Q&A With Chris Shaw: Humans of New York interviewee and Artist

By Jourden V. Sander

Ever heard of Humans of New York? You probably have, considering the Facebook page has around 12 million followers and counting. Well, it’s a page that I frequent and actively keep up with due to the sometimes inspiring, sometimes raw, sometimes heartbreaking messages and people that are showcased. It’s a project about showing people at their core: ugly, beautiful, and human.

A few weeks ago, while on the page, I saw a photo of an artist named Chris Shaw. The photo was just of his face, with the snow in the background and his very blue eyes staring back at you.
The quote that Brandon chose to represent Chris was this:

“I’ve watched a lot of people who did worse than me in art school go on to have their own shows, and I’ve decided that some people just know how to make moves. I always hoped that after I graduated, someone would discover me, but it doesn’t really work that way. You have to network and create opportunities, but I’m not good at that, because I get nervous and overly quiet in social situations. I normally end up getting discouraged, and going back to my basement to paint.”

In addition to his quote and photo, Brandon posted several of Chris’ paintings in the comments, alongside his email.

To begin with, his quote really resonated with me personally because I struggle with networking as a writer and journalist. When you’re introverted, it can be difficult to share your art–so I reached out to Chris to see what his experience with HONY was like, and how it has affected his situation. Turns out, the results were pretty spectacular.

"Exuberance" by Chris Shaw

“Exuberance” by Chris Shaw

1. How did you come in contact with HONY? Could you describe the experience a little?

My coming into contact with Brandon was really so lucky. It was snowing but sunny one day so I went for a walk through Central Park. Some random guy asked if he could take my picture and I didn’t see why not. I’m fine with helping out a fellow artist. Afterwards he introduced himself and explained about Humans of New York. I told him my sister actually bought his book. So I was familiar with his work, but I never would have recognized him. We ended up talking for a long time and he kept taking more pictures as I’d respond to his questions.

2. When your photo and quote came out online, were you happy with the final product? (Did you know he was going to post images of your paintings or was that a surprise?)

I was so happy to be posted on Humans of New York. I must admit, right after walking away from my conversation with Brandon I thought to myself, “What the hell did I just say?” It was a bit worrisome wondering what he would post. But when I saw it I was happy. I normally don’t like pictures of myself. I can’t stand posing in that overly forced way with a fake smile and all that. But he was just taking pictures while asking me questions. It was very natural and casual. I think I’m in the midst of responding to a question in the photo he posted. He told me his email and asked me to send him a few photos but I didn’t have a pen and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to remember it; I’m so glad I did. I sent him a few images and by the morning they were all posted on Humans of New York. I didn’t know if any of it would make it onto the site. I was so glad that they did. He must talk to so many people and it’s hard to know if your conversation meant enough to post online. It seemed like a really personal, in depth conversation to me, but I don’t talk much.

The recent kindness of strangers has been remarkable. I’ve received emails from other painters who want to collaborate or put on a group show, musicians who want me to design album covers or to make a music video with me painting. I’ve received emails from every continent, except Antarctica.

3. It hasn’t been that long since the photo was shared with 12 million people–what has the aftermath been like? Are you happy you met him? How do you feel this experience will affect you going on?

It’s been great getting emailed opportunities. I was feeling really bad about never having shown my paintings, but it’s hard to get started. Everyone asks where you’ve shown before and the response, “Nowhere,” doesn’t sound so good. It’s been amazing getting all these emails from around the world. Some of them are really touching. Lots of offers are flaky, but lots are legitimate. My main priority at the moment is trying to build my CV. I really appreciate offers like being interviewed because I can add it to my CV and build experience. My real goal is to get represented by a gallery, and a better CV will help my chances a lot. I was on the radio the other day in Montreal, that was so nerve-racking, my hand was shaking so hard and I felt so nauseous, but it was really cool. I haven’t been able to listen to it, way too weird, but they emailed and said it went really well. Some of the people I’ve connected with are great. I didn’t think of myself as much of a people person, but it’s been a really uplifting experience. The recent kindness of strangers has been remarkable. I’ve received emails from other painters who want to collaborate or put on a group show, musicians who want me to design album covers or to make a music video with me painting. I’ve received emails from every continent, except Antarctica. It’s crazy getting emails from Africa and Asia. It just takes so much time attempting to respond to all of them. But some of them are really touching and some have had great opportunities, and of course it’s great to actually sell paintings.

