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Eartheater covered in snails by Samantha Shawzin
Prosthetics Samantha Shawzin, Makeup Nina Carelli, hair Charlie Le Mindu

The New York artist transforming fashion designers into freakish sculptures

Having scored a major collaboration with Shayne Oliver, Samantha Shawzin talks chainsaw crying sessions and covering Eartheater’s breasts with snails

As Samantha Shawzin cast her eyes on Shayne Oliver’s dismembered head, she felt the door close on an intense period of personal upheaval. The artist had been studying Oliver’s face with obsessive detail for days, with recordings of his voice reverberating through her studio speakers, as she scooped, carved, and etched every crease and pore in 3D. So when she saw crowds huddling around the sculpture during the designer’s New York Fashion week comeback, it stirred surreal and morbid sensations. 

“I had been grieving the loss of a very close friend and a relationship breakdown, so it was like exorcising my own interpersonal demons,” she says, “I was literally working with a chainsaw and crying. It compounded how important it is to live in the pursuit of passion.” Having spent time under Jeff Koons and Tony Matelli, Shawzin finds it difficult not to romanticise the process of sculpture. Despite calling it “miserable, laborious, and physically punishing,” she says it’s deeply cathartic. And this came to a head, quite literally, when Oliver’s bust welcomed guests to his three-day extravaganza.

Though Shawzin’s approach is hyper-realistic, often spending hours on the crack of a dry lip, her work is about more than mere replica. This last piece for example, was also meant to resemble Arca, in a symbolic embodiment of Oliver’s art collective, Anonymous Club. “When you do a portrait of someone it’s not just about capturing their likeness but capturing their soul. For me, it’s about taking ordinary things and putting them in extraordinary contexts.” Her equally surreal approach has earned Shawzin fans in musicians like Eartheater, whom she has covered in genitalia-like snails, and a wearable piece for an upcoming music video – the result of a new silicone lace material she has developed. 

 “I'm like a wizard masquerading as a sculptor masquerading as a designer. And I can't imagine spending my life doing anything else”. Below, we catch up with Samantha Shawzin. Below, we catch up with Shawzin on her sudden rise, snail genitalia, and keeping it sur-real.

Hey Samantha! You’re fast becoming a fashion designer’s secret weapon. How have the last few months been for you?

Samantha Shawzin: Oh my God. It has been crazy. I’ve been juggling so many exciting projects but, weirdly, they all came together at Shayne Oliver’s fashion show last week. Like I’ve been working with Eartheater and her music soundtracked the show... so witnessing all of these different relationships come together felt like a surreal convergence.

It seems as though your work has appeared like a bolt from the blue, but has this been a long time coming?

Samantha Shawzin: It’s been an interesting journey. I was a bad student and ditched class constantly as a teenager. I ended up building a kiln in my backyard out of a barbecue and I’d melt down tin cans so that I could do really shitty sand castings. So I guess you could technically argue that's when I first dipped my toes in the water. I then moved to New York when I was twenty to study illustration but I dropped out after a year and dove head-first into sculpture. I’m a very passionate person and I’m a perfectionist so I just taught myself how to weld, how to sculpt, how to make moulds, and started working for a bunch of artists like Jeff Koons and Tony Matelli. 

“I was a bad student and ditched class constantly as a teenager. I ended up building a kiln in my backyard out of a barbecue and I’d melt down tin cans so that I could do really shitty sand castings” – Samantha Shawzin

You’ve said that you approach sculpture as if it were a form of therapy. How does that manifest in your practice?

Samantha Shawzin: I’m a really sensitive person and I am so deeply obsessed with the process that it always really affects me. When you're doing a portrait of someone, it's not just about capturing a likeness, it's about capturing the soul. It’s hard not to spend all these hours “with” someone and not feel a deep connection to the art that they created. I work with power tools and 14-hour days can be miserable, laborious, and physically punishing. It’s often like exercising my own interpersonal demons.  Emotionally I’m a mess, working with chainsaws and crying. But it’s deeply cathartic and I can't imagine spending my life doing anything else. The past few years have been incredibly difficult both globally and personally but they’ve just underscored how important it is to live authentically and pursue passion. I often work from 10am to 6am but life is short so if I’m not giving absolutely everything to my passion then what’s the point?

How did the Shayne Oliver project come about?

Samantha Shawzin: I worked with Jordan White, Julia Brunson, Menyelek Rose, Minho Nukem, and Jordan Harper White on that one. The head was already designed but I was responsible for bringing it to life in six days. And to clarify, the process would usually take a month. It wasn’t just Shayne’s face, it was a combination of Arca’s, too, so we had to custom mix different pigments and make it all look natural even though it’s completely unnatural. I think the challenge was making it look cool without it being terrifying, you know? The cool thing about sculpture is that it really invades space and I love the idea of being a woman and taking up space, which is why I love making large sculptures. You may not notice me but you’ll notice the things I make. I was deeply shy when I was younger so I have found myself speaking through my work, it’s like this extension of my inner world. 

What do you think attracts you to hyperrealism?

Samantha Shawzin: I don't really know a lot of people my age that specialise in hyperrealism but I feel like it really suits me. It’s this amalgamation of perfectionism and obsession. Hyperrealism can be very boring, though, like technical masturbation if you know what I mean? So I try to put things in a surrealist context. I don't want to just recreate things just for the sake of showing off. There’s a tendency for people to follow whatever’s trendy in art and while I understand that it’s important to live in this collective consciousness, I'm more interested in making things that people haven't seen before. I want to create things that people marvel at. Like René Magritte and Dalí who took the ordinary and placed it within the extraordinary. 

Speaking of extraordinary, there are photos of a naked Eartheater covered in fleshy snails all over your Instagram. Can you tell me what on earth is going on there?

Samantha Shawzin: The snails look like genitalia, don’t they? In the natural world they contain both male and female organs which means they can reproduce autonomously. I like that idea. Of independent sexuality. That everything you need you already contain inside of you. When I met Eartheater through a mutual friend and she was saying how she became obsessed with snails while she was on tour and asked to feature my visceral, fleshy creations in a music video. I’ve been a fan of Eartheater for so long and I feel her work exists within the same world as my personal work. It’s technical, ethereal, and very inspired by nature. I’m also developing new techniques like this sculpted silicone fabric, which she will wear in the music video, too. People don’t know that all of this involves a lot of chemistry and science. My work is at the intersection of science, art, nature, and fashion. I'm like a wizard masquerading as a sculptor masquerading as a designer…

However you choose to define yourself, what’s it like being an artist on the rise in New York?

Samantha Shawzin: I moved here and I knew literally no one. I was dirt, dirt broke, like very poor. I was working in restaurants and there were years of very terrifying financial instability. But I didn’t really have the typical journey. I didn’t study sculpture but I’ve now become a specialist simply because I was so obsessed with it and I’ve been able to lend those skills to so many amazing artists. In fact, I remember the day I got hired by Koons and I literally had minus $200 in my bank account. I cried knowing that I could support myself as an artist. But it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve finally been able to transition into focusing on my personal work. Now, my goal is to have a show this year. I have such ambitious ideas and I’m so hungry and so deeply obsessed. All I want to do is create art and share my world with people.