The New York artist transforming fashion designers into freakish sculptures
From Virgil Abloh to Shayne Oliver, Samantha Shawzin talks chainsaw crying sessions and covering Eartheater’s breasts with snails
As Samantha Shawzin cast her eyes on Louis Vuitton’s 30-foot statue of Virgil Abloh, she felt the door close on an intense period of personal upheaval. The sculptor had been studying Abloh’s face in obsessive detail for two weeks, with recordings of his voice reverberating through her studio speakers as she scooped, carved, and etched every crease and pore. When it was announced that the designer had unexpectedly passed away, just days after she had completed the project, the news stirred uneasy and morbid sensations.
“I was grieving the loss of a very close friend and a relationship, which had broken down two weeks prior,” she says, “so it was like exorcising my own interpersonal demons – I was literally working with a chainsaw and crying. Life is so incredibly fragile and unpredictable. Virgil’s passing compounded that loss and underscored how important it is to live in the pursuit of passion.”
Having spent time working under Jeff Koons and Tony Matelli, Shawzin finds it difficult not to romanticise the process of sculpture. Despite calling it “miserable, laborious, and physically punishing,” she says it’s also deeply cathartic. All this came to a head, quite literally, when she was tasked with creating the bust of Shayne Oliver that welcomed guests to his New York Fashion Week extravaganza last weekend. Notably, she had just six days to do it.
Though Shawzin’s approach is hyper-realistic, spending hours on the crack of a dry lip, her work is about more than mere mimicry. Her last piece, for example, also incorporated Arca’s features – consider it a symbolic, if not freakish, embodiment of Oliver’s art collective, Anonymous Club. “When you do a portrait of someone it’s not just about capturing their likeness but capturing their soul. For me, it’s about taking ordinary things and putting them in extraordinary contexts,” she explains. Her equally surreal approach has earned Shawzin fans in other alienoid musicians, too, like Eartheater, who she has covered in fat, fleshy snails for an upcoming music video.
“I’m like a wizard masquerading as a sculptor masquerading as a designer. And I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else”. Below, we catch up with Shawzin on her sudden rise, snail genitalia, and keeping it sur-real.
Hey Samantha! Between Louis Vuitton and Shayne Oliver you’re fast becoming a fashion designer’s secret weapon. How have the last few months been for you?
Samantha Shawzin: Oh my God. It has been crazy. I’ve been juggling so many exciting projects, but weirdly they all came together at Shayne Oliver’s fashion show last week. Like, I worked on the Virgil Abloh sculpture for Louis Vuitton and then Shayne debuted a posthumous collaboration with him. I’ve also been working with Eartheater and her music soundtracked the show… So witnessing all of these different relationships come together felt like a surreal convergence.
It seems as though your work has appeared like a bolt from the blue, but has this been a long time coming?
Samantha Shawzin: It’s been an interesting journey. I was a bad student and ditched class constantly. I ended up building a kiln in my backyard out of a barbecue and I’d melt down tin cans so that I could do really shitty sand castings. So I guess you could technically argue that’s when I first dipped my toes in the water. I then moved to New York when I was 20 to study illustration but I dropped out after a year and dove head-first into sculpture. I’m a very passionate person and I’m a perfectionist so I just taught myself how to weld, how to sculpt, how to make moulds, and started working for a bunch of artists like Jeff Koons and Tony Matelli.
“I was a bad student and ditched class constantly. I ended up building a kiln in my backyard out of a barbecue and I’d melt down tin cans so that I could do really shitty sand castings” – Samantha Shawzin
Your first major commission was for Virgil Abloh in the days before he passed. Can you tell me what that was like?
Samantha Shawzin: It was very last minute. One of my best friends, Konstantinos Papalexiou, is a fine arts fabricator on the East Coast and has a bunch of insane robots. So we worked in conjunction. The base of the statue was built robotically but I was brought in to do all the detailed sculpting because I work faster than a robot. It was utterly insane. I had just been through a really gnarly breakup, lost a close friend, and I was literally working 100 hours a week.
