Artists in Action: LiShinault

Posted by Carey Hall on

Lisa Shinault-Fratesi, known in the art world as LiShinault, creates artwork that is rough and textured, yet soft and beautiful. Although highly feminine, her work displays elements of surrealism and art nouveau, which juxtapose the delicate beauty of her figures. There are many themes that remain constant throughout LiShinaut’s body of work, such as the female figure, missing limbs, and birds. Her “Difficult Women” and “Hula Girls” series explore many of these themes, all while challenging the viewer to look past the seeming tragedy of the missing pieces, to find the somber beauty in something and someone who has been stitched back together.
I sat down with Lisa in her home studio in Decatur, Georgia to learn about her intricate and time-intensive process of sewing together pieces of painted canvas and burlap to create a finished piece, and to hear the heartwarming story of her mother, who served as a huge inspiration to her and her work.
AAR: Why did you chose to go by the name LiShinault, as opposed to your full name, Lisa Shinault?
LiShinault (LS): I go by Lisa all the time, but I refer to my art as LiShinault, kind of like a business name. It is a blend of my first and my maiden name. Lisa was, and sort of still is, a popular name and there are a few other Lisa Shinault’s out there. So, I’ve noticed the one name blend helps to avoid any confusion. Although I do not bother correcting people when I’m referred to as Lisa Shinault in a group art exhibit. It’s not that big of a deal. Confusing, right? Pretentious? Yep, I admit it is. Also, I feel drawn to those who are referred to by just one name.
LiShinault in her home studio
AAR: Tell me about how you began as an artist.
(LS): I was raised, with two other siblings, by a widowed mother. Mom signed us up for various things to keep us busy after school, while she worked, but the one thing that really caught on for me was art classes. I started earlier than the teacher allowed, at eight years old, but since I was really quiet and behaved well, she let me stay. I was hooked. It was just a couple of hours, once a week, painting with oil on canvas. I mainly learned by watching my teacher as she added things here and there, while she strolled around helping us with various still life arrangements and seascapes. Through the years, I’ve had several ‘arty’ jobs, in which I learned skills that I use now in my own art, such as ceramic tile painting, gold leafing, and reverse glass collage. Even receptionist jobs have helped me with the organizational and communication skills needed for an art career.
After moving to Atlanta in the 90’s, I met up with an enthusiastic photographer, Chris Verene, who encouraged me to look into showing my paintings. I also assisted him with scenery for his photography set-ups and salon events, which sometimes involved shows in NYC, and still does as of very recently. I learned a lot from him about approaching the art world. He is still a close friend and great person to go to for advice.

AAR: You earned your BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design. What was your concentration in?
LS: I began in graphic design, but quickly changed my major to Painting, because I felt more passionate about painting. I was inspired by the painters I was learning about in Art History, having not had that sort of art history background, despite learning all the painting techniques in my early years. It was a bit of a naive decision, because having a graphic design degree would have made more sense for achieving a “real” job out of art school. However, I am happy with the twisted road I’ve taken. It’s always exciting.

AAR: Do you have any funny stories about being a student at SCAD?
LS: I attended at the Savannah location, so it was great to take in the beauty of the old historic district surrounding me. For a while, I lived with a few other classmates on the third floor of an old townhouse with a wonderful rooftop view of the city. A friend of ours was a horse and carriage tour guide. Her route included riding past our house. Since Savannah is so well known for having ghosts, we often used sound equipment to make eerie ghost sounds as the tour group passed. We probably scared a few, who knows?

