not looking for them and have a way of drying up when you try to think of them. I scribble down any idea I have into my book, I don’t edit or judge at this stage. Something someone said, a line from a song, I see them in images.
When I’m ready to work I have pages of ideas to draw from. I flick through those pages and something will jump out at me. That’s my starting point.
Now after years of practice a lot of the drawings in my sketch book are in a series. There is a reason many artists exhibit artwork that relates thematically, because it takes you to places you otherwise couldn’t get to.
The exhibition I am working on now is about the growth of the individual, so trees and flowers were obvious symbols of growth. I can’t say everything I want to say in one painting. So then there is another and another. When the ideas flow it is a magical feeling.
When ideas don’t flow, I keep working. There is nothing to be gained by distraction or procrastination. I have my studio days and I spend that time on art. I find that I can work through these blocks much more quickly.
Working in the same size for a series also helps. Scale changes things. I am dealing with enough variables without size jumping around as well. After making a series of small works, in this case six, I felt ready to move to a larger size, which I have now made four of. The gallery I am exhibiting in has two rooms so I think the two sizes will work well in the space and that is an important consideration.
Alyice: In your opinion, what makes a successful exhibit?
Shana: The quality of the art has to come first. Whether it is landscape, abstract, or narrative, it has to be quality work. As for materials I think, if you are selling your art you must buy artist quality materials. You owe it to your buyer, it is not fair if the picture they buy fades because of student grade colors.
Marketing is also very important. This is probably my weakest area but I’m working on it. There is no use having good work if nobody sees it. Art is about communication and connection.
Another thing I think is important is having artwork bought by recognized collectors; this has definitely opened doors for me.