Carla Shen’s Instagram feed is filled with photos of her dressed in beautiful and often colourful outfits that blend in with her surroundings. More often than not, she is matching an artwork, and she uses the hashtag #CarlasCamo to identify these art-fashion “matches”. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Carla Shen is a trustee of the Brooklyn Museum and an avid art collector. Art has always been a big part of her life, thanks to her art-loving parents, and she uses her daily interactions with art as her therapy and inspiration.
LARRY’S LIST had a chat with Carla Shen, who shared how she and her husband started collecting art, how she started this hobby of matching her outfits with artworks, what she loves to collect and why the Brooklyn Museum is in her blood.
What made you want to start collecting art? What is the main motivation behind your collecting?
I grew up surrounded by art. My parents were art lovers, and as an only child, I grew up tagging along on their gallery, museum, and art adventures. My parents collected pop art prints for years before transitioning to collecting early 20thcentury American modernist paintings. My mother was an artist – she co-founded a pottery studio and shop in Brooklyn Heights with three other women in 1974, and also worked part-time at the Brooklyn Museum for 35 years. I saw how enthusiastic my parents were about art and collecting, and I think from a very young age, I was both inspired and determined to live with and among art objects. Art, to me, feels like home.
Shortly after my wedding in 2004, my husband and I moved into an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. It had large white walls that were perfect for art, but we didn’t have anything to hang, except for a few posters from our college days. Initially, I focused more on decorating than collecting, but soon I started to look at and buy “real” art whenever possible. We started small, and grew into larger pieces that now anchor our collection.
So while at first my motivation to start collecting was to fill the empty walls of my apartment, today, my motivation is completely different. I collect art because I love living with works that elicit an emotional response. Various pieces in my house make me laugh, some unfailingly lift my mood, some function to calm me down, some energize me, some challenge me. Some works remind me of an earlier time in my life, some I just love looking at. Depending on my mood on any given day, I will choose to spend an extra few minutes with a certain piece – it’s art therapy for me.
I collect pieces that I fall madly in love with. I never buy anything “as an investment” or based on market hype, or because someone else tells me to buy it. I have a personal connection to every artwork in our home, and there’s usually a story behind it, often including the artists themselves. Another important factor in collecting for me is supporting emerging artists and galleries. When I meet young artists or gallerists, and I can relate to their work and point of view, I want to be supportive, both by purchasing works from them and by helping them network and make connections in the elusive art world.
When did you fall in love with a piece of art? What was it?
I’ve never bought anything that I haven’t been head over heels for. If something is within my price range, and if I can conceive of a wall space for it (or floor space, or table-top space), I go for it. If I had to pick one to talk about though, it would be Maria Berrio’s “In the Time of Drought”. I had been following Maria’s career for a couple of years, and when her gallery invited me to preview one of her shows, I went and immediately fell in love with this particular piece. It is a beautiful and delicate collage of patterned Japanese papers and paint that depicts two girls with baby goats in a mountainous terrain. There is a magical sense of beauty, innocence, and fragility, balanced with a sense of strength, mystery and escapism… It is hung in my bedroom, so it’s the first piece of art I see in the morning and the last one I see before I go to bed.
What is your focus regarding the artists in your collection? Why are you more interested in emerging Brooklyn-based artists?
My collection represents a broad range of artists and mediums, but I tend to collect works by Brooklyn- (or New York-) based artists, with a focus on female artists. Brooklyn has such a vibrant art scene, and I’ve been so inspired by the creative energy, innovation and collaboration happening here. As a trustee of the Brooklyn Museum and co-chair of its Contemporary Arts Council, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting many rising and established Brooklyn artists. I love learning directly from the artist about his or her practice, and as a result, become more excited and likely to collect and support those artists.
Is there any particular type of art that has consistently attracted you, or anything that unites all the works you have acquired?
I have a soft spot for contemporary ceramics, probably due to my mother’s pottery practice. I have recently acquired some wonderful ceramic works including delicate blue and white ceramic hand warmers by Ann Agee, ceramic replicas of designer shoes by Didi Rojas, a 35-piece assortment of everyday objects rendered in ceramic by Scott Reeder, and a 3×3 foot ceramic bulldog head that doubles as a chair by Katie Kimmel.
I also love textile art, and have recently acquired some fantastic textile works by Sophia Narrett, Liz Collins, Sarah Zapata, Caroline Wells Chandler, Olek, Elaine Reichek, Erin Riley, and others.
Lastly, I am drawn to works that incorporate collage elements. From Maria Berrio’s collage of Japanese papers and Ruben Toledo’s collage of watercolor sketches to Mickalene Thomas’s portrait with crystal elements and David Shrobe’s mixed-media assemblage, I appreciate pieces that combine different materials in unique ways to create something new and inspiring.
What were the first and the latest artworks you purchased?
The first “real” work of art I bought was a large collage of scenes and landmarks of New York City painted in watercolor by Ruben Toledo. The images are arranged in roughly their correct geographical locations to create a large-scale map of New York City.
The last artwork I bought was a Zulu beadwork interpretation of one of Zaneli Muholi’s photos from Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi’s career-launching series of self-portraits. The piece is a collaboration between Zanele Muholi and South African master beader, Morgan Mahape.
Have you ever presented/ Would you wish to present your art collection publicly?