AAR: Your process includes a lot of steps and layers. Walk me through it.
LS: I typically do not make “fast art”, although I admire those who work that way. I like to live with a project for a while. I work in a few different medias, so this could be quite a complex answer. Oil on canvas with mixed media is closest to my heart, so I’ll talk about that process.
For the past several years, I started each work by playing a self-made game intended to keep ideas fresh. I have several jars of different things that I like.  I’ll open the jars and pull out the different words, until it seems to become an idea that I like. I don’t always go completely with the jars; I’ll disagree with them. Years ago, someone said to me,  “You’re always painting the ducks and people without arms.” I hate being expected, so I decided to take all the things in my head, and put them in the jars. I’m always adding and taking away from the jars, so this way, it mixes it all up. It’s still stuff that’s kind of expected of me, but it’s a little more complex.
So, I’ll write down the choices from the jars, and make a few loose sketches of what it is looking like in my head. It’s exciting to find out what I’ve “assigned myself” to do. Sometimes a single figure, or a couple of figures, animals, or something more simple and abstract like a veil. The jars tell me all the aspects of what the figure will wear or look like. Sometimes the ideas are too complex, so I edit quite a bit. I don’t go completely from the sketch, in fact my cutting and sewing process came about because I change things constantly. Years ago, instead of painting over hours of work from the previous day, I took a blade and cut out the canvas, then put it aside for something else. After painting something new, or choosing from past painted canvas scraps, I sew it into place, using thick black yarn stitches. I like showing my edits. The stitches become part of the language, or seem decorative, but the sewing itself also serves as an almost mindless task while I decide what else to do.
I often choose the size of the painting after working on it for several hours. I will typically roll out four to five feet of canvas and staple it to a board or a wall. After the early part of painting, I sew things together and often add a burlap backing to help add length to fit around the stretcher size I’ve decided on. Burlap is a choice, mainly because it’s cheap, but I very much like the neutral colors it comes in. I would love to do the same with natural linen, but haven’t yet made that leap.  Plus, I rather like the roughness of the burlap. For a while, I used burlap coffee bags from local cafes, but I haven’t done lately.
I then stretch the patchwork painting around the stretchers in the usual process of stretching canvas using staples, but much more delicately since things are not as secure. I often have to re-adjust things over and over.  This is one reason why I came up with the theme “Difficult Women” for a large amount of my work, but not the only reason, there is more to it.
At this point I finish off whatever painting needs to be done, add gilding perhaps, or sew in a small window of collage on plastic, whatever the jars say to do. Sometimes I put the whole thing aside for a while and work on other stuff. It nice to let things simmer for a while. Often, unless working on a commission, the projects I am working on relate to each other and I use similar ideas and materials in those particular works.
Once completed, there are steps to ensure longevity, including carefully painting a layer of black latex to each stitch of yarn, coating the back stitches and burlap with clear drying glue, and then polyurethane. Lastly, after waiting six months for the oil paint to dry, I add a protective layer of varnish.
AAR: How does creating something, only to take it apart and build something new influence your initial approach?
LS: It gives me the freedom to change my mind. As mentioned in my process, I was frustrated with the way I would paint over something that took hours to paint. So, with my method, I feel free, and excited to change it all up, because it seems more interesting in the end. I’m inspired by Dr. Frankenstein sometimes, with all the cutting things apart and replacing them. The large stitches on the figures look purposely crude, much like the stitches on Frankenstein’s monster. However, I prefer to keep a certain bit of beauty throughout most works. I love a bit of mystery mixed with the pretty.

AAR: Do you see a finished product when you begin or do you envision it as you move along?
LS: In most cases, I envision it as I go. Unless it is a commission, in which I must stick to the plan.
AAR: How do you know when it is finished?
LS: It is finished when it feels right. I admit that answer is kind of vague. For some things, it can be months or years before completion, because certain painted pieces sit around a while before I feel like they are right to be added into something else.
AAR: What is your favorite tool to work with?
LS: Safety pins are one of my favorite things to work with. I’m always pinning canvas together or pinning it to burlap, so I can sew it all together later. I’ve got all kinds of giant safety pins, because they’re nearby for me to use with my big things of yarn and giant needles, to ram into the canvas. This keeps all the canvas in place and sometimes I end up painting while the pinned canvas is all put together, so these end up with paint all over them.

