Welcome, Wonderful & Weirds, to the first of a new project of mine. This year I decided to create a series of portraits of artists who in some way or another (some ways you might not expect, and some that will require some uncomfortable admissions from me) have had some influence on my growth as an artist.
The reason I wanted to do this is that I have recently come through another period of significant change in my life and work, which made me introspective on the subject of all the moments in my life when something in my “artist trajectory” was influenced by some realization triggered by a fellow artist who is a relative stranger to me.
I used to be a portrait artist by trade, but will now no longer be working in this field. So a project to close out that period of my life seemed like a fun thing to do. And to do them in the style of the new Tiny Dark theatre series, well that would be even more fun! obviously!.
To narrow down the list I decided to make it a rule that A. the artist must still be alive and B. must not be in my life personally. The second stipulation is to keep in line with the musing on the way people we never meet in person can touch our lives, and the way artistic expression is so interconnected through our collective.
The plan is to create one portrait every month for a year while running a contest for someone to become the 13th portrait. So clearly I am already behind. January was a write off for me due to illness and so far in February my beloved dog The Rose has been diagnosed with a return of her cancer, so requires significant care. So to get back on track there will be two portraits in March and in April.
Well without farther ado
“Don’t ask me for something I can’t ask you for”~ Ugly Shyla
Ugly Shyla is an artist and alt model from Louisiana who has been active in the alt art world since 1996. She is most well known for OOAK fine art dolls with a morbid and beautifully dark aesthetic inspired by “dreams and .. religious, spiritual and occult imagery.” The religious & occult imagery inspirations being related to Voodoo. The dolls have been featured in St. Elizabeth’s Doll Museum as well as galleries and art shows. And were photographed for John Santerineross’ photography book, “Dream.”.
And as a model she is instantly recognizable for her signature bright blue hair, tattoos, piercings and makeup style. But before you start thinking this sounds like a familiar description of some very online people “these days”, you can stop right there. Shyla is as genuine as it gets and that is where we start with why she is our first portrait in this series.
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”~ Frida Kahlo
In the tale “The emperors new clothes” we get a story about speaking truth to power, questioning authority and not going along with the crowd that is so effective it has become part of our general lexicon. We know that when someone invokes this image it is to say that something claims to be something it is not or lacks substance despite popularity and no one will admit it for fear of standing out. A related lesson just as important can be found in that tale that is less often featured. We are social creatures who seek connection and to see their reflection in others. But we can only find that community if we are honest about who we are. When we are not then we can get a situation like in the story where no one will say what they truly see because they believe everyone else sees something else (which I mean technically they do, everyone creates their own reality bubble with their perception that no one else can ever experience. But thats not the point, stay on topic)
Community connection Vs empty Validation
I first ‘met’ Shyla on myspace in the early 2000’s. She was one of the first alt artists to reach out to me, and featured my work on her page, something she did, and still does, often. Over the next few days the number of new followers commenting “Shyla sent me” was more than I could have imagined. Before long I was leaving “Shyla sent me” messages on so many great artists pages too. Many I still follow now, and even some still follow me despite the fact that after the release of my first two short films I deleted, or locked down, my online presence for years.
Artists are naturally outcasts at the best of times. So it makes sense that we should form our own communities. But my experience, and I know Shyla’s too, was of cliques and snobbery and hierarchy and everyone playing a superficial game and ending up the same. The fine art doll world can be a, what’s a word for it?….gentrified? one. And while Shyla has the technical chops to craft pretty dolls, she typically is trying to communicate something more than that. As stated above that “something” comes from dreams and religious imagery, but importantly – honesty. Forces coming from within, that an artist is compelled to release. Of course that leads to the creation of the kind of work that isn’t always welcome in those “gentrified” spaces. But if you assume that things would be the opposite in “alt” spaces …..then you haven’t spent much time in there.
Just like her work Shyla herself is not going to fit into a neat box – too “spiritual” for the atheist set, too “Satanic” for the spiritual set. Too “liberal” in one area too “conservative” in another and far too broad a range of interests …”you have a great look! come in, oh wait you like that kind of music, never mind”. It is all too easy to say “fine I’ll go it alone then, fuck everyone” Which was my response and course for years.
