Checking in with Shelby Fischer

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What are you working on right now?
My idea of fun is the more work the better. I was just invited to be in a show at Piedmont next February that’s going to be called “Sew What.” Recently I’ve moved my focus from paper collage to fabric. The inspiration for the fabric work comes from the quilters of Gee’s Bend, this Alabama-based quilter’s collective. I take their abstract, intuitive work and I use fabric cutouts the way I used to use paper cutouts to tell stories. Right now I’m finishing up a huge piece made out of corduroy, velvet and vintage kimono fabric.

Visual artist Shelby Fischer says that those who are familiar with her work are unlikely to recognize new projects that incorporate fabrics.

What were you doing when we called?
I was planning the Wetpaint auction for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts’ 40th anniversary celebration, which [happened] in town May 7. Last year we asked artists to create something 24 hours before the auction and then bring it in, and it was really successful.

Tell us about your day job.
I work part-time for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and volunteer for the VCCA, but I don’t go to an office. I’ve been involved with the Thelonious Monk Institute for 23 years. Before I moved to my farm I was the executive producer there, but now rather than be involved in the day to day I write the scripts for our major gala events. I’m also a speechwriter for a jazz luminary who will have to remain unnamed.

What is your first artistic memory from childhood?
I was born into a very artistic and musical family, so I probably was given crayons before I could walk. I always saw my mother sewing and my father painting or doing calligraphy. Music was an essential ingredient in our lives. Actually, I was forced to listen to it. I remember being locked in my mother’s room with gospel music and show tunes and opera. My earliest creative memory would be from third grade, writing and illustrating a story called “The Loneliest Scarf.” I guess I was a lonely child, so I was getting that out through the scarf, left alone on the table.

How do you prepare to work on something?
My work is completely intuitive. If I prepare I might as well just write “fail.” I have to go into my studio and get into the zone, become the other Shelby Fischer, and see what materializes. All I know is I can feel down in the dumps or be having a bad day or things aren’t going my way and the minute I walk into my studio, joy overtakes me.

Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?
Well, I am very fortunate to be able to collaborate with my amazingly talented woodworking partner Jose Lopez. We did a piece for “Let There Be Light” at Piedmont together. We’re on the same wavelength spiritually and creatively. It would be very hard to top our partnership.

Who is your favorite artist outside your medium?
I would pick a musician, somebody I know, which would be Herbie Hancock. Aside from his impeccable piano credentials, he’s an extremely interesting man with great values, and he’s contributed so much to our cultural heritage. I love learning from him and am always inspired by him, either through music or conversation.

Do you have any superstitions about your art?
I’d say that there needs to be an element of fear when I go into the studio. I can’t start working and feel sure of things, I need to feel a little edgy when I start to create something. Definitely an impetus. I don’t like to walk in there feeling confident.  

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