AAR: A lot of your work features images of women. What initially inspired you to feature women so predominantly in your work?
LS: My ongoing theme, “Difficult Women,” is based on a number of things, but mostly inspired by my mother, who raised my siblings alone after the loss her husband. I relate that kind of loss to that of losing an arm or a leg, but “re-gaining” it in an unusual way, in order to make things work. So, despite them being difficult to make, they are also symbols of having a difficult life, overcoming loss, and therefore becoming stronger, while still remaining graceful and beautiful. They are each works of fiction, but based on reality. Also, and more simply, I’m drawn to lovely images of people, like Medieval iconic art of the Madonna with child.
I love being a woman, and I relate very much to the female figure. I love adding clothing and frills, headdresses, etc. Not that it can’t be done with a male figure, but I do relate to the female figure a lot more, so there are a few male figures in my art over the years. It is unbalanced, and I would love to work on that.

AAR: You mentioned your mother. Can you tell me more about her?
LS:  She was a shy, quiet, and very humble woman, with a lot of faith and values. As I mentioned, she inspired my “Difficult Women” series, although she was certainly not known for being difficult. She was incredibly sweet.
After Dad's quick illness and death, she was in a bit of shock, and had to leave her teaching job.  Later, she tried to find another one, but couldn't, so she took a much lower paying job working at the YMCA.  She went to school at night and earned her Master's degree in Teaching, but ended up working at the Y until she retired, years later.  She was thrifty, clipped coupons meticulously, and showed us how to help her with meals, and keep the house and yard looking nice.  I loved wearing my older sister's hand-me-downs.  She turned down offers of help from extended family, but, at least they were there for her if she felt she truly needed them. My brother was a major hyperactive handful in those days, and he immediately plunged downward in his grades. Dad's death was the worst for him.  However, mom found someone at the Y to teach him guitar, and that became a huge passion for him. Our house was always booming with heavy rock music thanks to my brother. Being latchkey kids, we kind of did our own thing after school, but she still managed to ensure we were involved in music and art after school.
In my artwork, I often show an arm missing, which has been replaced in fictional ways. I guess Mom found an 'extra hand' in using creative outlets to help us grow into who we became. I remember being very aware of her single parenting, and how hard it must have been for her. It seemed mean to not do our chores, because who else would do them? Her? This person who had a million burdens already? I know it sounds 'trite', but she never complained. In fact, she was full of love and peaceful joy. She would stay up late into the night pondering over bills, papers spread out on her bed. If I walked in, she would sigh, and just let out a tired laugh, sometimes explaining the importance of saving money, etc.  She sang with our church choir, and I remember thinking, "Why? No one could hear her soft voice." I later realized, the choir was the one outlet she had for herself. People always talked about how beautiful she was.  She was selfless.  Most parents are. I never ended up becoming a parent, but worked several years as a nanny, and wow! Do I ever admire what parents go through to raise their children! Whew!
LiShinault with her mother, Mary Lou, a few days before her passing
AAR: In what ways have you been able to hold on to your mother and your memories of her through your work?
LS:  She preferred colors that were brown, beige, muted greens, etc. There are some things I have tried to keep in a certain muted color spectrum, the burlap I use is directly attributed to her. Growing up, she attached a large swath of burlap to my bedroom wall, for me to pin posters and things to. I remember visiting my old bedroom, after I started to incorporate burlap and sewing into my work, and seeing the burlap with posters still attached, and thinking, "Oh my gosh! The subconscious brain is amazing!"  The stitching I attribute to her mother, my grandmother, who taught my sister and I how to do embroidery. Although, my stitches on the paintings are far more crude than how she taught me.
Years ago, I painted veils into my work. They reminded me of the bedroom curtains Mom put in the room I shared with my sister. I've been painting more veils now.  My last image of her, while healthy and full of life, was when she bent in towards my open car window, as I was about to drive off. She had a sweet smile, which was also on the verge of tears. She often had slight tears when saying good bye. Almost every day I try to re-create that lovely image of her in my head, but as time goes by, it becomes muted, as if covered by veils.

