Raising the Art of Repoussé
by Sara Estes | Photography by Jerry Atnip
Nestled in the bottom floor of an inconspicuous commercial building on Charlotte Avenue, the studio of painter and repoussé artist Jamaal Sheats looks like the fusion of an art gallery and a bustling construction site. Industrial swaths of aluminum, copper, and steel glimmer in the overhead light. A headlamp rests on a worktable next to an array of seasoned tools and rolls of wire mesh. Dozens of painted canvases and metal relief sculptures casually lean against the white walls.
“Every piece starts with a question,” Sheats says, as we begin our tour through the expansive site of his workspace and project galleries formally known as Sheats Repoussé. Lately, he says, his work begins by asking himself one question: “What makes me me?”
A natural-born researcher and lover of history, Sheats continually draws on the past to inspire new works. From his cultural heritage to ancient folklore to his formative years at Fisk University, Sheats feels he is a composite of all the people and places he has known throughout his life, both personally and through his studies. If Plato’s sentiment that art imitates life is true, then it is fitting that Sheats’s artistic aesthetic reflects the same composite or collage effect he identifies in himself.
Sheats continually investigates aspects of his identity through his art. Positioned at a unique intersection of historical and personal narrative, each new piece attempts to navigate and appropriate history in a new and compelling way. “In many ways, my work is about charting and mapmaking, burying and excavating,” he says. Within his imagery Sheats incorporates everything from Mesopotamian maps to the Samsara to iPhone apps. In the calmer corners of his work, there is the quieting sense that time is cyclical, that all things cycle through and pick back up again.
An intrinsic love of tradition is one of the central reasons why he chooses to work in repoussé, a laborious and nearly lost art of metal relief sculpture. Repoussé is a technique by which an image is hammered into the reverse side of a sheet of metal—usually copper, steel, bronze, or aluminum—to create a relief on the front. Sheats is one of a scarce handful of artists in the country working in repoussé. He learned the technique from its modern master, the late Fisk University art professor Gregory Ridley. “When I started out,” he says, “I didn’t know anyone other than Professor Ridley who did it.”
During Sheats’s undergraduate years at Fisk, Ridley, who was in his mid seventies and well known for his work in repoussé, took Sheats under his wing. Ridley sensed his natural artistic talent, and it wasn’t long before Sheats had changed his major from business to art, and Ridley began referring to the young artist as his protégé.
“I used to go over to his house when I was a student,” Sheats says. “I did most of my learning inside his house instead of at school. He was up all the time. I could go out with friends and stop by Ridley’s house on the way home, and he would be working. We’d go outside, have a drink, and sit on the patio.”
After Sheats graduated from Fisk in 2002, Ridley continued to train him in the art of repoussé and helped guide him through the art world. “He would give me a list of artists and people to contact when I would travel. Anywhere I was going, he’d give me a list of galleries or collectors, anybody he knew, and he’d say, ‘Tell them you’re my protégé.’ So everywhere I went, I’d take fifty paper portfolios and a list of names.”
Ridley died in 2004 at the age of 78, leaving Sheats, one of his only students to fully pursue repoussé, a distinct torch to carry. Between Ridley, the faculty, and the school’s art collection that he avidly studied, Sheats was indelibly marked by Fisk University. “Everything I do, for the most part, I try to put something about Fisk in it,” he says. Among his influences he cites Aaron Douglas, Marvin Posey, and late Fisk art professor Stephanie Pogue. “When I paint I always think about Pogue,” he says. “She made orange look so good.” He mastered flesh tones by studying James Porter’s Woman with a Jug and learned to draw hands by spending hours examining the Winold Reiss portraits in the main library.
Visually, Sheats’s work is diverse. In one corner of his studio stands a black monochrome work in progress whose gridded rigidity feels like something Louise Nevelson might have dreamed up. In another corner is an utterly serene Japanese maple expertly painted in colors so warm they wrap around the viewer like a chenille blanket. Other works still are palimpsestic and process driven. “I look at each mark as a memory, each layer of paint as a memory,” he says as we stand in front of a heavily layered abstract painting on a wood panel, its surface repeatedly gouged and chipped away. “The more you build it up, the more distant they become.”
Few artists can transition between media and aesthetic quality as fluidly as Sheats. “The reason why I can work on multiple things and bounce from different media,” he explains, “is because Ridley used to always tell me, ‘You can think; you can breathe. Just make art.’”
In 2011, Sheats received an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston where he studied under María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Gerry Bergstein. In 2013, he returned to Fisk to join the faculty and carry on the legacy of repoussé. Perhaps he’ll even find his own protégé to continue the lineage.
I end my visit by asking Sheats the one question that I like to ask all artists: Why do you make art? “To have a voice,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say or how to say it. But I want to have a voice.”
For more information about Jamaal Sheats please visit www.jamaalsheats.com.