If you’re ever choking to death in a public place, you might want to cast another glance before turning to Rudy Shepherd.
Shepherd abandoned his pre-med track years ago in favor of life as an artist and a decided lack of lifesaving aside, has never been given cause to regret it.
Lately, Shepherd has been pitching his easel at the School of Visual Arts and the College of Art and Architecture at Penn State, where one of the latest in his series of sculptures — titled the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers — idles on behind the Palmer Museum of Art.
The artist talks more about a career as an artist and the big idea behind his even bigger sculptures below.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: That is actually a much trickier question than you would expect: I was born in Baltimore, but we moved to Lubbock, Texas, when I was 3 and then to Houston a year later where we lived until I was 12, then we moved to Rochester, N.Y., for one year (I think it must have been too cold or something) after which point we moved to Springfield, Va., (outside of Washington, D.C.). My parents still live in the area.
Q: What’s the first thing that you can remember creating?
A: I don’t remember the first thing I ever made, but the first thing I remember related to art is winning a drawing contest at school in fourth grade in Houston. I made a drawing of a longhorn steer behind a fence — I think I got third place or something, but there was a show and my parents came to see it; I was very proud.
Q: Was that when you first began to identify as an artist or was that something that took shape over time?
A: I did actually, but then it was forgotten as I got more into sports and identified with that. I didn’t get back into art until I was in college — three years in, actually. I started at Wake Forest University as a pre-med student (biology major) and didn’t take my first art class until my junior year. It was a sculpture class, and I loved it. I didn’t know it then, but it would change the trajectory of my life.
Q: Where was the last vacation you took?
A: After building the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers on campus in eight days, I went with my family to North Myrtle Beach for a week — some much needed rest after some hard work.
Q: Is there a painting or sculpture out there that you would like to see face to face at least once in your life?
A: I have seen many of my favorite artworks, living in New York City and traveling to Italy to teach a study abroad program in 2010, but I think I would like to see Antoni Gaudi’s architecture in person in Spain. I love his work and feel a real affinity for the way he constructs things. I feel like I would learn a lot from seeing his work in person, especially his Sagrada Familia, his unfinished cathedral.
Q: In the case of the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers, what made sculpture the right medium for this project and what you were trying to communicate?
A: The idea of this project is to make an artwork that offers up a simple spiritual solution to the complicated, scary problems of our world.So it made sense to me to make a very large sculpture, larger than you, that you can interact with directly — something that offers its presence out in the real world that we live in and addresses you in your own space.
Q: How many of the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers do you think you’ll end up creating? Where does the total stand now?
A: There are now five large-scale public Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers, two currently on view (the one here in State College and another I am just finishing in Harlem as part of the inHarlem exhibition with the Studio Museum in Harlem.) But there are also many smaller Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers, ranging from a 6-foot tall one in my office on campus to 4-inch tall ones made of papier-mache.
Q: At what point in the day do you feel most creative?
A: Probably in the morning, though I very rarely work at that time. It is a time when I get a lot of good ideas.
Q: What inspires you?
A: My artwork comes from living in the world, from paying attention to what’s going on in the news, reading books, listening to music, running in the woods — all of it.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as an artist?
A: Fred Tomaselli once told me that you can have it all — a family, an art career, a life.