AAR: Many artists gain inspiration from other famous artists, your inspiration is a deeply personal one. Has it been hard to continue with your work, after not only losing your mother, but your biggest inspiration?
LS:  After she died, I helped my siblings settle things, which took a while.  My sister urged me to focus even more on the art, because “that is what Mom would have wanted.” I tried to do that, along with the pressure to work on projects others wanted me to do. Thinking of her did inspire me to break out of my unnecessary burdens and re-gain my focus. Her inspiration has grown more over the years, as I looked more inward and realized much of the reason why I was painting these 'armless women'. However, I turn to many things for inspiration:  The Venus de Milo, Frida Kahlo, Rodin, who did not feel the need to sculpt much more than a torso at times. Mainly, I just really enjoy forming these images and playing around with different imaginary ways they can entertain the eye, or sometimes fool the eye. Some have told me they've looked at one of my 'Difficult Women' for several seconds before realizing the arms were disconnected or replaced.  I'm inspired by past jobs, such as visual merchandising, where I dressed mannequins and had to take their arms on and off, dolls, paper dolls, great music, etc.  
My mother hoped I would make my artist life a more traditional one, painting seascapes, flowers, etc. I appreciate art like that, as well, and am thankful I have the skill to work traditionally. She's always inspired me to make it beautiful, even though I did not end up painting seascapes, which she understood a lot better. She listened to me explain my work over the years. I don’t think she quite believed me when I attributed the hardships she faced as inspiration for my work. I think she was just beginning to understand that in her last year alive. I didn't get to see her often, but we talked a lot, and she seemed to accept my different viewpoint with art quite openly. In her last years, she even volunteered at a local gallery, and constantly sent me clippings of other artists whose work or way of thinking reminded her of me.  She is in my heart now. I still share little milestones with her.  

AAR: Do you have a specific piece of work that always reminds you of her?
LS: “HouseDress" is a painting that directly references a single mother with a child. She is wearing a pretty little housedress, and her extra arms hang around her neck. House dresses, basically old raggedy dresses, are my favorite thing to wear in the studio during warm weather.

AAR: Do you have an overall favorite piece you've created?
LS: “The Lovely Duck.” It was one of the first works in which I purposely cut and then sewed canvas and other media together. I hardly had any canvas to work with. I had an old painting I was trying to be an abstract artist with, and I decided I wanted to paint a duck, but I didn’t have enough canvas for the duck, so I cut two pieces and ended up sewing them together. I gave it to my boyfriend for Valentine’s Day years ago.  We are married now. It was more of an experiment, and I’m really glad that I still have it.
"The Lovely Duck"
AAR: Animals are often featured in your paintings, especially birds. How do you feel these animals fit into your work?
LS: Many of my early childhood paintings were of animals, mainly just whatever appealed to me at the time. When I finished school and moved into my first apartment, I lived down the street from a small duck pond. I spent a lot of time there, and grew fond of the ducks, sketching or photographing them. They were your basic, white, feathered ducks, and naturally I began to put them into my work as a symbol of sorts. Since “The Lovely Duck” was a gift to my future husband, the white duck symbolizes love when I add it in somewhere. All the other birds are just fun to paint, almost in the way flowers are, an endless color palette, and variety of shapes. Others, like the owl can add a definite mood to the work. Sometimes I play around with combining birds and other figures, a goat-bird, a duck with a human head, a dog wearing a mask, etc. I love the exotic feel they naturally bring.
AAR: You have a series of works that are painted on glass. How is this medium different from your usual process?
LS: My reverse glass painted collages are very fun to make. Usually the first thing I do is draw directly onto the glass with a paint pen, resulting in something that ties the figure together, or becomes an outline for something like an abstracted fish. They are not your typical painted glass works, because I first paint with water based paint onto paper, then cut it out and adhere it to the back of the glass in small pieces. Then I add glitter and other bits of decorative things, and add an all over painted background. It is all carefully planned out, depending on what should be seen on the viewer’s side of the glass.

