DesignCraft Heroine: Sharon Virtue

Actually, forget the DesignCraft…Sharon’s our heroine in many categories. Yes, she’s a master of her craft (ceramics), but she’s also an entrepreneur, teacher, activist, and change agent.

An irrepressible spirit, a force of nature, a connector of dots, we love her vision of art as integral to life (and not just a spice to be added to it) with the power to change and heal. We love that her life is all about “and”: black and white, African and European, artist and change agent, big picture and fine detail. Mostly we love how she just puts it out there….and makes it happen.

In fact, as we post this, she’s just left for Haiti, where she’ll be creating an arts program called Heart in partnership with Save the Children. It’s goal: to nurture the community – rebuild it – all through art. (See what we mean?)

We met up with Sharon at Ruby’s, the renowned cooperative ceramics studio in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, where she’s had her studio for many years. We of course, had to ask about the accent….English but Americanized a bit so she sounds a little Australian. (Whatever,  it’s great and every word is delivered with verve.)

Background highlights: childhood in Birmingham, England. Daughter of a Jamaican dad and Irish mother. (Mum and dad were clearly trailblazers too: mixed marriages weren’t exactly common in Birmingham when Sharon was growing up.) Youngest of five. Always knew she’d be in the arts. Went to university at Sheffield Polytechnic where she learned ceramics. Trained in dance. Came to San Francisco in the 1990s, joined Ruby’s in 1992 and has been doing her thing–that is, many things–ever since.

With some people you have to work hard to see their personal life stories in their work. Not you, though. You’re very up front about it. (Laughter.) Yeah. My work is very much about the blend that I am….I’m not just one or the other…that’s really important.

The Jamaican comes in through the color and exuberance–I was amazed by all the color and light and vastness when I went over there in my teens. But I also get a lot from my Irish Catholic side; my very devout mom built altars all over the house, and there were always lots of icons…all that gold. And both sides have that relationship with magic–all those unseen forces. I get to bring it all–anthropology, mythology, religion, African mysticism, Irish-paganism–into my work.

How did you get interested in art as a force for change? It’s just what I’ve learned along the way. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that art can be–and is–a force of change (though that’s changing). I think it’s about helping kids–and people–to understand that they really can create their own reality. This understanding helps people create stronger communities, gives self-confidence and respect, a stronger sense of identity. It shows people that they already know how to help themselves…and that it’s not all about someone giving them cell phones to change their lives.

What was your epiphany? It came in Africa…at first I wasn’t sure what to do but the opportunities kept coming to me–you know how that happens when it’s the right thing to do. I happened to be in a village in Mozambique called Quelimane…I met a group of kids there. Oddly enough there was a kiln there (installed by a monk from San Francisco)…and a few months later, I went back to teach the kids ceramics. A couple of years later, I got the funds to go back and build an arts center there.

I got Ruby’s to do what we ended up calling the Wide House project (and got a grant from the SF Arts Commission). We taught classes for 12 weeks at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House…I told the SF kids about the kids in Mozambique, and the kids here made tiles for the kids in Mozambique.  And those tiles are now part of the arts center. (Another example of joined up thinking!)

How on earth did you know how to do this? I didn’t!!! I had no idea! I didn’t start out knowing how we’d do this, how we’d make it happen….but I just started moving, talking to people, putting out the word. I sold a lot of work to finance the trip and the preparation surrounding the project….and things happened! (Make sure to check out Sharon’s website for even more stories about how she’s helped communities around the world.)

You’ve also got a San Francisco program, the Mud Bus, which is also about getting kids to learn about art. Yeah. In fact, the Wide House project was an early version of the Mud Bus. Now we don’t have a bus (yet) but it’s definitely a mobile studio–we bring the materials to the kids, and do all the firing at Ruby’s.

But how do you know you’re really making a difference? (Big smile.) It’s really those magical moments…when things align. Kids love the chance to make things, to be a part of the process…to learn new things. Already, people in the developing world are using their knowledge (of materials, of systems, of forms) to help themselves. I hope to jump off from that and re-kindle this connection to making things…especially when the making process itself makes a difference in someone, or in a mindset. It’s all about creating spaces for people to come together. When I go to Haiti, we’re going to be trying to demonstrate that art makes a difference. We’re going to encourage the kids to communicate. I have a lot of ideas. (Yeah, we got that sense.)

OK, let’s get back to your art. How would you describe your style? Flamboyant. Positive. Kind of describes me, too, I think. (Oh yeah.) Obviously, I love to blend the European and the African, and make people look at things in a different way. In my latest work, it’s about blending 17th century European rococo with African textiles. It’s funky but it plays with and challenges our idea of identity. I was inspired by the art of Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili, (both British artists of African descent, and both Turner prize nominees) who really push the idea of social, racial and cultural stereotypes.

And who would play you in the movie of your life? Ooh tough question! Other than me, you mean?! (Suggestion from the Ruby’s peanut gallery…Mae West). Oh I don’t know. No one famous!

And what books are on your bedside table? Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. Alice in Wonderland. I’m going to reread 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Secret LIfe of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Oh, and a set of Tarot cards. (She’s a Libra, by the way, with five planets in the house of Leo. Her words, not ours.)

And what are you going to read on the plane? Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea. It’s about Haiti, of course!!

What five things define you? What are your touchstones? A beautiful piece of ceramics that I use every day….a beautifully made cup (not made by me – I collect other peoples’ work)…a really nice warm, fluffy pair of slippers…my computer and camera–they’re very important tools for what I do….oh, and my foam roller for unkinking muscles. (We hear you on that one.)

And what’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? What I’m about to do.

Words to live by. Good luck and happy trails, Sharon!


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Filed under Ceramics, Heroes and Heroines, SF Bay Area

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