Laurie Shapiro invites you to walk through a tunnel to enter her mind. Through June 11, Three Rivers Arts Festival visitors can do so by stepping into a metal truss covered in psychedelic canvas. Measuring 12 by 12 by 18 feet, Shapiro’s mesmerizing piece is titled, “We Are All Connected To Each Other Through Nature.”
Though the New York-born installation artist presented the work in San Diego months ago, returning to Pittsburgh is a “coming out” of sorts.
Speaking by phone from the Los Angeles International Airport before boarding a plane east, Shapiro, 33, said that coming to Pittsburgh is “special.”
Between 2008-2012, she was a student at Carnegie Mellon University.
“It was a really great time in my life where I was just learning a bunch about myself, learning about my artwork, exploring new mediums, and really building that foundation to the work that I make today,” she said.
As an undergraduate, Shapiro was introduced to Fran Flaherty, a Pittsburgh-based deaf artist.
Founder of CMU’s Digital Print Studio, Flaherty runs Anthropology of Motherhood, “an ongoing curation of artwork and design that engages in the complex visual, material, emotional, corporeal and lived experiences of motherhood, care-giving, parenting, nurturing and maternal labor,” according to its website.
“I met Fran my freshman year, and we just connected,” Shapiro said.
Flaherty told the Chronicle she not only “admires” Shapiro’s work but that the two artists have a “very mutual respect for each other.”
After graduating from CMU, Shapiro remained in contact with Flaherty, who serves as director of the Dyer Arts Center and Advancement for Deaf Culture at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
“My relationship with Laurie really encompasses the culture of care,” Flaherty said. “We really take care of each other.”
Shapiro spent the past decade in California. Returning to Pittsburgh, she explained, presents a chance to revisit old haunts with new eyes.
“Sometimes I see life not necessarily like a circle but like a spiral where we go back to places, and we’ve changed, but there’s still a lot that’s very similar,” she said.
That juxtaposition of returning while moving forward is exciting, the artist continued:
“I am going back to a place that was very nurturing me, very inspiring, offered a lot of growth, and now I’m coming back to it at a time where I’m also experiencing all those things.”
A week ago, Shapiro shared a message on Instagram with her nearly 28,000 followers. She said she has a condition that is causing her to become progressively deaf.
The Festival is her first showing since that announcement.
“This is really my coming out,” she said.
Flaherty said Shapiro’s piece, which is one of several works under the Festival’s Anthropology of Motherhood banner, demonstrates an “interconnectedness with her deafness.”
“As a person who doesn’t hear a lot of the outer noise, my inner world is very amplified, and that comes out a lot in my artwork,” Shapiro said. “Everything is very colorful and very visually expressive, almost like psychedelic.”
Though this is Shapiro’s first show in which she’s paired her work and hearing loss, it isn’t the first time she’s mined her experience.
She often weaves her Judaism through her pieces because doing so, she explained, furthers a spiritual connection.
Growing up in New Hyde Park, on Long Island, Shapiro attended Hebrew school. She praised the educational experience and said early conversations introduced her to a “very open way of seeing God in everything and part of everything.”
“That connection to spirituality and my Judaism, it’s a big part of what’s inside the work and what drives it,” she said.
Festival-goers who embark on Shapiro’s structure — the painted canvas is 14 panels of mixed-media paintings on marine-grade vinyl — may appreciate it more by knowing about the artist’s faith and deafness, but viewers are encouraged to “feel whatever they feel in the work,” the artist said.
“As far as what people get out of the work, you know, that’s up to them.” PJC
“We Are All Connected To Each Other Through Nature” is on display through June 11 at The Backyard at 8th & Penn, 149 Eighth St., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.