"Story Time"

AAR: Do you feel that your work sends a specific message? If so, what is it you want to convey?
LS: I love something I can enjoy looking at more than once, and also something that has a bit of beauty. I like hearing from people that they spend quite a while viewing my work, taking it in like a short story.
AAR: Who is your favorite Atlanta artist?
LS: E.K. Huckaby. I’ve been mesmerized by what I could see of his work over the years. I like his complex work processes. Most every piece is beautiful, yet kind of creepy at the same time. Filled with a lot of odd mystery, yet timelessly classic.

AAR: Tell me about this piece.
LS: This one is in process, very sketchy. I usually don’t do share what I'm working on, but I was feeling good about this one. I don’t think I’ll touch her face much more, but her hair has a long way to go. It started out as a standing person, but she’s about time, so she’ll end up with an old style clock on her head. We’ll see if she still has the clock behind her.

AAR: You've shown at many galleries here in Atlanta, which was your favorite and why?
LS: “Raymond-Lawrence Gallery”, which is no longer around. My gallery rep at the time had a place named “Gallery Zebu”, where I had my first real gallery experience. She bought out “Raymond-Lawrence” and added me to the stable of artists. That place was large and had a certain grand feeling, which suited the artwork really well. She’s wonderfully positive, and still represents me from time to time, without having a brick and mortar type gallery. I still really love having someone else represent my work. I very much respect what galleries do for artists, even though the equation has changed over the years.

AAR: What is the hardest/easiest part of making art for a living?
LS: Believing in what you are making. Art is something that can be shot down easily by others as not being important, and it is easy to fall into a downward spiral, and leave it all behind to do something “real.” I’ve had plenty of “real” jobs that I am still being called upon to do, but my biggest ambition is to make my vision my main business. When I make something that is true and of myself, there is usually not too much of a problem finding a home for it.

AAR: Do you have any advice for young creatives?
LS: Have critique sessions with your friends and fellow artists. This is such a great era for reaching out and sharing with each other. I’m part of a small group, called the “Atlanta Critique Group,” in which we get together and show what we’ve been working on, to get feedback. Sometimes we have group shows. I am very private, so it is easier for me to keep to myself, but I find it encouraging to have a certain set of cohorts to show things to before playing the gallery game. However, in the end, listen to yourself. Stay true.

AAR: Do you have any connections to or experiences with the film industry?
LS: At SCAD, in the eighties, I was an extra for various films. Of course I also joined in with the short films my art student cohorts were making. In Atlanta, I wanted to get in with the movie scenic industry, and worked scenics on a low budget film, The Initiate. I went on to work scenic with the Alliance Theatre after that. All great experiences.

AAR: What excites you most about the possibility of your work being used on set?
LS: I like the idea of my art being used as part of one big vision. I love seeing my work on the wall of a patron’s house, along with their other possessions. The work has a whole different voice that way, whether as a fixture of beauty, or as a certain style the owner hopes to convey. To be honest, I would love to have my name included in credits as part of the set, but I realize that is not the norm.

AAR: If your art were a film, what film would it be?
LS: Frida. I listen to the soundtrack rather often when painting. I briefly studied Frida Kahlo while at SCAD, but never became truly familiar with her work until someone assumed I was directly inspired by her. I looked into her work more, enraptured by it. I love the way the movie brings her paintings to life in its surreal sets.
AAR: What's on the horizon for LiShinault?
LS: I have been planning to get into a silkscreen series soon.  I've been experimenting with making jewelry, featuring details from my paintings. Most recently, I have taken a bit of time off from side jobs to concentrate on my main work, involving much of what I’ve already talked about, but with a renewed inspiration from my mother’s death. So far, it is somewhat abstract and involves veils. I don’t mean to bring anyone down, but some of my favorite work has come about through sad experiences. Life is beautiful that way.
To see more from LiShinault, you can visit her website at

That’s a wrap!

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