Festival All-Star: Shrine

Article by: Tyler Hanson and Marsi Frey, Kulturehaus

Thu January 14, 2016 | 00:00 AM

The expression "one man’s trash is another man’s treasure" comes to mind when speaking with Los Angeles native Brent Spears, the man known in the art world simply as Shrine.  Shrine — who's responsible for some of the most notable festival installation art projects — has a unique artistic style sourced from a confluence of natural talent, vision, and tragedy, all of which have inspired a new way of building art and sacred spaces at festivals and beyond. In some ways, the story of Shrine is about the redeemed and the redeemer, and in his life he's had the experience of being both, many times over.

The nascent journey of Shrine discovering his gifts is as sweet as it is strange. As The Grateful Dead once said: "Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest places if you look at it right," and this rings true for Shrine's beginnings.

“The story starts when I was a kid, sitting in my grandmothers' kitchens drawing," Shrine says, who describes both of his grandmothers' houses as “impeccable,” yet explains that they each devoted space on their walls for the burgeoning artist's early creations. “Those women would say to me, ‘Brent you're such a good artist’ and they would hang my art up on the door... I had a place in both their houses my entire life, which really impacted me.” It was not only their positive reinforcement that influenced young Shrine, but in the way in which they lived their lives.

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Shrine (right) with fellow Lucent Dossier Experience co-founder, Dream Rockwell. Photo by: Kristen Woo

While reuse and sustainability have had a grand revival in the last decade, we are not far removed from being a culture of people who used, reused, and repurposed everything – not necessarily out of care for the environment, but from a practical place. Rather than throwing things away, items were held onto in case a need arose. At the homes of Shrine's grandmothers, it was the organization of these seemingly innocuous objects that helped guide his appreciation of the mundane as potential pieces of a much larger purpose.

“[My grandmother] made paper bags precious by the way she had them folded perfectly and arranged in this cupboard," recalls Shrine. "So paper bags lead to cardboard. You pick up a piece of cardboard and there is a shape, there is a texture, and there is already a color. You can make lines, you can start and if you fuck it up, so what? It’s not a $20 piece of canvas that you just bought. I look down and I see a piece of cardboard on the strand, sometimes it has writing on it. Somebody held it up asking for help. To me that is a precious thing. It’s already got this incredible value to it, it’s already got some history, and all I’m going to do is expand on that piece of cardboard’s history."

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An installation by Shrine (in collaboration with Lauren Napolitano) from Lightning In a Bottle in 2012. Photo by: Daniel Zetterstrom

As any artist worth their salt will tell you, creativity rarely works in straight lines, and while Shrine's passion kept him constantly creating, he found himself still trying to match what inspired him with what he did on a daily basis. Shrine had been accepted into The Art Center College of Design and was set to begin classes when a terrible motorcycle accident left his body battered and broken. Art school was set aside in favor of healing and mending, and after many years without finding steady income from artistic ventures, pressure began mounting on all sides for him to give up his dreams and settle into a world that focused on the bottom line. It was at that time, that his path took another unexpected turn...

Shrine Portrait Daniel Jung

Photo by: Daniel Jung

Looking to sell some of his wares, Shrine meandered into La Luz De Jesus gallery , owned by a man named Billy Shire. Shire had been very influential in supporting the L.A. art scene, showing "primarily figurative and narrative painting and unusual sculpture, with a focus on themes and styles including folk art, outsider art, religious art, and alternative erotica." In essence, Shire was a curator of the artistic underground. Shrine walked into his office with a case of jewelry and walked out with a mentor and benefactor. A tremendously symbiotic relationship was forged and creativity sprung forth.

Now supported financially, Shrine was able to be what he always had been: an Artist with a capital A. Opportunity begat opportunity and soon, Shrine was painting giant, visible murals, and large-scale projects of all sorts. After seeing his work, Isaac Tigrett (co-founder of the Hard Rock Café) and legendary comic Dan Aykroyd offered him the task of designing the first five venues for the newly founded House of Blues. Shrine then worked at the first Lollapalooza , on the Warped Tour and Coachellatoo. His life and career were full steam ahead, until another unexpected turn forged new creative pathways.

“At a Burning Man party I mentioned to a friend that my name was Brent, I paint, and I'm into plants," says Shrine. "He immediately responded that he knew a guy named Brent that needed a plant guy [and] painter for a project at Burning Man.”

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Shrine's ReUnion Palace (a collaboration with Joel Dean Stockdill) at Symbiosis Gathering in 2015. Photo by: Andrew Jorgensen

So in 2004, Shrine made the long dusty journey like so many pilgrims before to the Black Rock Desert and was immediately altered in powerful ways. Never before had he seen so many creative exploits on display at the same time, not for the end goal of payment but for the artistic journey itself.He joined up with a team and began working, sweating, and bleeding for the creation of a project on the Playa.  There were already two people named Brent working on the project, so his identity didn't exactly make him the odd man out. It was here that the moniker Shrine was born.

His experience with Burning Man, however, was not just about the art; it was about community. While he had met inspiring people in all facets of his experiences,it was Burning Man that reinvigorated and rekindled his creativity ahead of yet another tectonic shift. That year, Shrine met fellow Festival All-Star Dream Rockwell , with whom he would later co-found the Lucent Dossier Experience. After years of art made with his hands, performance art was now added to Shrine's creative tackle box. He returned to Burning Man for several consecutive years. In 2007 in collaboration with Tucker Teutsch, he created the Tasseograph, his first self-directed project on the Playa. The installation was placed next to the Temple, and Shrine received a visit from David Best, the Temple builder, who loved the illustration and execution of the piece. The following year in 2008, he was tapped as the lead designer for the Temple, the first person given the task other than David Best

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Burning Man's Basura Sagrada temple by Shrine, TukTuk, and the Basura Sagrada Collaboratory. Photo by: Scott London

Shrine’s history, like so many of our own, is fraught with twists and turns, important moments and decisions that empowered and impelled him to fiercely adhere to what inspired him the most. You can tell that long and winding road has impacted not only his work but also his worldview and how he relates with people. When asked how he stays inspired, his straight answer is arrestingly humble for such a festival world all-star.

“Part of it is being grateful, a huge part of it, if you can embrace gratitude — which I am still learning how to do all the time —then you are going to stay inspired. Gratitude is a perspective. It’s an outlook that allows you to be inspired.”

Grateful for the support of his grandmothers and Billy Shire and all those who've supported him on his path is a part of Shrine’s demeanor. He takes it upon himself to encourage and support other artists as he himself was encouraged and supported. Because after all, you never know what a discarded piece of cardboard can become.

Additional reporting by Marsi Frey