Talking Animals: The Anthropromorphic Works of Shanice Helena
Navigating through the simple process of life is at most times a daunting task. Trying to reach an audience of people and have them communicate ideas and stories has always plagued the human population. However, one such artist may have a way of breaking that cycle. Shanice Helena's art focuses on the means of bringing people into communicate through animals and patterns, taking ordinary activities in life and placing animals instead of human participants. I recently had the chance to discuss the dialog she hopes to achieve with her printmaking.
' The Afternoon Gathering'
Well, I guess the real reason for me wanting to make art is for the sake of getting a variety of people who would never acknowledge one another, to just break out of their typical routine and just communicate with the person next to them. Talking to people has always been a bit of a challenge for me, mostly because the art of communication has so many rules that makes it so difficult to say what you need to say without coming off as insensitive.
There is no freedom in speaking in public like there's freedom in making something with your own two hands, and I think that's because people are too afraid, or unaware of how to start that kind of conversation. The easiest way for me to show people what I see in our society and culture is through anthropomorphic images that embody specific traits and qualities of everyday people. I see characteristics in people who come from years of social manipulation, mainly the media telling them to “do this” and/or “be that” just to not offend. But what we don't see is that we offend each other all the time by building barriers that separates one class of person from another, which, ironically, is how we treat animals. There are so many species of animals in the world, but we'd never want to treat them as anything more. That is why I choose to make art. Art gives me the freedom to touch on these sort of social issues that keeps people from wanting to talk about them.
How would you describe your art?
My art consists of a variety of controversial images that reflect a lot of social stigmas and lifestyles that I see everyday. I use a lot of repetitive patterns throughout my images to not distract the viewer from the concept of the piece. Along with repetition of lines, shapes and values, I also have my figures either conversing with one another, or conversing with the viewer while they continue to behave as naturally as possible: this creates the surreal effect you see in my figures, along with the enthusiasm of the animal playing off of the theme I've created. When applying all of these different elements into one image, you're able to take it in as easily as reading a book, where the image begins on one side of the page and continues across the other end, from top to bottom until there is nothing left to read anymore. In a sense, you have both an analogy displayed as an allegory only to get the viewer to figure out the message in the image itself. The image might be pointing out a flaw of humanity, but it is not telling you to change. It tells you what is happening, and it is the viewer who determines why it is happening and if they like it or not.
' In Hibernation'
What drew you to printmaking?
It's kind of a funny story, really. I never heard of printmaking, or even knew what intaglio was until my second year of college. As an Art Studio Major, I have to complete at least four foundation classes in order to obtain my degree, and choosing printmaking was more of a last resort than something I was passionate about. What I really wanted to do was ceramics, but the ceramics class was full and I was running out of time to register for a class; printmaking just happened to be the only class available and perfect for my crazy schedule.
The first time I tried producing a print was a disaster. I didn't understand the process of aqua tinting and had left my plate in the acid for too long, causing it to almost deteriorate. But the end result really impressed my professor and he encouraged me to keep going, his faith in me never wavering. The next few times I tried printing, I kept making a lot of mistakes. I'd either ruin the plate by over-etching it, or wouldn't ink it enough to produce an actual image, just these faded unrecognizable lines. But somewhere along the way I finally got angry and just decided to just wing it. I made up my own style while also applying the ones we learned, and that's when it started to feel right to me. Instead of following the process to creating a successful print by the book, I just threw myself into it until it started to make sense to me, and when I finally figured out how to do what I needed to do the rest came naturally. After figuring out how to make an intaglio print I soon became in love with the art form and its history, becoming a bit obsessed with the practice on my spare time. By the end of Print 1 I had produced my first successful anthropomorphic piece, “Young Love” in 2012, and it was a hit. Everyone wouldn't stop talking about it for weeks, and hearing all the reactions from people who walked by it made me wonder what else I could produce. How far could I take this idea, and what other ways could I produce similar images with different techniques? Print 2 was easier, because I already knew what to do, but what I really wanted was to find a better way of doing it with a routine I could call my own. Before I knew it, I was taking more and more print classes, creating larger, more controversial images until a theme began to form. Once I figured out what that theme was, and how I wanted to approach it, it was hard to stop making more of them. By the end of Print 4, I decided to get my BFA in printmaking, not because it was the easiest form of medium I've ever learned, but because I wanted others to see what I've made and how I've made it.