4. In your quote, you said that you always hoped you’d be discovered, but it doesn’t work that way. Would you mind expanding upon that a little more?

 
Networking is a skill and it is a huge flaw of mine. This experience has helped with that a lot. It forced me to get my website up and running and make a Facebook page for my paintings. I’ve never had Facebook, so even this was a big step for me. I was so lucky that Brandon put me on Humans of New York. That really was a lucky break, but it also forced me to improve my networking skills so that this lucky break doesn’t just fizzle out. I need to do a lot to keep this momentum going. It would be such a waste if I sat at home watching movies while an incredible amount of people look at my paintings online. It’s been extremely busy responding to emails and sorting out how to actually pull off some of these opportunities. I’ve needed to research a lot of things, like how to ship paintings long distances, and getting my website up. And getting on social media wasn’t easy either. Thankfully I’ve had a lot of help. My sister and mother have helped a lot, former teachers, a couple friends.

5. Is there anything that you said in the interview that you wished had been included in the quote on Facebook? Or maybe something you wish you had said?

It’s hard to say what else could have been included in my quote on HONY. There’s people I’d like to thank but I don’t want this to start sounding like one of those Oscar speeches. I think he summed up our conversation well. It’s hard to have a long, personal, in depth conversation with someone and then sum it all up in a quote and a photo. Brandon is really good at his job though.
"Elation" by Chris Shaw

“Elation” by Chris Shaw

A lot had been going wrong and I was really in a rut so I decided to go to New York for inspiration. Definitely the best decision I’ve ever made. I fell in love with New York. It’s such an amazing city, there’s so much energy, like the city’s on fire.

6. Have you always lived in NY, or did you move to NY to attend art school?

Actually I’m from Toronto. I went to an art high school and then an art university in Toronto. I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. I really liked it and had some teachers I really connected with, but there’s this horrifying moment when you graduate with a degree in painting and don’t know what to do. Teachers try to prepare you, but it’s hard. I was feeling really bad about never having shown my work and not knowing how to get started. A lot had been going wrong and I was really in a rut so I decided to go to New York for inspiration. Definitely the best decision I’ve ever made. I fell in love with New York. It’s such an amazing city, there’s so much energy, like the city’s on fire. Of course my luck with HONY helps shape my view of it, but it really is such a great city for a painter.

7. Did you always want to go to art school?

I’ve definitely always wanted to be an artist and was always interested in art school. My art high school still had the normal classes, math and English and everything, but art class was the focus. It was the only class I ever put much effort into in high school. I don’t really know what else I would have even applied to. Art school always seemed like the thing to do. Nothing else seemed important by comparison.

8. In the quote you mentioned that you get nervous in regard to creating opportunities and networking. What would you say to a young artist who is in art school, also trying to network, but having a hard time because of the social aspect of it?

My main advice to art school students who are trying to network but having a hard time with the social aspect would be to try to separate your artwork from yourself as much as possible. By that I mean if you don’t want a Facebook, make one that’s just for your paintings. Having a website is great and focused entirely on the artwork. It’s not your website–it’s for your artwork. Just force yourself, as hard as it is. I’ve found myself in that position lately. It has been stressful, but it is definitely worth forcing yourself onto social media. It isn’t easy for me doing interviews but it’s definitely worth it. I had the advantage of being put on social media and pretty much forced to start engaging with it. I had so many emails asking about a website or Facebook page that I was forced to make them. But it feels easier today than it did last week. Getting past the anxiety of it all is tough but it gets better with practice. Being in art school also really helps. The only problem is that it can become a bubble. If you become comfortable in that small community, it might make it even more horrifying when you step out of it. I would advise staying in touch with the teachers and students you feel a connection to. 
"Gemini" by Chris Shaw

“Gemini” by Chris Shaw

 

Art history is very much a lineage. It’s about learning all that you can and then adding what you can to it.

