Earlier this year I was introduced to African-American artist, Shawanda Corbett, after we both attended a project called Changing Herstory in Oxford. At that point she was still studying for her MA at the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art, where she used a multi-disciplinary approach to her artistic practice, working between: film, photography, performance, text and ceramics. It was her adoption of the potter’s wheel that really grabbed my attention. As someone who has played with clay from a young age, but never fully mastered the potential of this beautiful, raw material, I was inspired to find out more about her journey into this traditional craft process.
Shawanda studied Fine Art in New York at the Rochester Institute of Technology (2013-16). It was during her degree that Shawanda was introduced to the process of throwing clay by her first ceramics professor, Alisa Holen (http://www.alholenceramics.com).
“I met her at an Empty Bowls fundraiser she hosted at the school’s ceramics studio. Empty Bowls is an international project to fight hunger. People from the community, and students from the university would come in and make bowls. When I arrived at the studio, she was wedging 50lbs of clay and giving demonstrations. I admire that she is a strong individual that supports everyone who wants to be part of the clay community or art field. I took her summer ceramics course and I felt physically challenged and it’s not because of my physical disability, because everyone struggles at some point in craft, but it was that I wasn’t alone struggling in the course and she never discouraged me from throwing on the wheel.
“The difficulties I had with shaping clay pushed me further to pursue ceramics. Whatever I have learned in the fields of film, photography and art philosophy, I try to transfer into my ceramics work. It is very difficult to do something with one hand that people usually do with both hands. My professors also faced some difficulties whilst teaching me… Other people could learn much easier than me. But, I worked very hard and overcame all the difficulties”.
Born without legs and with one arm, left Shawanda with one hand to create sculptures out of a range of materials: from iron, to clay and porcelain. She has overcome all the challenges of being born this way, and has been rewarded with many successes, such as: pursuing a doctorate at the University of Oxford, being nominated for Platform 2018 by Oreet Ashery (http://www.rsa.ox.ac.uk/people/oreet-ashery), and being invited to attend the Lathe and Free Shaping Workshop, hosted by the Ceramics and Glass Department of Kastamonu University, Turkey.
Shawanda’s childhood was spent in Pascagoula, Mississippi, with her six siblings. She learnt early on that she was responsible for dictating her own future. Watching her mother and oldest sister draw proved a key influence in Shawanda’s interests to pursue art. By the time she completed elementary school, she was already experimenting with oil painting.
As she continued her education in art, a range of African, European and other artistic traditions influenced Shawanda. She thinks traditional craft processes should be promoted more to artists, and believes: “art, craft and design have always been inclusive, but it is the people who occupy decision-making positions that decide what or who is accepted. Unfortunately, you cannot change everyone’s mind, but you can create opportunities for people who want to be artists, craftspeople, or designers”.
She says, “I want my work to be accessible to everyone. There are both urban and rural areas where people cannot afford to either see art exhibitions or the transportation to get there. Every location has their own socio-economic protocol, in order for this to happen, and I’m still working on how to become more accessible”.
“Almost everything I do in my life, from sitting in a chair, to throwing on the wheel, is non traditional. I see things differently, and recently I allowed that to affect my entire practice. My most recent work is based around Cyborg Theory, which is found in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto and Octavia Butler’s science fiction novels. I describe cyborg theory as ‘anything mechanical that is created to enhance one’s life’”.
Shawanda’s plans for the future are to continue working as a freelance practitioner, training people with physical disabilities to create art.
See more of Shawanda’s work here: https://www.shawandacorbett.com