Seeing all of my prints together, I realized that they did have something to say to the world, but no one would ever be able to know if I never took the risk to display them in public. So I did, and to my surprise a lot of people began to respond to the prints immediately in all kinds of ways that gave me the courage I needed to continue making more, sticking to the same style and theme, but with a different idea every time.
Why animals in your art, what drew you to give them human characteristics?
Well the first print I made, “Young Love”, was so successful with my audience because the idea of an elephant- a symbol of wisdom in a lot of cultures- behaving unwisely like young people in our culture and society, is ironic. Elephant's are wise, and when you really think about it, they have an amazing memory when it comes to their own kind. Although they migrate from one place to another, they never forget when another elephant has gone, or where it happened, and always find their way back to those nostalgic places even though they're animals. And when you take that symbol of what that animal represents to one culture, and combine it to human characteristics of what we think of each other, and how we treat one another, what we get from that is a reality slap. We are not as perfect as we think we are when compared to these animals, but cannot see it that way because they are lesser than us. They cannot communicate, we can, yet they have a better relationship with one another. What I've realized from producing these anthropomorphic images is the analogy that can be easily pointed out by people viewing the works. On one side you have animals behaving naturally, just being animals, but when they are drawn doing something similar to what we do everyday, the joke isn't that funny anymore, it's cruel. And it's not the animal dressed like a human that's cruel anymore, it's the realization that they would never treat one another the way we treat each other. So you're given two types of symbolic references, one of the animal in its natural state, and one of the human in its natural state. When you combine those two elements you begin to realize that there's something wrong with the way our society is behaving through the eyes of these animals. It turns out that the human characteristics are far more unnatural and disturbing than the animal characteristics. The animal's I use always tell you something of the culture of the person, before you are able to figure out why they work so well together. It always comes down to the fact that we share the same characteristics with these animal's because we sometimes feel as though we are treated like them, but cover it up with our own ideals and values because our society tells us to. And once we are able to come to terms with that harsh reality, we then start to figure out what we mean to one another in the sense of what these animals mean to us.
What do you hope to achieve with your artwork?
Well, like I mentioned before, I really only want people to start communicating with one another in a way they can eventually respect each others opinion without being afraid of coming across as insensitive. I feel like displaying my work in galleries doesn't really accomplish that because there's that familiar rule of conversation that does not allow that sort of freedom in speaking one's own mind to surface. I think I can accomplish what I want to see in people if I just display the works in places where people tend to not communicate with one another, not the opposite. Growing up in the Bronx, I had to take the bus and train with hundreds of other people every single day, and there were always different art works being advertised inside train carts, or on the side of the transits, and eventually, if the image struck a nerve, or seemed hilarious to more than one person, there would always be this short moment where two strangers would actual acknowledge each other because they were looking at the same thing. And although these moments were brief, what always happened next, was someone would take a picture of it so they could show it to someone else, or someone walking or standing by would notice what everyone else was looking at and become interested in it too. I find that these tactics of displaying art, finding interesting artwork in places you wouldn't really find them, is the best way to showcase art that really has something to say, not hanging it up in an enclosed space. Being able to pull someone out of their everyday routine for just a few minutes, long enough for them to figure out what they are looking at and how they feel about it, is really the biggest thing I can achieve rather than having everyone know who I am because I don't make these images for myself, I make them for you. For everyone, really.
Who has influenced you the most?
I'd have to say my printmaking professor, Joseph Hildreth has really motivated me to push the limits of my abilities with my pieces, inspiring me to create more and more as the years go by, only because he's been the only person who recognized something in me that I didn't see in myself before. I've got to give him a lot of credit when it comes to teaching me the process of printmaking and the immense opportunities that comes along with learning about the practice, but also the level of patience and work that comes with producing a successful image. Others who have influenced me are my English Literature professors who have given me enough literary knowledge of different genres of people that I apply to my artwork. I think that knowing a lot about different cultures and forms of writing definitely inspires a lot of the human characteristics you see in most of my images, mainly because they can be related to a specific book ones read in their life, or spark an interest to learn more about these types of characters being written about. A lot of my character's are inspired by Victorian Era novels, Modernist female writers, Restoration Period plays that center around the behaviors of the aristocrats vs. the poor, Gothic Romanticism art, Contemporary art movements like the Beat Generation, and most importantly Multicultural diversity found within a range of cultural related literature. As for the people who have influenced me to even create such images, to approach this sort of theme, I would have to say it comes from the society we live in now. Every person who crosses my path, or the people we read about in newspapers and social media contents inspire me to keep going with my work because there's so much going on in the world and all around us that we forget or are unaware of because we're so focused on our own problems that we just don't want to believe that someone else has it worse.
