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Inside ChiArts: Chicago Artists in the Making – Shaquita Reed

Last spring, I attended the Senior Visual Arts Exhibit featuring projects by the first graduating class of The Chicago High School for the Arts. ChiArts, as the school is known, opened in 2009 and is the first public arts high school to serve the Chicago area, with the mission of diversifying the city’s landscape of professional artists. Students from all neighborhoods with a wide range of previous training are encouraged to audition for dance, theatre, musical theatre, music, and visual arts conservatories. A creative writing conservatory is set to open in the fall of 2014.

I teach in the theatre department and wanted to share one of many thought-provoking projects from the inaugural class of 2013. Below is my interview with Shaquita Reed, who exhibited wearable sculptures inspired by feminist literature. She currently studies fashion design at the Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago.

“Case: F18483”

Ginger O’Donnell: How did this project start?

Shaquita Reed: My instructor Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford introduced me to the term wearable sculpture in my sophomore year at ChiArts. I had to create one, and from that point on, I loved to make that kind of work. The interest was there. Then I got acquainted with Audre Lorde in a summer program with Urban Gateways held at The School of the Art Institute. Ms. Stezalski, my former drawing instructor, forced me into the program. They had us read feminist literature: Angela Davis, Cherrie Meraga, Bell Hooks. We learned what feminism was through writing and filmmaking. The instructors gave daily readings on poetry and current issues. Through this program I figured out the concentration for my senior project. I realized how deeply I cared about the issues and concerns of women.

GO: Can you discuss Audre Lorde?   What about her beliefs and ideas inspired you?

“CASE: F1848”

SR: She is an African American, lesbian, poet, writer, and feminist. Her work addresses the unfairness of racism, sexism, andhomophobia. In particular, her beliefs in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House” are that women in the feminist movement have not moved past racism themselves, even though the whole point of this movement is to unite women. She went to a women’s conference, was the only black person, and realized, wow, how are we supposed to be strong in society if we can’t be here together? How do we expect society to accept women if we don’t accept each other?  I wanted to express this idea visually, so I came up with the idea of physically bridging the gap between women. This was a piece I cared about more than any of my others.
GO: What do you think ignited your passion for this topic on such a personal level?

SR: I didn’t understand why women couldn’t be together. Most of my friends are white. Most of my friends are mixed. They’re every race. So I just couldn’t understand, and it concerned me. I wanted to investigate. That’s why I called the sculptures “ Case: F”: case for investigation, f for female or feminist, and 1848 for the year of the first feminist meeting.

GO: You wanted to take garments that typically bind women or make them smaller and turn them into more empowering garments? 

“Case: F18482”

SR: Yes, I chose the corset because to me, the corset is a garment that takes control of women’s bodies. During the Victorian era, it was forced on women. I like the way the corset looks, but I don’t like what it does. So I try to take some of its traditions, but reject some of it as well. I didn’t use boning because that makes it uncomfortable. I didn’t use lacing closures because they make it uncomfortable. Instead, I used zippers.  I tried to make the corset more empowering.

GO: How do you view the meaning or symbolism of  the wooden structures?

SR: The wooden sculptures jut out of the fabric and command attention. These structures symbolize how I want women to be: powerful and connected. I deliberately placed them on the breast area. The bridge can come off, but the models need each other to hold it up.

GO: They look very intricate. Can you talk about the mechanics of making the wood sculptures “wearable”?

“Safeguard Temple”

SR: This was the hardest project I’ve made. I probably spent over 32 hours on the wood part. I kept getting burned by the glue gun. The pieces of wood get really small at a certain point. They would either break or didn’t want to glue. Mrs. Dauscha taught me how to create tunnels in the fabric, hem, and stitch, so I could create as many pieces as possible.

GO: What instructions did you give the dancers who modeled the sculptures?

SR: Initially I had them talk to each other, but then I decided they shouldn’t talk.  This made people want to engage with them more, even though they were saying nothing.

GO: What reactions did the sculptures get?

SR: I got many reactions. A lot of people were really stunned, thought it was really daring. A lot of people were shocked that I did it. I’m always funny, so they don’t see this is as my work. But they don’t know my writing side. I’m serious when it comes to my writing work. This time I was able to merge my writing with my art.

“Reflection,” 2011

GO: Did this project inspire you to study fashion design?

SR: I must say that my interest in fashion design was non-existent a couple of years ago. Ultimately it was Mrs. Dauscha and the projects in her class that made me interested in fashion design. Her class was more about wearable sculpture, challenging the wearability of it.  It wasn’t about clothes, it was about ideas. Everything she gave us made me more interested.

GO: What projects are you currently working on? 

SR: I have several projects I am currently working on. Some are projects that I started in high school that I want to revisit. I am continuing to work on the corset in “Safeguard Temple.” I am adding more pieces to

make it into a series. I am revisiting some of my high school fashion drawings about protection and body armor. I am also working on filming projects so I can create a performance for “Safeguard Temple.”

GO: How do you view the relationship between your interest in fashion design and feminism? 

“Wooden,” 2011

SR: Fashion design can be used to empower women, but it can also be used to oppress women. I don’t understand why some feminists don’t like fashion. They see it as degrading or

something. Being a fashion designer should make it easy to uphold feminist values because it’s a way for feminists to express their beauty.

GO: Looking back at previous work, do you think you’ve been exploring issues of identity and self-acceptance for a while, in various forms?

SR: I think that interpretation is accurate. In “Reflection” and “Wooden” I was finding who I am, exploring different materials to understand. I was looking at myself and saying, “this is me, this is who I am.”

To find out more about ChiArts, visit their website at www.chiarts.org.  For more information about the exhibition, click here

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4 Responses to " Inside ChiArts: Chicago Artists in the Making – Shaquita Reed "

  1. I applaud Shaquita Reed for her pledge to be a voice for the underdog. The ways she incorporates her support for feminism is both brilliant and creative.
    Society needs to celebrate the youth of America who are committed to being socially conscious and are enacting change. Her future looks bright!

  2. This is incredible, and I love what Shaquita has to say about fashion design: Utilizing a medium that sometimes oppresses women and leveraging it for feminism instead. I also represent Urban Gateways, and we are always thrilled to learn that our summer Art Options program can contribute to students’ thinking about such important projects.

  3. Shaquita,

    I am so impressed by your strong perspective on feminism and how you are activating your voice through this impressive, powerful body of work. I look forward to seeing where this journey will take you as an artist and more importantly, where it take those of us eagerly awaiting to experience more of your work!

  4. terry bandy says:

    Touche. Sound arguments. Keep up the good spirit.

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