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Sha Sha Higby

Ephemeral sculpture moving slowly in a thousand intricate pieces

Ken Rackow & Maureen Martin

Sha Sha Higby approaches dance through the medium of sculpture. Using the painterly manipulation of materials and textures, she creates intricate costumes made of wood, silk, paper and gold leaf. Animated by Higby's incredibly subtle and beautiful dance movements, the costume, interwoven with a labyrinth of delicate props, creates a path in which movement and stillness meet. Shreds of memory lace into a drama of a thousand intricate pieces, slowly moving, stirring our memory toward a sense of patience and timelessness.

Higby, who lives in secluded Bolinas, California, has spent many years studying dance and crafts-making in Asia. On her first Fulbright Scholarship she spent 1 year in Japan and 5 years in Indonesia; an Indo-American fellowship and a second Fulbright Scholarship took her to India. She has performed in venues around the world including Leningrad, Tokyo, Sydney and Singapore, as well as on both coasts of the U.S.

We talked with Sha Sha Higby about her art, philosophy and life experience.

Maureen Martin: How did you get involved with this form of art, costume/sculptural performance?

Sha Sha Higby: When I was a child I made birds. I had them all over the house. My mother would take me to the zoo a lot, and there were all kinds of colors in the birds. I'd go home and make them and have them all over the room. They were painted and they were drawn. I was 7 or 8 and my family was divorcing, so I had to have some sort of outlet. It was something to divert me, a way out. I had a good time. It would get me off on a track so the other things wouldn't bother me so much.

In my teens I made Easter eggs with scenes inside. You know, you blow the egg out and put scenes inside. I made those to sell. I would make sewn things. I'd make mice, bride's maids or old people.

MM: Christmas mice? Ornaments?

SSH: Finger puppets. Then I got into dolls, a little later. My father had said I needed to make money, to make a living. So I thought, "Well I'll make dolls for a living." The dolls were in toy stores. But they got so ethereal and monochromatic, they were too eerie. I was depressed because I had to sell them immediately. I would really put a lot of focus into these dolls and I had to pay my rent.

Later, after college I applied to stay with a Japanese family, for this exchange program. Then I decided to stay on, because once I'm there, I just hang on and learn. I studied with a craftsman who creates for the Noh Theater. They have very elaborate costumes, and these heads, these masks. They move so slowly, they're like sculptures. They have this strong, emotional quality, but it's very slow. It's subtle. You might be falling asleep while it's happening, but this mountain of emotion builds up. Then they have a break, with humor, and then go back to the drama. Mostly it's dramas on women, the subtle qualities of a woman's character. I spent a year carving masks. It takes a year to make two. They're carved out of Hinoki wood. I'm using that same finish on the masks I'm making now. It's fifty layers of bone lacquer sanded down every fourth layer.

Ken Rackow: What happened when you came back from Japan?

SSH: I came back for a couple of years and continued with the stores. Then I tried galleries because the dolls were offbeat and they didn't really work for the stores. So I brought one to a gallery on Sutter street, and the lady there said, "You have to have slides." Well I had one doll with me and I just opened the case and the client who was in there bought it.

MM: On the spot!

KR: It had a Noh mask style?

SSH: It was monochromatic, a plain face, in dark cream with its own wardrobe. No flash. It was plain, but it had this feeling - absolutely sparse. After Japan I wanted to make things very plain with subtle earth colors. A lot of time and focus went into them.

KR: You started selling to galleries?

SSH: I made contact with the Lester Gallery in Inverness. They had all California artists, box artists with intricate work. I sold quite a few pieces out of there, but I wanted the pieces to move! I didn't like them in boxes. All the focus was put on keeping those plexiglas boxes unscratched! I wanted them to perform.

KR: How did you get from doll-making to performance?

SSH: Well I got this grant, actually two grants, to go to Indonesia. Two months before I left, I did one performance. The sculpture, I took it out of the box.

KR: So, originally it was that you wanted movement in the work.

SSH: Right.

KR: And then you decided you'd perform with it?

SSH: Right. And I wanted them to have an atmosphere. I thought of it as an atmosphere with movement through the room, like the light that comes through the window in the late afternoon. It's there for a moment and then it leaves. I wanted the work to be like an apparition.

It was in Inverness, in a wooden house. It was a home performance. I made a hundred little loaves of bread with twigs on them and made all the invitations by hand. It was a performance in a wonderful redwood house, one of those old wooden houses with a stone fireplace. People had to climb up a steep trail to get there. It was full of magic.

MM: Then you applied for the scholarship?

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SSH: A grant to go to Indonesia. I wrote it by hand because I didn't have a typewriter. I did get it, to go to Indonesia for a year. Then I stayed for four more years. For the first year I felt I had to absorb the culture and learn the language. I went to different places. I did a little work, but when I go to a foreign land I drop everything in order to absorb.

