LAFAYETTE — Lean forward and take a closer look. Take that advice when visiting the mixed media artist and New Iberia native Shawne Major’s exhibit at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette.
Her work is complicated, a bit like life she said, and is comprised of thousands of objects woven to create giant pieces that, from a distance, look like abstract tapestries.
But take a few steps forward and you’ll find something unexpected in each of the New Iberia native’s hand-stitched masterpieces. Children’s toys, costume jewelry, auto parts, electrical chords, strings of freshwater pearls, christmas lights, computer chips, baby shoes are myriad of materials Major has intertwined together to create an explosive composition of color and texture that can stimulate and stir.
The exhibit “Rhyme & Reason: The Art of Shawn Major” recently opened the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s museum.
The exhibit opened this month along with two others including “Aquarellistes: Louisiana Watercolorists” and “Louisiana Voices: Six Artists Speak to Us” featuring three artists from the Teche Area — Linda Dautreuil and Lisa Osborn of Avery Island and Marjorie Pierson of New Iberia.
Major, 43, graduated from New Iberia Senior High School and attended ULL and then Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Her interest in art and handcrafting began as a child first with drawing and painting, she said. She later learned how to sew with the help of visiting cousins and great aunts.
“Every time they would come over they would have some sort of new project and I would be like ‘oh show me how to do it,” she said standing inside her exhibit Thursday, the night before the opening reception. “But as a kid I didn’t know you could be an artist. I didn’t know that was something like that was an option.”
It was in college where she met other students with similar interests and ambitions and decided to pursue her career as an artist.
Her original medium was acrylic paint, but then she started experimenting with textures and using a variety of objects in her work.
“The paint seemed to be more about art and art history, and the objects seemed to be more about experiences, whether they were my experiences or other people’s experiences,” she said. “They carried emotional weight.”
She used to collect her materials at garage sales, before the days of eBay, she said. And she also receives material from friends or even from strangers across the country.
“I like to use materials that have history so I prefer to use things that other people have had for a long time,” she said. “I really like when they are things they valued. Things that don’t have value to anybody else. They are just sentimental.”
Major now lives near Opelousas with her two children, 12-year-old Ruby and 8-year-old Kharod. Her studio is a renovated barn, which provides plenty of place to work. Her pieces can take anywhere from six months to two years to create, she said. Some of the pieces are several feet long and each one is hung in the studio as the 5-foot-tall artist sews objects one by one.
She begins with pieces of chicken wire and applies fabric. The fabric comes from salvaged formal dresses, some with embellished, sparkling taffeta. She has also used salvaged wedding dresses found at consignment stores.
Because such dresses, though perhaps enjoyed by those who donned the frocks, are generally worn only once, Major said she likes to think she has “saved them” from an otherwise forgotten existence.
When she begins a project she’s never quite sure how it will end, she said.
“The journey is what’s important to me, and by the end the audience may not see everything that went into it. But it’s good to have that dialogue. I like to hear what other people have to say. I look at these pieces as a filtered way on how we see life. Everyone is looking at each object through a different pair of eyes.”
Major already has three galleries located in New Orleans, Houston and Atlanta and has held three solo shows this year across the country.
The exhibit at the Hilliard Museum, which also includes her free-standing piece “Scared Dragon Rocking Horse” borrowed from the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, is the first she’s had in Lafayette in eight years.
Children particularly enjoy her work which she said she gets a kick out of.
“Kids can appreciate art just like adults,” she said.
Though she keeps an open mind toward what materials to use, she does have one important rule.
“I do not use Mardi Gras beads,” she said. “There may be strings of beads or pearls, but you will not see Mardi Gras beads. They are just too identifiable here.”
The phrase “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” parallels with Major’s fascination with the concept of value.
“Questioning value and the creation of value really interests me,” she said. “Everything we put value on is made. We’ve made value. Something like gold, which is worth a lot right now, but it is just metal. Yes it looks pretty, but it’s just metal — but yet we’ve put a value on it.”