Inventive High Country Sculptor Puts the “Tile” in Reptile

From Bali (where he catches snakes) to Bakersville (where he makes art), Shae Bishop does things with a certain style.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

The studio of ceramic, textile, and sculptural artist Shae Bishop is in rural Spruce Pine. But the multimedia artist, who’s also an amateur herpetologist, has traveled far from North Carolina’s High Country for his work: Hungary, Turkey, Mexico, Cuba, Indonesia. “I’ve been able to do residencies in different parts of the world,” he says, “and I’m always synthesizing elements of what I learn.” 

While in Bali, he synthesized his two lifelong obsessions, art and reptiles, into a pair of short pants made from glazed porcelain, leather, brass, and cotton. Bishop titled the wearable piece, which he categorizes as sculpture, “Shorts to Wear While Looking for Pythons.” 

Tulip Folly

“I have had some funny conversations with gallery owners about those,” he says, “but they come from a genuine place. When I made that piece, I was catching pythons in Bali.”

 Bishop ventured out into the jungle at night to photograph the reticulated python, a snake that sometimes grows dozens of feet long to weigh hundreds of pounds. He also hired an experienced Indonesian guide to drive him across the island to select areas to find pythons and cobras. 

Trojan Tweed

“I saw around 13 pythons and one adult king cobra. I didn’t feel in too much danger, and kept a safe distance when photographing the cobra. …  I was so excited about the reptile life on Bali that it just made sense to me to make artwork about that experience.”

Bishop knew that West African hunters in Mali made clothing for bodily and spiritual protection that was decorated with amulets and mirrors. So he fashioned the ceramic shorts, which he later described as “immensely comfortable.” 

From the Bottom Up

He explains that his pieces of sculptural apparel are like self portraits. As a child he loved to catch box turtles, and got his first pet python at age five. He took up ceramics at age nine after seeing a ceramic artist make a frog out of clay. “Tiny things [like that] can happen,” he says, “that can shift the direction of your life.”

The artist’s tile garments are so time intensive he usually only completes one per year.

Bishop learned sewing in a holistic alternative school, before being accepted into a high-school arts magnet program. “I was going to study herpetology, but my real passion was moving toward my art. So I went to the Kansas City Art Institute.” There he earned a BFA in ceramics and art history, and developed a keen interest in ceramics used architecturally. “It’s a structure used to contain and protect, but it’s always making a statement, too.” Similarly, Bishop points out, clothing is always both functional and communicative. “Clothing acts as a nonverbal system of communication. Every society in history has found these ways of adorning the body from a primarily pragmatic or symbolic and ceremonial perspective. It is a human urge to adorn ourselves.”

Bishop sports his signature “Shorts to Wear While Looking for Pythons.”
Photo by Hannah Patterson

He’s also intrigued by cultural histories, the repetition of patterns like those found in weaving and quilting, and the enticement of a technical challenge. “Ceramic is inherently hard, but fragile. To make that into something flexible, you have to merge the material’s dichotomy between hard and soft.” He does that by stitching the tiles together with fiber. “My ceramic garments are extremely time consuming and tedious — I make about one per year.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

In between garment sculpting, Bishop creates exquisite wall-mounted tiles with glazed imagery. After adding fields of color and firing a piece, he’ll do his line work with an oil-based overglaze and a metal-tipped pen, then fire it again. The porcelain “crazing” (fine cracks) and layers of watery glaze give the tiles alluring visual depth, while the scrimshaw-like drawings render them timeless. 

Meanwhile, he’s busy creating a ceramic bathing suit.

Shae Bishop, Bakersville. Find his work at Treats! Studio, 10 Crystal St. in Spruce Pine. To learn more about the artist, visit shaebishop.com or see his Instagram page: @shae_bishop.

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