From time to time, institutions will contact me to present artworks that I own as part of exhibitions, which is always an honor as it allows me to support an artist’s career more deeply, and provides the public with an opportunity to engage with a piece that I had fallen in love with. For example, I have a stunning miniature by Curtis Talwst Santiago that has rarely been in my home. It has been traveling from exhibition to exhibition for about two years now. I first met Curtis when he was an artist-in-residence at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and have enjoyed watching him continually expand his practice.
What considerations guide you to make a purchase?
I always trust my gut when making an art purchase. I have to love it and want to live with it. For bigger purchases, I also take into consideration the artist’s larger body of work, how their style has changed, their exhibition history, how prolific they are, and sometimes what gallery is representing them (if they have a gallery). It can be helpful to hear the artist’s interpretation of the work or their intent, but not always necessary.
How important is it for you to meet the artists who created the artwork?
It’s not imperative for me to meet the artists who created the artworks, but I really enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to meet and talk to artists. It helps me understand their intent, thought process, and artistic process, and how they see their work fitting into the larger context of the art community and world beyond.
What is your most treasured artwork?
My most treasured artworks are the ceramic vessels my late mother made in the 1970s and 1980s. I have her pottery pieces in different rooms in my house, so they can constantly remind me of her, and her creative, loving and positive energy.
Art, Fashion and Social Media
How did you get the idea to have your outfits matching various artworks?
My #CarlasCamo matching hobby started unintentionally three years ago when I attended a Richard Mosse show wearing a dress that looked like I had stepped out of one of his pink saturated photographs. In the following weeks, I happened to wear outfits that also looked similar to works in various shows, and shortly thereafter, I was inspired to try to start dressing like the art intentionally. Since I try to visit galleries or museums at least 3 to 4 times a week, I usually can find at least 1 or 2 matching outfits per week. I have a lot of fun with the process of finding matches, and I never take myself too seriously.
How is the process – is it challenging to find the matching outfits? Do you start from artworks or from outfits?
I usually start with the artwork and attempt to find an outfit to match. Sometimes galleries or artists will send me photos or previews of their shows, and oftentimes I will see images of works on Instagram or in person. Once I see the images or the artworks themselves, I start to think about the color palettes and patterns in those works, and try to recall if anything I own or have seen on my friends or in stores reminds me of them.
The main reason I continue to post #CarlasCamo matches is to draw attention to and celebrate artists and their artwork. I predominantly match art of living artists because I love to highlight really exciting and inspiring current artists. Even though I’m only posting one photo from a show, I always include the link to the artist’s and gallery’s Instagram accounts, in the hopes that people will click through to see more of the artist’s work. While I could just post a photo of the artwork by itself, by dressing to match a work, I, in my own quirky way of interacting with it, am intending to pay tribute to the art and artist. I hope that my photos offer a more accessible and even humorous way for people to look at art. If they have to pause to really examine the work and how I am matching it, then they are forced to spend an extra few seconds or minutes looking at the art.
How often do you discover new artists on Instagram that you are interested in collecting? Has you done any artwork deal via Instagram already? If yes, how often?
It surprises me how often I come across artists on Instagram whose work elicits from me an immediate positive response, but with whom I am not familiar at all. Sometimes I start following them to see how their work evolves and learn more about them, and sometimes I will message them directly to inquire about their work. Every couple of months, I will come across an artist on Instagram and will buy a piece from them sight unseen. I think Instagram can be an important marketing tool for artists who are able to spend the time sharing their work and process and making connections through social media.
Brooklyn and beyond
You are actively engaged in the Brooklyn Museum. How is your relationship and experience so far?
I joined the Brooklyn Museum Board of Trustees about 10 years ago, but my relationship with the Museum goes back much farther. My mother worked part-time at the Brooklyn Museum for 35 years, so the Museum is in my blood. I have very vivid childhood memories of sketching in the galleries as well as running around and exploring every nook and cranny of the Museum.
One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a Trustee was serving on the Search Committee that ultimately appointed Anne Pasternak as Director of the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. Anne is an inspiring and courageous leader and visionary. Under her leadership, the Museum is mounting relevant and thought-provoking exhibitions that tell alternate narratives of traditionally under-represented groups. Some of the ground-breaking shows the Museum has shown just in the past year include Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1985, Half the Picture: A Feminist Look at the Collection, not to mention the blockbuster shows the Museum has presented about David Bowie, and more recently about Frida Kahlo.
I am so proud of the Brooklyn Museum’s role as a community builder and as a space that is open and accessible to all. The museum provides a place where we can have timely, constructive, but sometimes difficult conversations about our society, and the role art, artists, and each of us plays in creating a more understanding and inclusive world.
What are your other latest art engagements or projects?
I am extremely excited about the work I am doing for Green-Wood Cemetery (where I also serve on the Board of Trustees). We are in the process of creating a unique and robust arts program at Green-Wood. As part of this initiative, we are not only collaborating with other arts organizations to present programming in dance, theater, film, music, and visual arts, but are also commissioning site-specific works by Brooklyn artists that relate to Green-Wood, its history, permanent residents and/or landscape.
Can you name a few artists from Brooklyn who should be on our radar?
Sophia Narrett for her intricate and provocative embroideries.
Maria Berrio for her lyrical and mysterious collaged paintings.
David Shrobe for his powerful multi-media portraits.
Maia Cruz Palileo for her beautiful and haunting paintings related to memory and family history.