9. Who are the artists who’ve inspired you, mentored you, or helped you to keep going? (Whether distant, dead or alive)

My favorite painters have had a huge influence on me, and I try to be very open about that. I think that’s a big part of what separates this generation of painters from earlier ones. It’s accepted now that you didn’t come up with a style of painting 100% on your own. It’s sort of a debunked myth that being able to paint is something you’re born with and either you have it or you don’t. It comes from learning about other painters and studying art history, going to art school and going to art shows and museums. Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It’s selfish and unrealistic and conceited to think or claim that you came up with your style 100% on your own. Art history is very much a lineage. It’s about learning all that you can and then adding what you can to it. A lot of my inspiration comes from trying to update abstract painting. People mostly associate abstract painting with the abstract Expressionism era of the 40’s and 50’s, painters like Pollock, Kline, Krasner, de Kooning. I try to take aspects of their work and combine it with current painters who have also really inspired me, like Harold Klunder, Kim Dorland, Nicole Katsuras. It’s impossible to mention every painter who’s inspired me. It’s important to learn the full scope of art history and learn from less direct inspirations as well.
Tempest 18x24

“Tempest” by Chris Shaw

I’m a big believer in the power of art, even if that sounds cheesy. It’s an amazing experience to go to art shows. You can stand directly in front of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. My favorite shows have had massive impacts on me. To me paintings are physical proof of good in the world. It’s hard to complain about life when you’re standing in front of a really good painting. There’s something really therapeutic about going to art shows. Making art of your own can also be so therapeutic. There’s an amazing sense of accomplishment when you finish a painting and decide that you’re really happy with it, that it’s done, that you’ve created something you’re proud of. It’s a lot of fun watching a painting develop; it always goes through a stage where you think it’s awful and that you wasted a lot of paint and time, but then you push it further and further until it becomes what you want it to. The best paintings are really hard to finish, they involve a struggle, kind of a fight you have to win.
 

To me paintings are physical proof of good in the world. It’s hard to complain about life when you’re standing in front of a really good painting. There’s something really therapeutic about going to art shows

10. Could you talk about the style of your art a bit? What is the inspiration behind the style that you developed, or why you paint what you do? What is your intention with your art and what you’re trying to do or say?

There’s a chaotic aspect to my paintings, but I think through the composition a lot. My main focus is the composition. It’s an organized mess. To some people it looks like I throw paint around randomly but it actually takes a lot of thought and consideration. It’s more calculated than it looks. I spend way more time deciding what to do to a painting next than I actually spend painting it. The process mostly involves me sitting in front of my half finished painting and deciding how to finish it. I don’t paint too fast, I like the process to be thought thorough. I do spend most of my day working on paintings though, so even though it’s slow I get a lot done. I couldn’t get rid of the chaotic aspect of my paintings though. Life’s just way too chaotic to be making anything too simple or too ordered or clean cut. It needs a certain amount of grit and mess or I just can’t relate to it.
Vagary

“Vagary” by Chris Shaw

I want my paintings to really stand out. I want them to be bold and powerful. But I also want them to be bright and optimistic. When I was in high school I did a lot of typical teenage angst art. That’s by far my least favorite type of art now. I want to make paintings that could go on someone’s wall and make them feel better every time they look at it. They are a bit chaotic and messy but I don’t consider those to be negative terms. I find life to be chaotic and messy but beautiful and interesting and a lot of fun. Without a certain amount of mess it would be boring and dull.

 11. What do you hope to accomplish moving forward?

Moving forward I really want to continue to improve my networking skills. My main goal is to get represented by a gallery. For now I’m looking through the various options I’ve been fortunate enough to receive this past week and I’m trying to pull them all off. Some galleries have expressed interest in showing my paintings, so I’m doing a lot of organizing and planning and researching shipping and that type of thing. I’m so grateful for the opportunities.
To keep up with Chris’ art and progress, check out his website.
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The author

Jourden Sander is the EIC of Feminine Inquiry. She is a writer, editor, tennis player, cosplayer, and anime geek who walks her stubborn corgi. She is a feminist and a fan of hot tea. She vaguely dislikes people who won't use the Oxford comma and finds it difficult to not repetitively use pronouns in a bio. She challenges you to a street race in her Mazda 3. She says hello.

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