' Four Bucks and Some Change'
What inspires you?
The easiest way to answer it, is people. People of all different cultures and forms and kinds are so interesting to me because not one person is the same. I like finding different qualities in people, and learning what makes someone do something good, bad, great and terrible because its a reminder that we're just all in the same boat. We're all just trying to figure out what's the best way to make it through the day, and when you really think about it, people are the cause of a lot of our everyday decisions, whether its going to work, or school, or wearing the outfit you picked out today, or where you decide to eat tomorrow. A majority of the choices we make in our life depends on someone else's reaction to it. We motivate each other even when we don't want to talk to each other, and we all want something from one another which is why we find the strength to get out of bed. A lot of it has to do with what we think of ourselves as humans, but when you really think about it, people affect us far more than we affect ourselves because we search for a reflection of our self in someone else. We rely so much on others that without them, we are sort of lost or never really complete, and its terrifying to realize that you're alone even though there are people around you. So we work hard to not feel that way, and I think that inspires me to want to make people communicate so much, no matter what the topic of conversation is. Not to get someone out of their shell and finally socialize, but to make them realize that they are not as alone as they think they are.
What is your favorite season?
I'd have to say autumn, not because of the change in colors the leaves begin to show, or the fact that I look better in dark colors, but because I've always enjoyed seeing something come apart gradually, or shift from one state to another over a period of time. There's just something so calming in knowing that you're not the only thing that changes within time; other things like trees, plants, customs and even someone's mood is being affected by something as uncontrollable as the weather. I do like all the other seasons too, but I feel as though autumn is of a much shorter season than all the others, so people tend to like it more because they know it's not going to last very long.
If you could take on any other artistic endeavor what would it be?
I've always been interested in learning about music, mostly string instruments like the violin, the piano and the guitar. Mostly, because I think people who can play these instruments show a passion for the instruments. I like to watch people's hands moving, especially their fingers, and when a musician is playing his/her instrument there's a lot of love and patience and respect for the object that allows them to produce the kind of tune that reflects their emotion. The rapidity of fingers moving across keys, or up and down frets makes me appreciate how amazing the human body can be, taking on multiple things at once to create something as simple as a melody.
' Old Habits'
What is on your current play list?
I like a range of different things, but at the end of the day I always gravitate back to alternative rock music. It's what I would listen to when I was in high school, and when I was fifteen I wasn't aware of how influential rock music was. I just listened to it because I was angsty and angry all the time. Now in my twenties I realize I liked that sort of music so much because I now have real problems that I could be angsty about and understand the world differently through the experiences I've had as an adult living on my own, paying for my own things and having to work so hard to get them. Band's I really like to listen to are Linkin Park, The Pretty Reckless, Three Days Grace and 30 Seconds to Mars. But then there are days when I tone it back down to Jazz and R&B. Ella Fitzgerald is amazing, along with Norah Jones and Lauryn Hill. These women are just so amazing, and have such outstanding vocals that you can't really help but try to sing along with them whenever one of their songs comes up.
How do you practice faith?
I'm not very religious. I try very hard to stay away from any talk of religion and practices, mostly because I don't care for them and don't want to be forced to have to be a part of that kind of community. When I was a kid, my mother was very into her Catholic faith that she put me and my sister in an all girl's Catholic school. I hated it. I didn't like that we all had to wear the same uniform, had to recite the same prayers, and older women in abbots terrify me. When I was a teenager in high school, my mother decided that she no longer cared for her Catholic roots and decided to immerse herself with the teachings of Hinduism. She began to practice meditating, eating a lot of vegetables and treating everyone with the same kindness she hoped to receive. I can sort of understand why she's so fascinated with the Hindu culture so much because I do enjoy their artwork and customs as well, but watching my mother bounce from one religion to another made me realize how much simpler it would be for me to just believe in myself. If I can at least believe that I can do something, or something good will come my way if I'm patient and committed to my tasks, then opportunities will eventually present themselves to me. I don't really care about being judged, or understood. It's taken me a very long time to realize that as long as I'm comfortable with myself as a person, then I'm truly happy, and that's all I could ever ask for when it comes to faith.
If there is one thing you would like people to know about you, what would it be?