MM: The grant took you first to what area?

SSH: I was in Bali the first year, to adapt. It's a good place to adapt. Bali is complex and bright. Java is subtle, more somber and complicated. Central Java is old world royalty. Within their "palaces" they've maintained the ancient, animist, royal format. The arts are focused around that. There's a hierarchy of levels. Everything's very bland, but underneath is all this richness. It's like a flat landscape when you look at it, but when you peel it away there's all this richness and complexity of layers, which I like in my work. I went to Indonesia to study the elaborateness. Japan is simplicity. Indonesia is the fullness of the ornate.

By the second year I had a place where I was living and a studio. I started to make sculptures. I have a lot of them at home that haven't yet been made into pieces. They were created back then, completely out of batik and native materials.

KR: The costume you worked on there is leather?

SSH: Carved water-buffalo hide. That's my favorite piece. I worked four years on it. I made three costumes while I was over there. Two of them I haven't used in performance.

When I make my work, I make a lot of pieces. Then I gather all the pieces around me and start putting them together. When I was in Java for four years a friend came to my studio the first year, and then the last year, and said, "Has anything been happening here? I just see a pile of stuff in the corner." It was all these pieces of costume that I was going to be sewing together.

MM: People always ask if you have a concept of the performance when you start making the costume. "Did she come up with the idea first?"

SSH: Part of it's first, just to get going, to work. I'll have a longing for something that I want to see. Actually I wouldn't really care if these costumes are for performance. I would like them to become more personal than before. I've been wanting this for a long time. It's just something I do for myself. Something that I put on every day. Maybe I can only do it with my own aura. It's a relaxing thing I do, that makes me think of life after death. It's something that's very warm emotionally that makes me feel generous and open. It's more private in a way. I perform it now because that's as far as I've gotten, but I imagine a way to deal with my own age, my own transitions in time for the short period I have here. I'm concerned about it.

MM: The afterlife?

SSH: Yes, or death. I think of the work as a private thing. It can also be for others but it's something between the skin and the air that you could pull delicately and it would come off, like layers of compressed auras.

The costumes are so physical. I want them to be more like a skin that would carefully come off and become air.

MM: Many people compare your performances to an insect shedding its skin.

SSH: That's a very physical way of describing it. I'm trying for something else, but that's an image that people are getting along the way. But I want it to be more earthy than it is now, more organic than it is now. I'm striving for something so organic that you can't tell the body from the costume, like an aura. I also want to pull people in to this thing, this creation.

KR: What kinds of materials do you use to make your costumes.

SSH: Carved wood, paper, silk, sticks, gold leaf, ceramic pieces. I make all the pieces. I spend a long time on them.

MM: Do you still use leather?

SSH: A little bit, close to the body. But the fabrics are all silk. The fabric is hand dyed silk that's stencil stitched. I start with paper and then pull away the paper and dye between the lines. I use metallic threads and then dip the silk in rabbit skin glue to make it stand and make sound when I move.

KR: How long does it take to make one costume?

SSH: In Indonesia I made one costume a year. I made them more elaborate. Here, with all the things going on, it takes about a year and a half, but I'm doing more things now, teaching and performing.

KR: When you do a performance, do you have the concept and a specific choreography set in advance, or is it all improvisation?

SSH: Point to point is set in advance. I know I'm going to start from this point and reach that point, and then go here and then there. But how I get from point to point is always different. And then something will happen right on stage that is a surprise. You just work with it right there on the spot!

KR: Something happens with the costume?

SSH: Or a prop. I have a delicate prop and something will happen that I wasn't planning.

MM: Each time you do a performance, it's different?

SSH: Yes.

KR: Let's take a show like "A Bee on the Beach." When you did that show, did you have a specific concept that you're actually a bee?

SSH: No, that's just a title I made up.

KR: So the titles...

SSH: They don't have anything to do with the show. The titles have something to do with the texture of costume, with the concept of the costume, but not with the story.

KR: The performance has only to do with the actual moment that it happens.

SSH: And the assortment of props that I have.

KR: Interaction with the audience?

SSH: With the energy of the audience.

MM: Is that how you came up with the idea of giving the noise makers to the audience?

SSH: That happened originally because I didn't have music. I thought, let the people make the music.

MM: Your noisemakers are wonderful: the cat cries, the baby cries and the bird calls. They're so wonderfully hand crafted.

KR: I've noticed that when the people start working the noisemakers they seem to get more focused in on the performance.

SSH: They have to compose something themselves. They become a part of the performance.

Originally published in Vox Magazine, Vol .1, No. 1


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