Parkland student learned to make do — and to make art — in Africa
Eric Shine likes a challenge, so he set off to Africa, where he'd never been before, to work in a village where he didn't speak the language at all, to learn how to make art in the hardest possible way, with recycled materials, limited tools and the mud and sand of the Niger River.
When the Lord gives you banana stems, you make banana art.
The stems, which resemble molars, are present in many of Shine's finished works, which include magnificent tribal masks. He recently gave a talk on them in the Parkland College Art Gallery.
Shine, 29, is a Parkland College student taking advanced metal-working classes while working full time at Cafe Kopi in downtown Champaign.
Shine grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood. He came to Champaign-Urbana in 2003 to study engineering at the University of Illinois but eventually realized that his heart was actually in the fine arts.
Last year, he joined a three-month study-abroad program via Antioch University. (He stayed on for six months.)
Shine left in September 2012 with seven other students to apprentice with an artist in the West African nation of Guinea. The students, six men and two women, went to different places but saw each other occasionally.
The Peace Corps and Fulbright Scholars (faculty) had earlier missions in Guinea.
"But we were the first group of students ever to study in Guinea — true-to-life Guinea pigs," he said.
Shine didn't know a word of the Malinke (also called Maninka) language at the time. He's humble about how little he can speak it now, even after being immersed in it for months. Malinke is not a language you can learn at Parkland or via Rosetta Stone.
In the greater Kankan metropolitan area, you can choose between Malinke and French.
"I didn't want to learn the colonial language," Shine said of parlez-vousing Francais.
So when he met his teacher, Sekou Berete, they had to communicate through gestures, or "charades" as he calls it.
That was fine with the two metal-workers.
"Art is a visual medium," Shine said. "I spent a lot of time watching Sekou. A lot of the training was, 'Let me show you how to do it,' and then I would do it."
What Shine didn't know at the time was that he was on a three-week probation with his teacher.
If the master didn't approve of his artwork, the student artist was basically stranded without a teacher — at least until Antioch University could find him another mentor.
Luckily, the two hit it off, and Shine quickly learned how to make a kiln out of rocks and bricks in a metal pot — and to keep it hot working a bellows.
"It smelled great, like honey," he said of the melting process, using locally sourced beeswax that had its impurities strained off.
The next step was covering the wax figurine with a clay casing. Arms and legs were usually cast on another mold.
Berete taught Shine how to use any metal he could scrounge — even pipe fittings — to pour into the mold to create bronzes, or perhaps brasses.
Tin, copper and zinc were the primary metals used by the artists.
"The proportions change every time you make something," Shine said.
The resulting finish is usually somewhat rough.
Looking at a two-thirds scale mask, fellow Parkland student Justyna Sokolska praised its rugged majesty.
"I'm very impressed by the methods he used and how art is made from recycled materials," she said.
Another art student, Eric Wildhagen, said the thousands-year-old process employed by Berete and Shine was an interesting way of studying the processes behind lost-wax casting at the most basic level.
In the case of traditional African lost-wax bronze casting, the wax was truly lost: Artists did not have a good way to recycle the wax as it poured out of molds in staggering heat.
Berete has been practicing the art for 23 years, Shine said.The teacher had just moved to Kankan a few weeks before, and could not find all the tools he needed, so Berete used a "mobile unit" without some of the customary accessories.
Shine said some modern casting techniques were out of the question in a region where there was no electricity or running water. Larger cities in Guinea have sewer trenches in the streets.
The trip to Guinea wasn't Shine's first art odyssey.
In 2011, he won Parkland's Don Lake Art Scholarship. The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts Scholarship gave him an opportunity that summer to travel to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains for a resin-casting workshop.
Shine put a raw slab of bacon in the resin and won an award in 2012's Governor's State Community College Juried Art Exhibition.
"That's one of my favorite pieces that I still tote around," he said of bringing home the bacon.
Though the town he lived in doesn't give out artistic awards, there was the opportunity to sell his work. More often, though, Shine would trade it for other artists' pieces.
Berete has done well in his Kankan stay with his art sales, Shine said.
"A lot of affluent Africans will buy the art," Shine said.So do foreign tourists.
Shine also acquired skills in bogolan, a Malian tradition that involves permanently staining cloth with fermented mud. The method was originally used by hunters to blend in when out in the wild, he said.
Designs, sometimes very intricate ones, were drawn first on the cloth.
Hibiscus flowers served as the fixative in the artwork of Berete and Shine.
The mud was applied, allowed to dry and then a water rinse finished it off, Shine said.
Types of mud from different places have different tints. Iron in the mud contributes a reddish hue, he said.
The art is often used on traditional shirts, including the one he wore the day of his talk.
Many of the items sold in Guinea are from China. But donated American T-shirts frequently show up in Guinea, Shine said.
"I saw a Jon's Pipe Shop shirt over there," he said. "It was such a local connection" to see the shop's name and the orange and blue colors.