Although in my teens and twenties, I always got on well with the Elder Goths in the scene, I was often at odds with the cliques my own age. One reaction to this was to attempt to wind them up on purpose, I suppose so I could laugh at their petty attacks rather than be hurt by them. But I still was anyway if I’m being honest.
And animators don’t tend to work the way I do, so I always felt outside there too. They typically use storyboards and know exactly what will happen in what fraction of a second well in advance. Which is great, I love that, but it’s not how I approach what I’m doing. I work from my dreams and spiritual/philosophical life. I visualize and travel through the images that come to me, explore the story and animate from there. And when “mistakes” happen? I like to take the Bob Ross doctrine on that one most of the time! But it took me a long time to accept that and be brave enough to work in my own way rather than trying to do it “right” (that will be another portrait topic! so stay tuned!)
I think it is the authenticity (ugh I couldn’t think of a less cringy word) of feeling compelled to express something true from within, that enables an artist to maintain a distinctive style over many mediums. Shyla has achieved this, working in dolls, mixed media painting and jewlery and even her modeling work. A Style that is consistent, honest, unapologetic and as often imitated as it is criticized.
Shyla reaching out to artists, helping them establish themselves and make connections in a system so often stacked against them is a great thing, we can all take note of and strive to do the same. It is a much healthier response to being outcast than the “fuck everyone” response we can so often fall into (and I am including myself in that!)
Now some people though seem to think that if a person is willing to reach out and help others that they should just give them whatever they want without any meaningful return! In short they try to take advantage….I do not recommend this! Shyla does not take shit from anyone!
This portrait was crafted in the style of my upcoming Tiny Dark Theatre series, which takes inspiration from toy paper theatres and pop-up books, to tell Fairy Tales and more. Since the forest is a heavy theme in my work, due to it’s symbolism of the place you go to find the truth, all of the portraits will be set in some kind of forest scene. I cut the trees from paper, painted the background using Black 3.0 by Stuart Semple. This helps to give more of a visual impression of depth because it is the “blackest” matte black available to the public (not available to Anish Kapoor. Check out Semple’s store, he is doing “god’s work” some really cool paints and pigments). All colour in the piece is coloured pencils. I like the softness of colour pencils because it reminds me of illustrations in some of my favorite books of fairy tales from my childhood (I also sometimes use ink and watercolours)
There are three layers of papercut trees plus the figures. The reason for the presence of the doll in the background of this portrait, with her dark dreamy look and religious elements is obvious. But you might wonder about the Squirrels if you are new to Ugly Shyla’s work. One thing that Shyla is best known for outside of her art is being “Squirrel Mama” to the famous painting squirrel Winkelhimer Smith and a paraplegic squirrel named Mr Man..
If you have somehow not heard of Winkelhimer Smith I don’t know what you have been doing with your life, but she is an artist in her own right, obviously Shyla’s artistic energy just rubbed off on her!. Shyla rescued Wink from a cat when she was a very young squirrel. Her injuries meant she could not be released back into the wild so she moved in to live in Shyla’s studio. She started to “copy” Shyla by holding paint brushes and painting pictures. When a video of her doing this went viral they were featured on pretty much every news network . Winklehimer Smith paintings went on sale with all Proceeds going to charity.
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”― Émile Zola
In conclusion I chose Ugly Shyla as the first of the 13 portraits because she was the first artist to reach out to me and show me that the scene can, if we let it be…and make it be…a place that is welcoming and accepting, while still not tolerating intolerance. And that raises new artists up rather than tearing them down, while helping each other out rather than vying for top-dog-spot.
And while that is a good enough reason on it’s own, I think its important to also point out how important fearlessness is for an artist. Fearlessness in self, in honesty, in compassion, in craft and in interaction. Even if you are terrified inside…..which we all are.
Thanks for reading, have a weird & wonderful day, I’ll see you on the next page.