This is the sixth in a series of interviews with artists participating in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The third OBPC exhibition opens on March 23, 2013, and will run through February 23, 2014. It will feature the works of forty-eight artists in many forms of media.
Q: What is your name, where are you from, where do you live now?
A: My name is Neil Shigley, and I was born in Columbus, Ohio to a military family. I lived in Europe, Asia, and several places in the United States growing up, and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. I now live in San Diego.
Q: What medium(s) do you work with?
A: I work in a number of mediums. The portrait for this exhibition is a block print. Along with printmaking, I paint with acrylics and oils, draw with graphite and charcoal, and make sculptural work in concrete and steel.
Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.
A: The portrait of Michael 67 (Pastor Shelby) is a block-print image. In my portrait work, my focus is to capture the likeness of an individual by using descriptive marks to describe how light hits the forms of the face.
My dream for each portrait is to, in some small way, touch on the human condition. Each portrait starts with a walk around various areas of San Diego, where I talk to people living on the street. I approach them with a great deal of respect. Even though they don’t have a home, they still have a space that is theirs. As an artist I am looking for interesting characters.
When I see someone who intrigues me, I approach them and explain to them that I am an artist and would like to do a portrait of them. Some say yes, some say no. If they agree, I spend some time talking to them about their life, their history, their plans, their dreams, and why they are on the streets.
I take one to two photographs; I don’t try to set the photos up in any way except that they are facing into the light, because I am looking for the most honest portrayal that I can get. From the photo I do a number of drawings.
Once I am satisfied with a drawing, I blow it up to the size of the piece of Plexiglas that will be carved, usually about 36 x 48 inches. I place the drawing behind the Plexiglas and begin carving, using a flexible shaft drill. The carving takes six to eight hours per sheet. The carved Plexiglas is then rolled with ink.
I place a piece of paper over it and rub it by hand to transfer the ink on to the paper. When the ink is dry, I soak the paper in water then adhere it with matt medium to canvas that is stretched over a wood panel. When the piece is dry, I trim the excess paper.
At the top of the piece, I hand-write the name, age, place where I met the sitter, the year, and number of the print, along with my signature. At the bottom of the image, I hand-paint a symbol that is one of many that were used by drifters in the 1930s in the U.S. to relay information about a place to other drifters who may pass that way later. The symbol I choose relates in some way to the individual portrayed.
Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.) and how does it contribute to your art?
A: Being part of a military family I moved a lot as a child. We lived in France, Korea and several places in the United States. My father was very artistic, as was my older brother. I was exposed to the art and culture of everywhere we lived and traveled. That, along with watching my father drawing and painting, is the foundation of my life as an artist.
I majored in painting and printmaking at San Diego State University. There, my work was mostly abstract. I went on to get my degree with distinction from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I majored in illustration and fell in love with wood-block printing.
After graduating, I moved to the New York City area and began a career as an illustrator and fine artist. During my career as an illustrator, I was commissioned many times to make portraits for magazines and other media.
After I moved back to San Diego in 1990, I transitioned to fine art and began teaching. I taught at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, then eventually at San Diego State University, where I currently teach drawing and illustration. I also teach drawing, illustration, and life drawing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
Our life experiences are what enables us and maybe confines us to our artistic expression. I know that my experiences have brought me to the place that I am now with my work. My initial inspiration was watching my father create and feeling his interest and passion for the art and culture of wherever he was at. My education gave me the skills and confidence to pursue my artistic ideas. My career as an illustrator gave me so much experience creating work and specifically portraits. My teaching has honed all of it by forcing me to talk about and refine my ideas.
Q: How did you learn about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition?
A: I received a flyer about the competition. When I saw it, I knew that I had to enter. I remember thinking that to be recognized by this competition would in some way validate this series of portraits of the homeless. I had been working on this series for several years and felt strongly about the value of getting the work out there, especially on a national level, so that more people would be presented the opportunity to contemplate the issue of chronic homelessness.
I cannot express the honor and joy to have been selected as a semifinalist, not to mention a finalist.
Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.
A: I met the subject of the portrait that is part of this exhibition, Michael—or as he wanted to be called, “Pastor Shelby”—the week after Christmas 2011. I was walking in downtown San Diego, in an area where there are many people living on the street. I had a small backpack with my camera and a sketchbook.
When I came across Pastor Shelby, he was sweeping a small area of the sidewalk with a branch. I was immediately struck by his energy and spirit—happy, confident, and direct. He had a little area that he had set up between the sidewalk and a chain-link fence. He had a tarp as a roof and blankets as sidewalls and a back wall. His belongings were neatly stacked; he had a rug as a floor and had even fashioned a chair with a piece of wood attached to a tree across the sidewalk facing his bed.
The space that he had created was much more organized than most I have seen; it impressed me. I stopped and said hello and introduced myself as an artist. He greeted me very directly with a big smile and put me at ease immediately by saying that he was an artist and loved drawing.
I asked if I could a portrait of him and he agreed enthusiastically. He asked me if I wanted to sit and pointed to his chair. We sat and talked for a while. His enthusiasm for life was inspiring; he seemed to be truly happy.
I asked how long he had lived on the streets and he told me that he had been out there for many years. When I asked him how he deals with the elements he said, “I AM THE ELEMENTS.” Why are you here, I asked. He answered, “I need to be here! . . . There are people here that need me, I help them.” He felt his place was in the street, where he could minister to the people there, people who needed a hand or needed help or needed counseling. After talking for a while, I asked to take his picture, which he agreed to, but only after he brushed his hair. I took two photos that day that I would work from.
When I completed the portrait I looked for him to show it to him, but I never found him. I asked around and some people thought that they had seen him but couldn’t say for sure. That is the way things are on the street—being homeless means just that. Where do you look for someone without a home?
Pastor Shelby inspired me and changed me a little bit. His enthusiasm, his happiness, his commitment to helping people has made me want to do more for people and appreciate the things that I have, and the people who are in my life.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I am currently working on more portraits in this series with plans for several exhibits in the near future. Along with the block prints, like the portrait of Michael, I am doing some large-scale graphite portraits.
Q: What inspires you?
A: Many things inspire me: my wife and family, my students, fellow artists, the character of people anywhere and everywhere. The list goes on. The common denominator of any work that I do is that I am inspired, consumed, and lost in the process of creating the work. When I’m done, I move on to the next.
The moment-by-moment activity of making art, of contemplating art, is where I find the most joy. It’s interesting to me that when I am done with a piece, I become the viewer like everyone else who looks at it. Sometimes a work of art takes on a life of its own. As an artist, I think the greatest honor I could have is to have a piece of my work touch someone in some way.