by Amanda Beland
Two-year-old Erin Shaw sat in her childhood room and painted faces on the walls.
Her family was moving to a new house – but she wanted to leave her mark for the family moving in.
“I was like – ‘This is my home – no one else can live here and the next person’s gonna see that I drew these faces for them because I live here,'” said Shaw. “So, it starts at a young age … but I literally don’t know any other way. I’ve never not drawn, I’ve never not like made sculpture, but I also never really put a name to it. It took me a long time to really decipher what I did.”
Now in her early 30’s, Shaw’s passion for painting, drawing, knitting, designing and sculpting has evolved significantly into not only a career – but a life purpose.
“It seemed like it was always a fight in the background, like I had to prove myself,” said Shaw. “Plus being a woman and a being a soft spoken lady is really hard. Except, through artwork, I feel like I possess a large voice. And maybe in the world, I have a small voice. It’s one of those things where I feel like that’s my handicap in a way, but it’s also something that I’ve learned is special.”
Shaw grew up in Mansfield, Mass. She began drawing and painting when she was a child. She continued in the arts all the way through her teenage years. She moved to New York City after high school to pursue fashion. After a year of going to school for design, she dropped out for financial reasons and started working almost immediately in the fashion world. Shaw worked for several well-known names in music and fashion, including Gwen Stefani.
However, while Shaw had thought this was the type of world she had wanted to be a part of, she soon realized she needed to make a change.
“My first day on the job (with Stefani), I put together an outfit for the new Sex in the City movie, and that was fun,” said Shaw. “So the things I did, starting off at like age 22 realizing this world exists and it’s super cool when you’re in the hype. But I realized as time went on that it was just not where I wanted to be.”
Shaw spent five years working in fashion in New York City before deciding to go back to school. She applied to a couple schools, but decided to attend the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (Mass Art) back in Boston. Shaw said the decision to move back home – partially driven by wanting to be with a sick family member – changed her life.
“Actually moving back to Boston was a huge sacrifice,” said Shaw. “I had come back initially because I had a sick family member, so with what was going on, I was visiting pretty much every weekend or every other weekend. So, I was sitting in a hospital, and I kept thinking ‘You know, what’s going on here? Like where do I need to be?’ It’s pretty much the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. And that is where it (the journey) kind of came full circle for me.”
Shaw studied Fibers at Mass Art, which included disciplines like weaving, paper making and sculpture, among others. Shaw also explored other programs and disciplines, including 3D printing and wood working.
“I just made sure like if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do this,” said Shaw. “And because money was an issue, being in school, I could be as crazy as I wanted to, so I kind of looked at every single day as like the last day and that’s really what kept me motivated. I was never a good student growing up. I mean, I was okay, I got good reviews but I could barely get to school, I hated school. But being at Mass Art, and being at this place where I could actually experience school for what I wanted I do – I really flourished. I never missed a day unless I was like dying with some horrible sickness. That’s where I feel like – all the magic happened for me.”
Within her field of study, Shaw began combining several mediums to create a new and different type of practice called felting. This practice became the basis for a collection of animal head art pieces that were featured in a number of photo spreads and shows. For this collection – and subsequent collections – Shaw would draw her design in pen (no pencil!) before literally bringing her design to life in a 3D form. Shaw used felt, among other materials, to create the designs.
(Pictures of the collection – among Shaw’s other designs – can be found on her website.)
“I like making illustrations and then turning them into real things,” said Shaw. “I picked up felting which is something that you do with raw wool and a few needles. The needles are very sharp – they have little hooks on them, so if you snag your finger, you’re in trouble. But it’s something I kind of picked up and fell in love with and then from there, it was really just like a magical thing.”
Shaw graduated from Mass Art in 2012. Since then, she’s been splitting her time between curating her own drawing, painting, sculpting and knitting and her “day job” in co-running the Harvard Square specialty shop Follow the Honey. Follow the Honey focuses on locally made and produced products, services and lessons focused on bees and their honey. Along with her managerial role, Shaw is also a featured artist at the store. Recently, this has materialized in the design and creation of hand-sewn flower crowns dipped in bees wax.
For Shaw, the experience and opportunity to work with bees wax as a medium is an honor.
“If we can do some math, it takes them (the bees) the pollination of over two million flowers to make one pound of honey,” said Shaw. “It takes them – at the hive – to consume eight pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax. And therefore, like, when we’re talking about beeswax, when I’m talking about beeswax, or I’m dipping flowers in beeswax, I’m just like completely honored – it’s really unbelievable because of how much work they do.”
Shaw is also in the middle of an apprenticeship with Danger!Awesome where she’s learning how to use lasers to cut drawings in wood. It’s a specific technique, according to Shaw, that’s been taught to less than 50 people in the world.
“It just came out of me wanting to learn and keep busy,” said Shaw. “As an artist, I find myself never wanting to keep my hands still.”
Shaw said she finds much of her inspiration for her art from powerful women – including Mother Nature.
‘My inspiration comes from Mother Earth and beauty,” said Shaw. “That’s kind of an underlying thread in everything I do whether it’s illustration or sculpture or even just writing. It’s almost always kind of this feeling for me of like past life – just empowering women and wanting to highlight them and adorn them and raise them up in the most magical way. As far as bees go, when I was at Mass Art, before I was interested in honey, one of my professors was talking about how in Egyptian times, they used to wear cones of wax on their heads and they would gather as if they were at the gallery opening and they would admire art or whatever it was and women would sit and let the cone of wax drip down their faces and they have charcoal on their eyes and I just find that one of the most beautiful, inspiring, pieces of history.”