Devan Shimoyama

Devan Shimoyama b. 1989 November 24 in Philadelphia, PA, is an American artist, who lives and works in Pittsburgh, PA. Shimoyama received an MFA from Yale University School of Art and a BFA from Penn State University. Currently, he is the Assistant Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. His work could be seen in several solo and group exhibitions.

This past December, Shimoyama was selected as the winner of the 2016 Miami Beach PULSE Prize at Pulse Miami Beach. He has also received the Al Held Fellowship from Yale School of Art in 2013, the Gerald Davis Prize from Pennsylvania State University in 2011, and the Margaret Giffen Schoenfelder Memorial Scholarship from Penn State University in 2011.

In his visual art, Shimoyama mainly works with mixed media. He collects jewelry and various fabrics that have elements of shimmer, sparkle and sequins. He also uses glitter in his work to create his vibrant and unique paintings.



What are three attributes to describe yourself?

Candid, facetious, driven

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?

I was initially pretty tempted to just say Beyonce, obviously. I settled on Michelle Obama. I feel like for one, she’s probably had a ton of incredible dinners and I think at this point in time it would be amazing to talk to someone like her. She just seems so wise and also really approachable. She seems like a safe person to be around and I think I could talk about a lot of different things ranging from really casual to bigger issues that are currently affecting the United States.

Advice to your 15 year-old self?

I would definitely tell myself to trust myself more and to be a little nicer to myself. I feel like I was really hard on myself around that time.

Why did you choose to be an artist?

I’ve always made art growing up and I never thought of it as a career until I was about a junior in college. I think every time I tried to avoid art or change paths or redirect myself, it always sort of abruptly showed up in my life, so it was sort of like I kind of had to. The urgency was the right thing.

Is anyone else in your family an artist?

No, I had a really close family friend though that is an artist and she has sort of been my first inspiration- someone who is actually a working artist and I think that was maybe one person that I saw actively doing it and pursuing art.

Are there certain artists, styles or movements you’ve drawn inspiration from?

Yes, I mean I look at a lot of stuff. I sort of am constantly absorbing different things, things that are super drastically different than what I make, but I mean I love Rococo painting and sort of how flamboyant it is and overly decadent. I love fairytale folklore illustrations. William Blake, Matisse, Kerry James Marshall, things like that. I look at a lot of comic books too and especially Chitrakatha. I think that their use of color and especially the covers for those, Indian comics, are just really beautiful in terms of the use of color and sort of almost borderline flamboyancy. 

Can you talk about technique?

I use a lot of different modes of working. Primarily I paint. I use mixed media, I’m always kind of collecting jewelry and different fabrics and things like that, that have shimmery sparkles on them, sequins, and I use a lot of glitter. Even more recently, I’ve started to assign specific meanings to each of those materials as they appear in my work. For example, the black glitter for me represents the night time sky which is a place that is rich in storytelling and sort of a place that we, as human beings, have historically looked to for understanding our own creation and purpose. Playing connect the dots with stars to form constellations that then illustrate a creation mythology or an invented history. I am really interested in how the materials can sort of reflect different modes of storytelling in the work because I think about my work as exploring a queer black male mythology so I start to assign meaning to certain materials as I’ve been working with them for a while.

Are there specific stories that you are trying to tell within each work that you hope your viewers take away, or do you leave it up to them for interpretation?

It’s a little bit of both. I think that the work overall as sort of still frames from tiny moments of small narratives or tiny moments of magic. I think of the characters that appear in each painting as sort of like an archetype of the queer black male—this shamanistic character that sort of travels between dimensions or portals and things like that and explores different tiny moments.

I think of all of my work sort of working together almost like I could use them as illustrations that go along side my own fairytale or story or something like that.

If you weren’t an artist what else would you be?

It’s funny because I probably would just be a teacher. I mean I am a teacher right now, I’m a professor, but I think that in any capacity, whatever I’d be teaching it doesn’t even matter. When I initially was starting out in undergrad I anticipated that eventually I would be teaching. I really think it’s important to share with the younger generations to help nurture them and have them develop it with new ideas and things like that. I love being in an academic environment and being around other people that are learning. It’s sort of a give and take- I learn a lot from my students. It’s really enriching for me, so probably just teaching.

What was the last show you went to that you really liked or felt strongly about?

I have a few. Most recently I saw Kerry James Marshall: Mastry and I saw Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt. I mean Kerry James Marshall is my favorite artist, so obviously I loved that, but other than the obvious ones, I saw this exhibition last year by Terrence Koh called Bee Chapel at Andrew Edlin Gallery. I was just walking by and I saw him in there and he was working. I was walking by this really bizarre thing, it looked like solar panels or something, but there were also bees connected in a tube going into the gallery and I was like “what is going on in here?” and I walk in and he was in there readjusting some of the objects that were immersed in honey. Navigating through the show from room to room and thinking about the use of the honeybees made me feel like he was discussing love and loss in a really unique way. It was really haunting, there was a lot of imagery from the events in Ferguson, different political buttons, things that said “I can’t breath”, another related section like recent brutal killings of people of color, there were sinister images of the World Trade Center surrounded by dead bees sort of alluding to 9/11— all of these different things dealing with loss, and as you travel through the show it gets more and more sort of spiritual and at the end of the show it had this bee chapel at the top of this dirt hill and it just really felt like a special holy space where one could really be alone with one’s thoughts and reflect on those who were lost. It made me think of my own mortality and I thought that that was a really really powerful show. 

How would you describe the word “ART”, What does it means to you?

I think of it as any sort of creation of something beautiful or possibly something not beautiful to make change. Whether that change is as small as just improving the Feng Shui of someone’s apartment or challenging social political issues or current events or even as big as making a call for action against some sort of tyrannical regime. I think that art can manifest in so many ways and it can mean so many different things that I think that in the end it’s really just sort of bringing up questions and to make change.

Do you have any quotes from previous artists which are important for you? A few words of wisdom that you hold onto or remember?

“If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”— Kerry James Marshall

I really think that that quote sticks with me and I think about it a lot. When I’m in my studio or when I’m actually painting or when I’m restructuring my artist statement, I think that it’s really great to hear someone that can reflect on the past, but also is moving on from that darkness and looking forward to a possible light in the future— where we’re supposed to be, where we want to get to and I love the idea of a dreamer—someone who is reimagining what the future could be and the possibilities and the limitlessness of that.

I had Wangechi Mutu in my studio once and as she was leaving from the studio visit she said, “turn it on and on” and I just loved that. I thought it was a really celebratory statement.

You were the winner of the 2016 Miami Beach Pulse Prize, how did that feel?

Yes, it was great. I really really did not anticipate that happening. It was my first art fair that I had ever done so I just really wasn’t sure if I even wanted to be in that type of context with my work, but it ended up being a really positive atmosphere with plenty of people talking about my work, one on one or to each other. Just so many people in such a short amount of time and just really interacting with all kinds of people— some people who just are there mainly to party, but they were like “oh let me go look at something”, or super wealthy collectors and then just other artists around. It was a really bizarre and great community of people and Helen Toomer who runs the PULSE Contemporary Art Fair, is just such an incredible woman and she has such an electric energy to be around, so it was a really good time.

Do you have any upcoming shows?

Yes. I am represented by Samuel Freeman Gallery in Los Angeles. My next exhibition there will be in January 2018 and then I am also going to be showing in Independent NYC art fair with Stems Gallery from Brussels in March.

Interview by Art of Choice ©