Artist Interviews 2023
By Laura Siebold
Sean Williams, better known as Shakes, is a Los Angeles-based texture painter, and abstract expressionist. His paintings are earthy and airy; and his textured canvases have been the backdrop for styled celebrity shoots. You can also find Shakes arranging beautiful and creative flower arrangements, often in collaboration with designer Alexandra Floro of UnderNewMgmt, and graphics.
We discovered Sean’s art at The LA Art Show 2023 and asked the artist about the language of his work, his many talents, passions, and dreams.
Your work is very hard to put into one category, each piece tells a different story. You frequently experiment with acrylic, pastel, and spray paint. How do you choose your materials and what is the mindset you start each work with?
I am extremely music driven when I enter the studio. I will listen to a full playlist and begin a few pieces, or sometimes one song can grab hold of me, and I will listen to it on repeat for 4 hours until I have fully pulled all I can out of it. So, the music has to be right, and then from there I figure out if I want to begin building smooth, rough textures, or coloring textures that have already dried. To be honest I usually have no plan entering the studio, I like the be a little chaotic and just go.
Go to artists for inspiration: SG Lewis, FLUME, Blackpink, Donna Summer.
Can you please try to describe your art in three words? Please go into detail about why you chose those three words.
Ethereal - I refer to all of the smooth drip textures as my ethereal works. They were born at of me looking at Jupiter’s storms one night and have morphed into the pieces I find most soothing. They’re also the pieces that take me the longest to make.
Rough - this would be any of the rocky textures. When I first started, I would reuse canvas’ because I didn’t want to spend money when I didn’t have to. That’s how I began experimenting with textures more, I would bring out the layer underneath and make something out of that. Then I began throwing whatever I had around the studio in, and I created Avalanche which was the first time I realized I could make this style work.
Dynamic - this is more a word that represents me as an artist. I like to work on multiple projects, so one day I’m painting, the next I’m building floral arrangements, then graphics, production. I’m always adding new types of art onto my plate, I like change.
The shape of each canvas seems to correspond with the texture of the artwork. How do canvases and textures work together in your art? What is the language of your work?
I typically build my pieces with the canvas laying on the ground and me walking around it. Lately, I have really enjoyed working with circular canvas’ because they’re easier to rotate, as I’m working.
I almost think the language of my work can be described by a language of love, physical touch. I feel more connected to my work by creating texture, getting my hands dirty. There’s something personal and sensual about painting. I’m giving a part of myself to the piece and then letting it go.
Can you please explain the process of creation behind your textured canvases?
For the rougher texture, I crush pastel and charcoal, then mix them in acrylic and gesso. I then set it outside in the sun and let it bake for a bit, then I’ll begin to pour and shape on the canvas as it dries.
For more smoother/ethereal textures, I combine gesso and acrylic, sometimes house paint, and combining them and pouring out and then walking around the canvas and physically shaking it to move the mixture in different directions to create natural movements and folds.
I get bored working on multiple pieces in the same style, so I will switch back and forth with those to keep my interest.
Photo by Carianne Older
When did you first think of yourself as an artist? What led up to this moment?
I was actually supposed to go to college for art (mainly painting and graphic design) but I switched majors the week before my freshman year started. I just didn't see myself as an artist and decided to go into marketing because it seemed safer. I was a confused, closeted little boy from Indiana who did not want to take chances. I just wanted to fit in.
Fast forward 12 years later, I'm working in digital media marketing, and I was so unhappy. I had grown in my career and was working my way to become a director and I just hated it. I began trying hobbies to find something else to focus on to make me happier. I tried DJing and playing guitar, both of which I lost interest [in] quickly.
Then, one day, I was visiting Palm Springs with my friend’s family, and I ended up going to the art store with my friend’s mom, who was a watercolor painter. I ended up buying some acrylics and a canvas and sat out in the backyard the rest of the afternoon, rubbing the paint on the canvas with my hand. It was like lightning went off in my head and I knew I needed to continue doing this. I went home and began painting every night for the next few months.
I don’t think it was really until a couple years later when I truly felt confident as an artist, but it was in that moment in 2018 that I became one.
You also excel in graphic and production design. How is this type of work different from paintings or your textured work?
As I stated above, I am someone who gets bored working on the same type of art over and over, so production design, florals and graphic design are extremely fun outlets to jump to.
I started working with Alex Floro, who owns UnderNewMgmt, during 2020. My very first gig with her was a Keke Palmer shoot for MOOD Magazine. She brought me in to spray paint some branches and to help her build a set, which I had never done in my life. I never really cared for flowers but was intrigued at learning something new. That afternoon felt very similar to the afternoon I spent painting in my friend’s yard. I needed to do more of this. From there, I started working with UnderNewMgmt every week for the rest of the summer, and the rest is history. I’ve been with her for three years now and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I think I became much more confident as an artist working in florals and production.
Photo by Chrisean Rose
In your opinion – how can art raise awareness for environmental, economic, and social situations we face around the world?
Art can have the ability to move people to act which is a very important and beautiful thing. Last week on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, there was a Footloose skit about drag being banned in a small town which is LITERALLY happening right now in this country. It makes me so angry to even be talking about this because drag is such a beautiful art form, but it’s important that everyone is talking about it, so we can fight back and move this country forward.
Please donate to organizations fighting for artists in the LGBTQ+ community! WayOutLA is an organization I really love working with, they are doing the work.
What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned throughout your career? What kind of advice would you give novice artists to increase their presence in the art world?
Everyone is making things up as they go, don’t get too in your head about where you should be as an artist. Focus on your flow, be nice to others, collaborate with people that inspire you, and just keep pushing.
We are curious about future projects. What are you currently working on?
I had an insanely busy Q1 , I did two of my largest painting commissions, got to do florals for two large movie premieres, and was just on E! talking about florals before the Oscars. I would like to go back to the drawing board and try out some new ideas on the canvas. A goal of mine this year is to get some work into galleries or even have another art show. I also need to rest. I think as artists, we need to rest and recharge to come up with new ideas, and I have not rested for a long time.
Photo by Grace Bukunmi
What do you imagine to be your artistic legacy?
“She lived, she served c*nt, then she died” is a meme from Twitter and I want people to remember my work as an artist with the same energy. In 2018, I started to live again when I started to paint, I serve c*nt now in creative service to my life as an artist, getting to work on projects I never dreamed I’d have a chance to work on. Then one day, I’ll die leaving behind a body of work I am proud of.