American Craft Article

Fear & Fascination by Judy Arginteanu

What inspires Shayna Leib’s Wind and Water series? A scuba diver could say in an instant. For that matter, the interplay of light, color, and movement is recognizable even to those of us whose deep-sea experience is confined to Sunday-night Nature episodes.

Look more closely at Leib’s work, and you’ll glimpse something else: hours of intense labor. A large wall sculpture (about 4.5 by 2 feet) might contain some 40,000 individual pieces of hand-pulled, custom-colored cane, which she then slumps, cuts, and meticulously arranges in intricate patterns, like those nature seems to create so effortlessly. It takes many weeks to produce one sculpture.

“I remember the day I [first] saw her work,” says Jay Scott, co-owner of Habatat Galleries Florida in West Palm Beach, which has carried her work for about four years. Even as a 15-year veteran of the glass scene, he was struck by her work at a SOFA New York show. True, he’s drawn to underwater themes; “but then I got closer and looked at the process and the detail; on top of that, the craftsmanship was amazing. It had everything. That was what really blew me away,” Scott says.

Collectors Karen Depew and Steve Keeble had a similar response. Though they concentrate on wood art, they chose a Leib piece for pride of place in their Chevy Chase, Maryland, home. “I’ve never seen anything like the movement and the color together,” says Depew. When friends enter their house, she says, “they just go right to the piece. ‘What is this? What’s it made of?’”

With the help of one assistant, Leib does all the work in her 640-square-foot studio, a converted warehouse in the charmingly boho East Side of Madison, Wisconsin. (She can just fit the length of the cane pull along the long side of her narrow rectangular space.) She can spend hours on the coloring process alone, and each piece of cane has at least two colors to add shimmering depth. She can use up to six different versions of a color in a monotone landscape; for a multicolored piece, the number may be 25 or 30.

Leib grew up in San Luis Obispo, California, earning a bachelor’s degree at hometown California Polytechnic University in philosophy, with minors in glass and literature; she earned her MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in glass and metal in 2003. (“I’m married to glass, but I have an affair with metal,” Leib says.) She worked as a metalsmith in Ronald Hayes Pearson’s studio in Maine, re­turned to her alma mater to teach briefly, then came back to Madison for a yearlong teaching position in 2005; since that ended, she has worked in the studio full time. And while she has a portfolio of striking functional pieces in glass, along with jewelry and hollowware, Wind and Water consumes most of her time now.

Given the watery presence of the series, it’s little surprise that Leib is a diver. Perhaps more surprising: It’s a recent development.

For most of her life she harbored a phobia of deep water – even the deep end of swimming pools. At the same time, as became obvious in her work, she was fascinated by ocean life and aquariums. Leib yearned to see her subject without the barrier of a glass wall. Ultimately, desire trumped fear, and five years ago she made her first dive.

She quickly discovered a paradox: “I’m calmer and calmer the deeper I go. It’s serenity, and it’s bliss. It’s just the most wonderful thing in the world.” She seeks that same kind of serenity when she conceives new pieces. She no longer uses sketches; instead, she says, she meditates for about an hour to visualize the piece from start to finish. Once all of the prep work is done, she starts her pieces in a corner of the “canvas,” and they seem to expand organically. Chatting in her studio, she grabs a piece of sidewalk chalk from a shelf neatly lined with plastic bins housing varying lengths of colored cane, then quickly sketches a rectangle on the concrete floor, filling the lower lefthand corner with what look like fish scales to represent the groups of cane as they blossom outward. “I can’t work one area, then skip over and work on a spot in another area. I have to chase the edge, see how it unfolds.”

It’s a process she’s developed over the eight or so years she’s been working with the series, and “it kind of messes with your brain,” she concedes. Her painstaking methods are no picnic, either. “I’m probably one of the most inefficient glass artists out there,” she says, but she’s not planning to change. She tried streamlining her methods, she says, but “it just didn’t achieve the effects I wanted.”

She’s not too worried about other artists trying to copy her process; the attention to detail it demands offers a kind of “built-in protection,” she says with a wry smile. “I’ve had fellow artists come up to me and say, ‘I got as far as a four-by-four [inch] version of your piece, and I was ready to put a bullet in my brain,’” she laughs.

As she has become more proficient as a diver – she’s now certified for deep-sea diving and night diving – she’s also seen her work change. A major influence, she says, is her transition into larger freestanding sculptural pieces, like the 6-foot Crevice (2011). She’s also using more transparent color, as in the stunning Stiniva pieces (2011), which look lit from within. While less costly to produce, the layers of subtle colors actually require more time than her more contrasting, opaque work.

Habatat’s Scott says it’s just a matter of time before Leib becomes a household name. Depew and Keeble agree. “We think she’s a real talent,” says Keeble. Adds Depew: “She’s one of the artists we watch to see where she goes.”

Judy Arginteanu is American Craft’s copy editor.