Shanna Fliegel: Creating Stories Through Texture and Color

Shanna Fliegel: Creating Stories Through Texture and Color

Shanna Fliegel has taught ceramics at Governor's since 2018, and she currently serves as a dorm associate, advisor, director of Soup's On, and JV field hockey coach. Despite her busy schedule, Shanna took a moment to reflect and share highlights from her professional development trip to Bali last summer.

GOVS: How did you come to choose Bali for your summer professional development work? 

SHANNA: Travel to Asia seemed unattainable to me in the past! It all started when I was invited to be a resident artist and lead a two-week workshop at Gaya Ceramic Arts Center (Gaya) in Ubud, Bali. The director of the program, Hillary Kane, and I connected on Instagram in 2020. Many artists post images of their work on a regular basis, expanding on what they are up to professionally, and my visibility on social media made a real impression. Ceramics is not a large field, and my technique is quite specific. I regard ceramic objects as canvases and illustrate stories through texture, utilize a specialized printing process called thermofaxing, exploit color through a plethora of painterly glazing applications, and draw. I really work the surface. Aside from my artwork, I believe my teaching style is extremely personable, and I love exploring personal narratives—my own and that of my students. 

Hillary’s art center really considers the entire experience of the individual. It brings people together in a very spiritual way that leans into experimental approaches to ceramics while still honoring its rich history. My credentials as a practicing artist at other international residencies appealed to her program as well and was a great fit for Gaya. Beyond our interests in ceramics, we are both mothers, are very invested in the outdoors, and cherish our yoga practices; essentially, we became fast friends and wanted to work together. Traveling has always been a big part of how I “chase novelty,” a way to break open into other cultures, alternative perspectives, and processes. Place really dictates how I work in the sense that it displaces me. I revel in change, and the idea of traveling halfway around the world felt wild and the possibilities endless when it comes to finding inspiration in the landscape and culture. 

Indonesia interested me because of a particular body of work I’ve been exploring for the past five years. The concept of the “Anthropocene” investigates how human imposition on the Earth transforms the composition of the soil, air, and ocean. Indonesia, particularly Bali and its Hindu rituals, is a culture steeped in spirituality that feels ancient and fluid and exists with a reverence for the environment. And yet the island's economy is based on tourism, as its appeal is the wild and outrageously awesome beauty. It is a real contemporary conundrum that is forever a Catch-22. This voyeuristic appeal has been tempting tourists since the 1920s. More recently it is a destination for honeymooners and influencers. It is a backdrop for many cool photographs on social media and appeals to ex-pats who want to spend little to get a lot. It is also now a  hotbed for techies who can work remotely. Essentially, while a richly visual place, it is exploited. 

I wanted to know how capitalism and its persistent pressure to be lucrative at the very expense of what drew people to this destination looked like and the resulting environmental impacts.  I wanted to draw and photograph the villages, beaches, and streets beyond what is portrayed in perfect Instagram pictures. I wanted to see the plastic that ends up piled on the beaches, to witness our waste. Historically, I used these images as part of prints and drawings that I then put on clay. 

The culmination of the two weeks was installing my wall work and vessels for critique at Gaya. Upon returning to the US, I had a solo exhibition at Bowdoin College in September, including the work I made during the workshop and residency.

GOVS: You mentioned that there was a great deal of preparation for your trip; can you tell us about that?

SHANNA: Indonesia does not have the same clay or materials that we have here in the US. I had to pack materials and tools, all the while considering what might be flagged by TSA. I also brought my thermofax machine, which converts drawings into prints, a process that is similar to screenprinting. Converting the amps required special connectors for the machine. 

GOVS: Can you share some highlights from your time in Bali, both from your creative work and with the local communities you visited? 

SHANNA: Creatively, I was most impacted by my daily walking commute to the studio. I got to know the families that lived and worked in their shops and rice patties. Watching the children make and fly enormous kites, hauling them off the backs of scooters through small winding pathways, laughing and alive, was incredibly lifting. It was kite season, so the sky was sprinkled with dozens of gigantic homemade kites for days on end. The street, if you can imagine, is sprinkled with dazzling “offerings.” Each day, the women construct banana leaves endowed with bright oversized orange marigolds, hydrangea, bits of food, and even cigarettes. They are offerings to that family’s designated deity. The offerings are piled everywhere. Everyday. At all times. They adorn windowsills, doorsteps, and car dashboards. Adding to the visual significance of these beautiful composites, the dazzling sky full of kites, the sensory overload of incense, traditional clothing, and the ongoing daily rituals in the temples were a complete departure from Western culture. 

Fortunately, I was able to travel for two of the sixteen days. We went to a batik studio where we learned how to dye indigo textiles and create imagery with wax printing and drawing. I was enthralled by the history of masks and puppetry from the area and saw some traditional dancing. Moreover, driving around and attending the small night markets, eating the street food, and witnessing the mass amounts of work that goes into cultivating rice, bananas, coconuts, and bamboo is something to really appreciate.

GOVS: What were some cultural/spiritual differences between your life in the US and what you experienced in Bali? 

SHANNA: The Balinese treat life through a very different lens—the collective is prioritized over the individual. Locals are dedicated to their spiritual practice, and it’s central to everything. Earnings go toward the family compound, all living together surrounded by dozens of shrines and mini-temples. Money is not for personal growth; work and home life are dictated by gender roles within the family dynamic. Both men and women work, but all is for the family. 

I had not been exposed to Hinduism before traveling to Bali. It dictates all components of the culture, and the people are incredibly welcoming. I initially attributed this remarkable friendliness to my socioeconomic status and resulting differences. After lengthy discussions and car trips, I realized the Balinese are genuinely warm and open people. 

GOVS: How did your experience influence you and your work moving forward?

SHANNA: Besides the art center, Gaya also runs a production studio that employs over 100 Balinese—it’s an impressive operation. As a ceramic artist, I am always seeking to learn new techniques, such as glazing and new tools.

The art school part of Gaya opened me up to a whole new palette of glazes, which I plan on testing for my work and the studio at Govs. I was able to really tease out new exercises in drawing, writing, meditation, and photography for myself, which I am using in my AP classes. Using imagery from the region will, over time, make its way into the lexicon of images I use in my drawings on clay. 

Most importantly, I feel like experiencing a culture so unlike our Western lifestyle impacted me the most. We are a minority in so many ways. There are other ways to live and experience time and family. Being connected to things without monetizing every little aspect of life was freeing. 

Shanna’s trip was supported by professional development funds made available through the Academy’s annual fund, The Governor’s Fund. Faculty support is also a major priority of With True Courage, The Campaign for Governor's.