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AIR Highlight: Elaine Shen

This conversation took place on June 29, 2021 at the Textile Arts Center with Elaine Shen and Isa Rodrigues.

Video Visual Description: 

Footage of Elaine Shen, wearing a colorful plaid dress, with her black hair down, and a bright blue face mask. In the foreground on the right hand side is the blurry silhouette of Isa’s light face and dark curly hair. The conversation is happening in Elaine’s studio at the Textile Arts Center, and Elaine is sitting by her knitting machine. In the background, there is Elaine’s large scale netted installation, a series of blue and white prints, and some of her checkered knitted bags hanging on the wall. Some points of the video span around textiles as they are described in the interview.

Elaine Shen (she/her) is a textile artist and maker from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work investigates the complex nature of love relationships and expressions of care in the context of the places in which we grew up and the cultures and family dynamics that shape our paradigms. She utilizes grid structures to reflect on order and chaos and the power of opposites and employs a range of textile techniques including machine knitting, crocheting, knotting and netting, stitching, and printing. Elaine holds a BFA in textiles from Rhode Island School of Design.

Isa Rodrigues (she/her) is the co-Executive Director of the Textile Arts Center

Isa: Hi Elaine! I’m excited to be in conversation with you today and learn more about your work. Would you like to start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit more about your practice?

Elaine: Hi Isa, thank you! My name is Elaine Shen, I’m an artist and designer, originally from California. In my work, I primarily work with knitting, and a bit of installation and sculpture as well.

Isa: When did you start working with textiles, and what drew you to explore fiber as a medium in your work?

Elaine: I was first introduced to fiber in college, at Rhode Island School of Design. It was not really something I knew I could do until I got to RISD.  I learned about textiles and it instantly clicked for me, and I started doing a lot of knitting. In the program at RISD you learn a lot about different textile techniques, like weaving, and knitting and printing. But I really clicked with knitting, and I kind of just took that and ran with it. 

Isa: You did this residency right after you graduated from RISD too!  Now that you’ve had another year working with textiles and exploring different techniques, do you see yourself continuing exploring textiles in your work? Has any other technique stood out particularly? 

Elaine: Yeah, I will definitely continue to use textiles in my work, definitely will continue to do a lot of knitting. But during this residency, I’ve also started to work a lot with netting, which is something I’ve been really interested in for the past nine months that I think I’ll continue to work on after the residency as well. 

Isa: What has been the focus of your research and studio practice over the last months, while in residency here at TAC?

Elaine: In my work I think a lot about love relations, particularly familial ones and expressions of care in the context of our upbringing, the cultures we grew up in, the way we experience love in our childhoods and the way that influences the way we experience and express love in our adult lives. And so, this residency has been a continuation of all those concepts, particularly thinking a lot about netting as well, in relation to those concepts. I’m really interested in nets as kind of a paradoxical object, as well as a very universally understood object, that can act as an entryway for anybody to find their own meaning in the work. And I think it’s really captivating how nets can act as a sort of safety net and at the same time they can be an entrapment device. For the past 9 months I’ve been working a lot with nets in relation to those concepts.

Photo Credit: Isa Rodrigues

Isa: To create these nets, you have explored a lot of different techniques, from different netting techniques, to crochet but also even using the nets as devices to create prints, and encapsulating them in resin. Can you speak more about how process has made your work change and evolve and also how the concept has been infused in the process itself?

Elaine: So for the past nine months I’ve kind of been obsessively making nets, and making other work from the nets that I make. I’ve knitted my own cord to make the nets out of, which I then made prints from, which I then casted in resin. So it’s been a very process oriented exploration and all those steps in the process kind of led me to a very accumulative way of working and ultimately the installation encapsulates all those different explorations from the past nine months.

Isa: On top of making a lot of nets (laughs), you’ve also been developing your textile design practice. We are seeing some of it right now on your knitting machine and some examples of some bags you designed and made behind you. Can you speak a little bit more about that side of your work? 

Elaine: Yeah, I think that are kind of two sides to myself and the way that I work. And art has always served as a way of digesting everything, and healing, and processing. My design practice sort of  satisfies a lot of the obsessions that I have with pattern and color and knitting. I have a small business that I’ve been developing for the past nine months as well, where I make and sell soft goods using my knitting machine. Currently, I’ve been making a lot of bags using my knitting machine, like the ones you see behind me. 

Photo Credit: Isa Rodrigues

Isa: You’ve been busy busy for the last nine months, with your art practice but also starting a new textile design business! Can you share a little more about what were some of the highlights of  participating in a  program such as this artist in residence here at TAC?

Elaine: I think I don’t have to say it again, but it has been a year! (laughs) One of the highlights was the sense of community here at TAC and seeing this group of eight residents all the time, and working through things together, talking through work, talking through life, all those moments were really really special. I think that there’s such a strong sense of community here at TAC that was truly one of the greatest highlights for me. 

Isa: And I know that you’re planning to continue that community further. I know that you and Clare are maybe going to be sharing a studio together?

Elaine: Yeah! Clare, one of my co-residents, and I are probably about to go in on a studio together. So I’m really excited to continue being in the same space together, because I’m not ready for it to totally end yet (laughs). 

Isa: As the residency is coming to an end, we have started talking more and planning more the work for the final exhibition in September. Can you give us a sneak peak of what you’re planning to show?

Elaine: Yeah, the work that I’m going to be showing at the final exhibition is an accumulation of all the nets that I made for the past nine months. And it’s going to be presented in the form of an installation/sculpture and incorporating all the nets I’ve made using techniques like the knitting that I spoke about,  as well as this technique called filet crochet, which is a grid based way of crocheting that is more illustrative. As I mentioned, I think a lot about expressions of care, and in my family love is always expressed through food. In making these crochet nets I was thinking a lot about that, and thinking about the times that I’ve called my mom up to learn these recipes from home so that I can make them here in New York and feel at home. So I was thinking a lot about that in making these crochet filet pieces. This installation is kind of like an accumulation of all those various nets that kind of encapsulate the time period that I made it. 

Photo Credit: Isa Rodrigues

Isa: There’s a very immersive quality that you can sense from this installation. I’m curious about what parts of it, for you, still feel unfinished or that you’re still working on. And also how you imagine the public interacting with this sculpture.

Elaine: Sculpting this work has been a huge part of the process as well. As I mentioned, the work is an accumulation of a lot of different nets so each time that I’ve installed it has looked a little bit different. And I kind of sculpt it as I hang it and move things around and play with the layering. So the work is still not finished, I think. I’m going to continue to make more nets in the next few months before September, and those will continue to layer in and ultimately it’s going to be a very layered installation. And I don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, because a lot of the sculpting happens on the spot.

Isa: Ok, last question. (laughs) Do you have any plans or projects for after the residency that you’d like to share with us?

Elaine: Yeah, I’m just going to continue to expand as well as hone in my art and design practice. And I will also be attending a few fairs this year, which I’m really excited that we can kind of start doing that now again. I’ll be having my soft goods and my mom is also a ceramicist and does ikebana flower arrangements so we’re going to do some projects together this year as well, which I’m really excited about.

Isa: Thank you Elaine, that sounds like a really lovely Summer. I’m excited to see your final work and your future projects too.

The TAC AIR 12 Final exhibition, Considering Mass and Density, will be on view at the Textile Arts Center from September 13-26, 2021.


Artist Highlights