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Former illustrator addresses societal issues in sculptures

Omar Shaheed at the Brandt-Roberts Gallery on Sept. 19. Credit: Tristan Relet-Werkmeister | Lantern Reporter

Omar Shaheed, former children’s book illustrator and current sculptor, has his work on display until Sept. 29 at the Brandt-Roberts Gallery.

Most of his sculptures are a political statement in free form, from tabletop size up to 10 feet high. He tells stories that he lived, as a black man who was once homeless. Shaheed has travelled across the country to show his art in about 80 exhibitions.

“The way he approaches the stone is very intriguing to me because he doesn’t necessarily need his work to have the perfect form,” Michelle Brandt, gallery manager, said. “If there’s an odd shape he will leave it and let the stone decide.”

For the show “Salvage/Transmute,” Shaheed worked on the metaphor between broken stones and broken social bonds.

“Everything that I carve is not drawn or sketched, I just carve with my soul, from my heart,” Shaheed said.

Shaheed enjoyed illustration but said he soon realized he needed a third dimension to fully express himself. He had a revelation when he visited a sculpture exhibition and immediately bought carving tools after. Without any prior sculpting education, he even opened a sculpture studio in Los Angeles at the beginning of his career.

When the artist finds a rock, he breaks it with a hammer, looks at the different shapes and finally picks the one he finds the most inspiring. His goal is to bring out what he sees in the stone, Shaheed said.

Shaheed said he used to smoke marijuana when he would carve stone.

“Once […] you’re free of any chemicals, you feel warm,” Shaheed said. “You feel intoxicated in a nice way and you can carve anything.”

Although Shaheed said he hasn’t smoked a joint in 14 years, but he remembers what it was like.

“I can still capture that feeling in my work,” Shaheed said. “It just stayed with me. So now, I’m high all the time.”

To him, carving is an endless search of the inspiring stone. Once a sculpture is finished, he doesn’t even like it anymore because he is already working on another one, Shaheed said.

He said his works convey messages on the social and economic situation in America..

“Ghetto Tower” denounces the housing situation of the African-American community and the overall issues of gentrification. The sculpture is a personified building with broken windows and hanging doors.

Another sculpture depicts a mother and her child, representing homelessness and the starvation associated with it.

“Love” is a more abstract sculpture which plays with the texture of the stone: the inner curves are softer than outside ones. It represents the link Shaheed has with the stone, personified with a discreet hand on the side of the mermaid-shaped sculpture.

Shaheed is currently slowing down his activity and aims at carving no more than three pieces a year. He said his body is suffering from carving, as he developed arthritis, even though he is willing to accept the drawbacks.

“Salvage/Transmute” is on display until Sept. 29 at the Brandt-Roberts Gallery, located at 642 North High St. Admission is free.

 

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