He died very shortly after I completed it and it was just surreal. The past few years have been incredibly difficult both globally and personally. It reminded me that life is so incredibly fragile and unpredictable. Virgil’s passing just compounded all these losses and underscored how important it is to live authentically and pursue passion. I often work from 10am to 6am but life is short so if I’m not giving absolutely everything to my passion then what’s the point?
Statues are usually erected in honour of someone once they have already died, so the timing must have felt very strange – especially given how intimate the process of portraiture must be.
Samantha Shawzin: I’m a really sensitive person and I am so deeply obsessed with the process that it hit me really hard. I didn’t know Virgil and I don’t really believe in celebrity worship but when you’re doing a portrait of someone, it’s not just about capturing a likeness, it’s about capturing the soul. It’s hard not to spend all these hours “with” someone and not feel a deep connection to the art that they created. It was like exercising my own interpersonal demons. I work with power tools and 14-hour days can be miserable, laborious, and physically punishing. Emotionally I was a mess, working with a chainsaw and crying. But it’s deeply cathartic and I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else.
It must have felt serendipitous when you got the Shayne Oliver call, then, considering they were such close collaborators. How did that process compare?
Samantha Shawzin: I worked with Jordan White, Julia Brunson, Menyelek Rose, Minho Nukem, and Jordan Harper White on that one. The head was already designed but I was responsible for bringing it to life in six days. And to clarify, the process would usually take a month. It wasn’t just Shayne’s face, it was a combination of Arca’s, too, so we had to custom mix different pigments and make it all look natural even though it’s completely unnatural. I think the challenge was making it look cool without it being terrifying, you know? The cool thing about sculpture is that it really invades space and I love the idea of being a woman and taking up space, which is why I love making large sculptures. You may not notice me but you’ll notice the things I make. I was deeply shy when I was younger so I have found myself speaking through my work, it’s like this extension of my inner world.
What do you think attracts you to hyperrealism?
Samantha Shawzin: I don’t really know a lot of people my age that specialise in hyperrealism but I feel like it really suits me. It’s this amalgamation of perfectionism and obsession. Hyperrealism can be very boring, though, like technical masturbation if you know what I mean? So I try to put things in a surrealist context. I don’t want to just recreate things just for the sake of showing off. There’s a tendency for people to follow whatever’s trendy in art and while I understand that it’s important to live in this collective consciousness, I’m more interested in making things that people haven’t seen before. I want to create things that people marvel at. Like René Magritte and Dalí who took the ordinary and placed it within the extraordinary.
Speaking of extraordinary, there are photos of a naked Eartheater covered in fleshy snails all over your Instagram. What on earth is going on there?
Samantha Shawzin: The snails look like genitalia, don’t they? In the natural world they contain both male and female organs which means they can reproduce autonomously. I like that idea. Of independent sexuality. That everything you need you already contain inside of you. When I met Eartheater through a mutual friend and she was saying how she became obsessed with snails while she was on tour and asked to feature my visceral, fleshy creations in a music video. I’ve been a fan of Eartheater for so long and I feel her work exists within the same world as my personal work. It’s technical, ethereal, and very inspired by nature. I’m also developing new techniques like this sculpted silicone fabric, which she will wear in the music video, too. People don’t know that all of this involves a lot of chemistry and science. My work is at the intersection of science, art, nature, and fashion. I’m like a wizard masquerading as a sculptor masquerading as a designer…
However you choose to define yourself, what’s it like being an artist on the rise in New York?
Samantha Shawzin: I moved here and I knew literally no one. I was dirt, dirt broke, like very poor. I was working in restaurants and there were years of very terrifying financial instability. But I didn’t really have the typical journey. I didn’t study sculpture but I’ve now become a specialist simply because I was so obsessed with it and I’ve been able to lend those skills to so many amazing artists. In fact, I remember the day I got hired by Koons and I literally had minus $200 in my bank account. I cried knowing that I could support myself as an artist. But it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve finally been able to transition into focusing on my personal work. Now, my goal is to have a show this year. I have such ambitious ideas and I’m so hungry and so deeply obsessed. All I want to do is create art and share my world with people.