Art

Tulles of the Trade

Citizen Brooklyn interviews tulle artist Benjamin Shine

Interview by Lora Wiley - lora@citizenbrooklyn.com Photos courtesy of Benjamin Shine
Tulle Flow Photo © Benjamin Shine

Tulle Flow Photo © Benjamin Shine

Citizen Brooklyn: You work in so many mediums and have so many interesting projects, this interview could be endless. Let’s focus on the Tulle portraits first. Describe the actual process. How long does it take to make a portrait out of tulle?
I start by either taking photographs of the subject myself or working from existing ones. A continuous twenty-meter piece of tulle is piled onto a canvas as a dense voluminous layer. Once entirely covered, I take a deep breath and go for it! I move the tulle around, pressing and pleating it with an iron to form the basic tones and textures. The iron activates heat-sensitive glue that is laminated to the canvas, and this bonds the tulle. This initial placement sets up the entire process before I focus on the detail. Each piece can take between fifty and a hundred hours and some of the very large pieces take twice that time.

CBK: How did you select your subjects?
To date, most of the portraits have been commissioned.

Changing States single American flag torn and rewoven Photo © Benjamin Shine

Changing States single American flag torn and rewoven Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: Your portrait of Obama became astoundingly famous after Barnes & Noble placed it on merchandise. The original is made of ripped up pieces of the American flag, which can be taken as flag desecration. Was there ever a backlash?
I made Changing States during the 2008/9 election inspired by Obama and his campaign for change, which resonated on so many levels. The notion of ‘changing’ America lead to the idea of altering or reconfiguring the flag to create his portrait. Surprisingly to me, the US had a wonderfully positive reaction to it and, if anything, embraced the concept. It was unveiled at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York on Inauguration Day and Barnes and Noble subsequently used it for their commemorative merchandise. What was so great about that was that it showed how the piece was really received in the spirit it was intended—as a positive message—so I didn’t receive any backlash at all.

Lady T  Portrait Photo © Benjamin Shine

Lady T Portrait Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: Your portrait of Margaret Thatcher was also made out of symbolic materials. Tell us a bit about that piece and of your encounter with her.
This piece was made using my eyelets technique, whereby torn strips of fabric are woven through eyelets onto a solid background material. In this portrait I was drawn to the idea of using iron for the background to reference her ‘Iron Lady’ image. However, I wanted to contrast this through the use of silk to convey a sense of delicacy and femininity. Silk fabric was woven through eyelets onto the iron panel. I presented it to her in 2006—she was very intrigued and thankfully said lots of good things. It was a day I certainly won’t forget.

Prince Albert Photo © Benjamin Shine

Prince Albert Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: Barclays Wealth commissioned you to create a portrait of Prince Albert of Monaco made out of recycled material. Explain how you got school children involved with this project.
In researching Monaco, I learned that Prince Albert had implemented a number of sustainable initiatives in Monaco and is passionate about this. I felt creating this piece through some form of recycling would echo that principle and provide a way to showcase some of the latest recycling developments and technologies. The piece represented three processes of recycling: injection molded technology, heat compression technology and, of course, the community aspect of collecting and donating the materials for recycling. It seemed like a good idea to contact the local school as a resource and to introduce these recycling technologies to the school children who were eager to participate. They provided hundreds of plastic bottles, which were granulated and compressed to form the back panel while local stores and business provided plastic bags, which I shredded and threaded through plastic eyelets to create the ‘painting’.

Sheika Photo © Benjamin Shine

Sheika Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: You started at age fifteen in fashion and have a degree in it. How did you bridge from designing clothing to “painting with fabrics”?
Studying fashion really introduced me to mediums I had not previously known too much about—namely fabric. Most students were naturally concerned with making clothes from this material, but I would find myself in the fabric shops, looking at the rolls of fabric as if they were giant crayons or paint tubes lined up. These ‘paints’ had the additional element of texture and pattern. Fabric seemed a unique medium, somewhere between two-dimensional and three-dimensional—tangible, yet malleable—there was more that could be done with it. The idea of ‘painting with fabric’ became something I began to explore. I also developed a fascination for pattern cutting and found the challenge of one-piece pattern cutting addictive! I enjoyed trying to work out how to construct shirts, trousers and dresses, each from one piece of fabric. To do this, there is an element of tailoring and almost precision engineering—but there is also a harmony, poetry and sense of balance that enables this to be achieved. Still today, much of my work revolves around this principle. The tulle technique wholly epitomizes this train of thought, whereby a single piece of tulle is manipulated into an image.

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: Which is your favorite piece and why?
The series I created for Givenchy last year was very special for me. Having studied fashion and held this fashion house in such high esteem, to be invited to collaborate with them was really great. The project required me to overcome a number of limitations—from working on a much smaller scale, working in black, which had proved very difficult and ensuring the pieces could exist safely without being framed… By being wearable! The project taught me there is always somewhere new to take an idea.

Elizabeth Taylor Photo © Benjamin Shine

Elizabeth Taylor Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: What’s it like to meet the subject of the person you have depicted through your art? Are you nervous?
It’s always great to meet the subjects, occasionally it can be a bit nerve-wracking when a portrait is unveiled, especially if it’s a big media event, but I’m usually more worried about the lighting being correct and things like that.

Sir Edmund Photo © Benjamin Shine

Sir Edmund Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: Cordz is an award winning art product you created for kids. Describe what Cordz is and what your inspiration was?
Cordz developed directly from the original fabric portraits and extended the idea of ‘painting with fabric’. The invention enables kids to apply a length of colored cord onto a Velcro-like board by hand or via the stylus. The purpose is to provide a tactile experience in constructing images as opposed to conventional drawing and it allows each line to be adjusted or completely removed, so it’s reusable.

Tulle 15 Metres of Fame Photo © Benjamin Shine

Tulle 15 Metres of Fame Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: Many school arts and music programs are the first to go when districts tighten their budgets. Your opinion?
I have always felt that academic school subjects require the mental absorbing of information—learning facts and figures. The arts are different; these subjects see an outpouring of ability, generated through self-discovery. We learn about ourselves through these subjects, so for them to be cut severely disrupts the balance between these two types of learning.

Materials All Ways New York Photo © Benjamin Shine

Materials All Ways New York Photo © Benjamin Shine

CBK: You created one of the Faberge Eggs for the recent Big Egg Hunt in NYC. Your piece All-Ways New York, a combination of NYC street signs was sold. Who was the buyer? Not being a native New Yorker, how did you select which street signs went into the piece?
For a piece that looks seemingly simple, it was quite a process of sourcing street names that were certain lengths, in certain colors and which would provide enough variation when jumbled up together. I devised a chart system as it was like assembling a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle. Each color and street name was positioned in a certain place to ensure there were no sections of only green or two blue signs next to each other, etc. It sold for twenty-two thousand dollars at the charity auction, but I don’t know who bought it.

Changing States Photo © Benjamin Shine

Changing States Photo © Benjamin Shine

Light and Shade Photo © Benjamin Shine

Light and Shade Photo © Benjamin Shine

Sir Peter Blake Photo © Benjamin Shine

Sir Peter Blake Photo © Benjamin Shine

Elizabeth Taylor Photo © Benjamin Shine

Elizabeth Taylor Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Close up Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Close up Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

Givenchy Photo © Benjamin Shine

Pressing with Iron Photo © Benjamin Shine

Pressing with Iron Photo © Benjamin Shine

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