Shae Acopian Detar is the New York-based self-trained artist whose hypnagogic images will draw you into another world - her own dream world realised through the mediums of photography and paint. Inspired by renaissance paintings, impressionism, post-impressionism, music and literature, Shae enhances her photographs with paint to create colour-drenched images that could easily befit the scenes within whichever Brontë or Dickinson novel she happens to be reading except here, there is no tragedy through heartbreak - romance is as natural and eternal as the crimson moss and dusty candy pink cliffs that grow out of the expansive land in Shae’s surreal utopia.
You paint over photographs and make fine art too, what's the process for each?
One involves more planning than the other. I have to find models, locations, develop film and spend a lot of money to make large prints of the photographs. When just strictly painting, all I need is paint, turpentine, brushes, a canvas and my imagination. Oh, and coffee and music ;)
I'm currently spending more and more time painting on a blank canvas. But I've spent the last 7 years working on mixed media photography, with a photograph as my base layer, printing it out large (5-7 ft) and then painting on top of that. Painting on photographs was my entry point into painting on it's own, which I've become obsessed with. But I love taking photographs and making them something else, and challenging myself to see something beyond the image printed out in front of me. I have a lot to say right now with paint, things that I can't say in the same way in a mixed media photograph…so I am focusing on mainly painting right now.
When did you first pursue them?
I began painting on photographs and also making collages around 12 yrs old in my journal. I never even thought to be an artist because I was an aspiring actor. I grew up doing musical theatre, TV commercials and doing theatre camp every summer and training to be a serious actor in NYC every single week. But I created in my journal all the time, it was really fun and just an instinct I had from early on.
How does a typical day in the studio go for you?
A typical day starts with me and my dog Waylon (a special needs rescue Shar Pei) getting coffee and going to the park for his first walk of the day. Then I head into the studio and if I am working on a commission, like I am right now, then I'm painting a large scale painted photo (5-7ft usually) and listening to either biographies, documentaries, podcasts or music. I break mid-day for more coffee, and then back to painting. I’m likely to be in the studio until nighttime. Then I read (currently reading John Keats biography, and just finished Charlotte Brontë's biography) or watch a film at home or go out with friends.
And a shoot day?
Shoot days are usually fun and very chill, but require more planning. I cast for women on Instagram usually and then once I have a group of women, we take either a van or SUV and I drive us to a beautiful location. We listen to music and chat on the ride there and get to know each other. Once we arrive at the location I take a lot of photos…improvising really, trying different things. Then we finish and if we have time, go to dinner and then drive back to the city. If I am doing a commercial job, like when I shot the cover of NY Magazine or something in that realm, then I am putting on a more leader type persona. I have to be the captain of the ship, because everyone is looking to you for direction.
While you’re working, is there anything in particular that allows you to really get in touch with your senses?
Music. Music really affects me when I am painting. Sometimes I am in this really hip hop mood, sometimes I'm only listening to classical and all I want to hear is film scores or Bach or Mozart…then other times it's the 60's and 70's and I'll have The Beach Boys on Repeat, or maybe it's a Bjork, Radiohead or Aphex Twin Kind of day. It really varies, but it definitely spills over into my work.
I love that Frida Kahlo didn't seek to be famous or be known, she just painted because she needed to, to get through the pain of her broken body and from not being able to have children due to her injuries.
What effect does living in New York have on your practice?
I grew up in NYC and also in Pennsylvania so I have a deep love for both the city and being outside the city in nature. I am incredibly inspired by nature. NYC will always be home to be in some ways, but mostly because it's so familiar to me and I have family there. I love the energy and fast pace, with people rushing about doing their thing and all of the art that is there, and the small cafe's and I absolutely adore that there are so many different kinds of cultures there. It's so beautiful that for the most part, so many people from different countries and ethnic backgrounds all live in this city together. I find that very inspiring.
Who are some of your female icons?
Jane Austen, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Brontë. They are each very different individuals, but they all had such passion for their craft and lived and breathed it. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson were courageous enough to create novels and poetry in a time when people really discouraged women to think, to create or to have the audacity to have opinions, let alone on a public platform. They were ridiculed, judged and not only by men of their day but also by other women. Sharing their work with the world was something that took great strength and no doubt required one to walk through a lot of self-doubt and overcome fears, and to trust themselves and their intuitions more than the pressure of what other people thought of them and their work. I hold them in such high regard and I am so moved and inspired by their work and their fearlessness.
Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe are equally as inspiring but their worlds were much different, and as women they were more free to express themselves - the culture and times were less discriminating towards women than in the 1800's. I love that Frida Kahlo didn't seek to be famous or be known, she just painted because she needed to, to get through the pain of her broken body and from not being able to have children due to her injuries. She once said, "I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration." Her art is honest and pure and her life and her work moves me tremendously. Georgia O'Keeffe was sort of similar in the sense that she didn't need a ton of fame and people gushing over her like so many people do in these modern times we live in.
It's not about how “successful” you are in your own lifetime, I think it's just important to enjoy making your work, and making it because you must.
You started to passionately pursue art in the last seven years, what are some words of wisdom you can impart on the key things you’ve learnt along the way?
I would say to anyone, young OR old who is entering the art world (of any kind) and pursuing dreams, to let their fire burn within them, work really hard, and don't be afraid to fail. Failing always teaches me so much and if I let it, it makes me stronger and better. I would also stress the importance of walking through those moments of fear. You will have many encounters with fear as an artist, it's inevitable because being an artist is all about walking into the unknown and bearing your soul and daring to IMAGINE. It's a courageous thing to be an artist…expect to be judged, possibly even misunderstood, but don't let that concern you - just keep creating and filter out everything else except what you need to keep your imagination ablaze. If you don't do something because you are afraid of it, you'll never know what kind of magic you missed out on.
C.S. Lewis said, and I always tell this to people, "You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream." Don't hesitate to become an artist because of your age! Grandma Moses was an artist who began painting around 78 years old and her paintings sell for millions, George Eliot published her first novel in her 40's…Mary Delany was 71 years old when she started her art career and her work is now in the British Museum. The list goes on and on.
One last thing, don't let the idea of “success” influence you. Success is relative. Do you know how many masters of art died obscure and poor? SO many. Their work gets discovered years and sometimes centuries later. It's not about how “successful” you are in your own lifetime, I think it's just important to enjoy making your work, and making it because you must. Being on this earth and being kind to people, animals and the planet - that is success! I love what Maya Angelou says about success so much. She said, "If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.”