“Open Door Interviews” is an informal interview series developed in collaboration with HCCC and social media intern James Pickens, intended to give insight into our resident artists’ creative process.
This past April, I joined Lakea Shepard in her studio. During our visit, Lakea shared her journey as a textile artist while she worked away on her latest work. We also discussed life in Houston, and her experience here at HCCC.
The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
James Pickens: How long have you been an artist?
Lakea Shepard: I’ve been an artist my entire life. Even before I started kindergarten, I was making art – it’s basically the only thing that I know.
JP: When did you start working with your chosen medium?
LS: I started working with textiles and fabrics because I’ve always been around them since my mom worked for a textile company. But I really started to focus in on it when I moved to Detroit, like [in] about 2009.
JP: How would you describe your style of craft?
LS: My particular style of craft is what I consider [to be] where craft meets fine art. I mean that my work is very technical based, but also focuses on conceptual backgrounds.
JP: What is your process when developing a new piece?
LS: My process when developing a new piece starts with my sketchbook, so I’ll take any ideas that I have come about throughout the years and then I’ll just kind of combine them, and mesh them all together. I kind of sift through those ideas in my sketchbook to hone in on exactly what I’m trying to say. So from there, I’ll sketch up the design and make sure that everything is planned to the T. Because the kind of work that I do is not something that I can stop and start or redo, I try to make sure that everything is in place before I get started on the actual process.
JP: What other elements do you consider when beginning a new piece?
LS: A large part of my process is material development and material sourcing, because my work and my ideas speak through the type of materials that I use. [One time], I was using some random cords, some random materials, and I had an art critic ask me what was the purpose of the cords that I was using. And at the time, I didn’t really have a purpose. And I told him, “I don’t know.” And at that moment he said, “You should always know where your materials come from.” And ever since then, I made it a point to understand the basis of the materials that I’m using.
JP: What ideas inspire you to make your work?
LS: I feel like within Black culture, there’s a lot of things that aren’t being said, and that need to be said. And I feel like the purpose of me creating the type of work that I’m creating is to make sure that I’m speaking about things that matter, and [about] things that can educate the masses. I try to take personal situations that I may go through, and combine them with art. It’s important that I combine art history and Black history to create some sense of connection. Because I feel like there is a lot that has been lost between where we are today, and then the history of how we’ve become. So I just try to make sure that even if I can’t use the information, maybe my children or future children, when I do have them, will have information that may not be accessible when I’m long gone.
JP: When did you begin working with the idea of vessels?
LS: So, I watched a documentary on Netflix. In that documentary, they were trying to make connections between current residents here in America, and slavery. And within that documentary, they spoke about the ships that they traveled on as vessels. That immediately started to make me think about what a vessel really is because we consider ourselves vessels. That’s something that I’ve utilized in my work before looking at this documentary, so it made me go back and assess what a vessel really is, what it actually looks like, and what kind of impact vessels have on our life.
In our conversation, Lakea speaks about her conceptual use of vessels. She shared with me that she has been working with vessels for many years,because the baskets she weaves together have historically been used to store and carry items. While Lakea’s work takes visual cues from traditional African works, she says that there is no specific reference or region that she draws inspiration from. Her innate desire to create intricate vessels and masks has led her to produce works that reflect her own history combined with elements of Black history overall.
JP: How has your work changed over time?
LS: Each series that I make is often completely different than the last. Even though I do that, I still take bits and pieces from previous series and incorporate them into new ones. The biggest change within my work has just been trying to release old habits. I have always been very strict about how I go about making my work, because I want to be able to follow the plan that I’ve created. But as time goes on, I’m learning to release some of that control in order to let intuitiveness into my work.
From here, our conversation changed course as I asked Lakea to reflect on her experiences as a resident artist and what it’s been like living here in Houston.
JP: How has having an open studio affected your artistic practice?
LS: So, this is my first time having an open studio within my residency and it has been interesting. When I first arrived, I felt like I had to actually “put on the show.” But I got to a point where people are going to have to accept my process just the way that it is. No matter if I’m dancing in my studio at the time, or just being extremely focused. So having an open studio has really opened my mind to a bunch of things that I never would have known. So many people have intellectual gems that I never would have found, and I’ve also had people who were inspired enough by my work to donate materials.
JP: What is the biggest change you’ve seen since beginning your residency?
LS: I’m an introvert, so I don’t naturally gravitate towards people. But this experience has helped me open up to people in a different way. This experience has left an impression on me as far as just being open, and being able to actually speak about and share my work and process. In addition to never really being afraid to expose myself in fear of my ideas being stolen.
JP: What will you take away from your experience here at HCCC?
LS: I’ve had to constantly embrace change within my work. That’s been extremely difficult for me, to just be true to myself and where I am, and understand that I embrace who I am and put that on display for others to see, and possibly judge. I’m always evolving, and I’m an extremely complex Black woman, and I feel like my work has to reflect that no matter what.
Part of the 2022-23 cycle of resident artists, Lakea concludes her time at HCCC in May 2023.