A lot of people wouldn't guess it, but I'm not African-American, I'm actually Dominican-American. I get profiled as African-American a lot because of my skin tone, the texture of my hair and the way I articulate when I speak, but when those aspects are immediately considered non-Hispanic I get so angry. I'm always having to explain the difference between Africa and the Dominican Republic, or why I don't have that authentic Hispanic accent everyone familiarizes someone from a tropical island with. And it's not like I'm stating something against being African-American. I just don't like being called something I'm not. I honestly think that racially profiling someone because of the way they look and behave is hurtful and ignorant, and shouldn't have to happen as often as it does. But you can't educate everyone. I'm proud to be Dominican-American, and to have the ability to speak two languages fluently while also being able to understand two cultures separately. I try to keep in mind the struggles my mother had to undergo when she came to this country just so her children could get a proper education, and to be considered anything but Dominican because I don't “look the part” can be a bit irritating, especially when you go to school in the North Country. I want people to know that I'm Dominican-American because I'm not ashamed of my parent's ethnicity, and I don't think I should have to hide it from everyone who considers me “black” because they “didn't know”. I like to tell people of my Hispanic background because I want people to understand that children of Hispanic parents can also accomplish a lot in art as well as in any other subject, and it shouldn't have to come as a shock to the rest of the world either. I figured I'd make that clear before it happened again.
Out of all of your pieces, which is your favorite and why?
I don't really have a favorite, I sort of like them all (ha ha). But the one I closely associate myself with would have to be “Evening Wear”. When making this print, I wanted a piece that embodied a powerful female figure, and so I researched a lot of female deities and iconography before I was able to figure out which one suited my style the best. I went with the Roman's because they've always had powerful female figures in their culture and were so amazed by the female nude that they depicted a lot of their Goddesses as nude because it made them so powerful to be so bare. Exposing the female body to the world in that way made women seem fearless, and when a woman is fearless she is also flawless. The giraffe wasn't supposed to look so seductive. She was suppose to be more comical because of her facial expression and the hint of her painted nails on her bare shoulder, but once I had drawn the figure out I realized the reason why she looked so sexy was because she was fearless. The length of her neck slowly morphing into her human spine while her giraffe spots fade down her back, and the smirk she gives you because she's aware that you're staring at her...it really speaks volumes. For someone whose always been the tallest girl in her class and has always been made fun of for it, being able to capture that fire, grace, intelligence and sex appeal of my figure makes me secretly hope that this is how people see me when I'm having one of my brave days and decide to put on my four inch heels. When I look at this print I like to think, “if I just convince myself that I am like a giraffe (long, elegant, and graceful) I will eventually become a giraffe, and finally feel confident enough in myself to be the Goddess I know I am.” And that's what I want people—women especially—to see themselves as when they look at this print, and finally just appreciate themselves for who they are and what they look like. The title, “Evening Wear” kind of comes off as ironic because you can't really tell what time of day it is, and she definitely isn't dressed to be seen in public, but her confidence in her own skin is her best outfit and you're just suppose to take her as she is.
' Evening Wear'
Which piece is your least favorite? Do you wish that you could remake it?
I guess it would have to be “The Preparation”, mainly because it's the only print where the animal is least recognizable. I enjoy people reacting to the animal's features just as much as the human characteristics they are displaying, but with this print I couldn't figure out how to work with the peacock's face and the girl's body language. I made so many different sketches of this same idea, and the best I could come up with as to show more of the human than the animal. If I were to remake this image, I think I'd just bring out more of the bird in the face than anything else because no one can ever guess what kind of bird she's suppose to be until they see the peacock feathers in the details of her hair. But the concept still remains the same, “girls trying to become something beautiful through the process of putting on make-up”. I titled this piece “The Preparation” because as a girl, it takes a lot for me to feel like my outer image is prepared to take on the day, and I go through a process in the morning when I'm getting “ready” to go somewhere, which I'm sure a lot of us go through as well. The reason why she's a peacock is because our society has this idea that the peacock is a symbol of beauty and fashion, and to be a peacock means you're attracting a lot of attention. So I decided to go show my viewers what really goes on when these women who are considered “peacocks” are preparing to go out into the world. It's just like any other process of preparation that we find other people doing in the mornings as well. It also points out the controversy against women being viewed as always “dolled up” when that isn't always true; just like the peacock isn't always considered the ideal symbol of beauty to everyone. There were a lot of ways I could have approached this concept, but in the end this is the one that came out the best, and on some days, if I haven't stared at the areas I find to be its biggest flaws, I can actually see why people like it so much.
' The Preparation'
Originally from the Bronx, Helena currently studies Printmaking at The State University of New York at Potsdam, where a majority of her printmaking has developed in the studio of the college.