1965, Summerville New Jersey, 11:30PM. Shawn Hricz is born half an hour too early, at least according to his mother. His father celebrates. He’ll be able to claim little Shawn on his taxes for the previous year. Mother had been hoping Shawn would snag the title of “First Baby of the Year” and all the accolades that come with it, the free diapers and an article in the paper. She was in the entertainment business after all. A dancer on Dick Clark’s Bandstand with a small role in West Side Story.
Shawn’s early creative leanings came from his mother’s side. But he took to sport and was actually a bit of a jock in his early school years. He was a natural leader on the team and was poised for an athletic scholarship to play baseball. He would need it. His dyslexia diagnosis held him back in second grade; he wasn’t exactly excelling academically. There was at least one class where he was crushing it, however: Summer School Art. Following high school, a football-induced knee injury decided his post-secondary fate, and Shawn Hricz would find himself enrolled at School for the Visual Arts (SVA) here in New York City in 1989. He was inspired equally by the Disney cartoons of his youth and the visible working commercial artists of the day like Philip Burke, Steve Brodner, and Robert Risko.
Back then, in order to get your work published in a magazine, you’d have to haul your portfolio of drawings to a secretary’s desk and leave it with them. If you came back next week and they were still there, it was a bad sign: your work was no longer in the art director’s office and you were unlikely to get called in for that meeting where you learn your work has been selected for publication.
Things were going about as well as you’d expect for a graduate fresh out of art school. He and his many other artist roommates were starving—literally and for artistic recognition. It was two long years of blue box mac and cheese and rejection letters. But as is so often the case, this time in his life would serve as a crucible for future successes. He and his roommates would gather magazines anywhere and anyhow for collage fodder. That collage work sharpened Shawn’s stylistic voice. It wasn’t too long before it caught the attention of John F. Kennedy Jr. and got published in Musician Magazine, Forbes, the LA Times and Entertainment Weekly, some of the same magazines that Shawn had cannibalized to create those collages.
One day the phone rang and it was his alma mater, SVA, with the news he’d been waiting for since he decided to go down this path. It was Disney. Shawn’s personal Moby Dick was calling, but there was a catch: you don’t just get to go work for Disney with a single call. They flew him out to LA to put him through a 9-month trial by fire, a sort of Mickey Mouse Bootcamp. He passed with flying colors and got to work, a childhood dream realized.
Hollywood is a fickle and fast-paced place. He was poached by Warner Brothers three years later, then Universal Studios as an art director. Within 24 months of that, Vivendi bought Universal Studios then promptly cleaned house, as is the custom in these corporate buyouts. Ping-ponging back to NYC briefly to work for Nickelodeon and Sesame Street he would eventually find himself settling back into The City of Flowers and Sunshine. This time, he was working for South Park and he would stay there for 9 years.
Under Matt and Trey, he found a stable career and work family. With his marriage he found family in the literal sense. Life was good. For now. But life has a way of testing our resolve. It likes to disrupt us when we are comfortable and show us what we need in our darkest hour… if we can learn to listen to it. Shawn would soon have to face probably the worst trial anyone can imagine, when his beloved wife tragically lost her life too soon. He needed to get out of the city, to get away from the usual haunts and the sea of familiar faces now sullen with intractable sympathy. As many American artists have done before him, he made a pilgrimage to Europe to surround himself by the old masters. He was there to study but also to heal.
Under Matt and Trey, he found a stable career and work family. With his marriage he found family in the literal sense. Life was good. For now. But life has a way of testing our resolve. It likes to disrupt us when we are comfortable and show us what we need in our darkest hour… If we can learn to listen to it. Shawn would soon have to face probably the worst trial anyone can imagine, when his beloved wife tragically lost her life too soon. He needed to get out of the city, to get away from the usual haunts and the sea of familiar faces now sullen with intractable sympathy. As many American artists have done before him, he made a pilgrimage to Europe to surround himself by the old masters. He was there to study but also to heal.
Just a poster. It was an image of the late legend with his classic wide-eyed gaze fixed firmly at the camera’s lens. The poster’s job was to promote a nearby exhibit of paintings, but it had taken a cigarette break to speak with our subject. Whether or not you believe Shawn Hricz was talking to himself or a ghost that day in France, one thing was clear. Shawn would be returning to his NYC home after decades of bouncing between the coasts chasing commercial work. Returning to continue a practice that had sustained him so well thus far but had been always lacking something: his signature.
Shawn is now in NYC beginning his personal practice in earnest. We sit together now amongst the early blooming flowers of that moment with Picasso at his current show “Page Six” (hosted by Solas Studio, January 18th – February 8th, 2024 and online at Solas.Studio/Gallery).
I asked some questions.
Brandon: You’ve said some of your artist friends would tease you for not being “a real artist” or for “selling out” by doing commercial illustration. I think THEY know what they mean by that, but what does being “a real artist” mean to you?
Shawn: “Working on any commercial project, I don’t get to sign it, it’s not mine, it is someone else’s creation. I’m working in a team to bring their vision to life. If I do or do not have success with these works, that’s all me. If someone likes it or doesn’t like it, or has a deeper problem with it… I’m letting it all out and putting my name on it.”
Brandon: I’d be correct in assuming your focus on celebrity comes mainly from your time behind them on the red carpet in LA?
Shawn: “Yeah you could say that. Celebrities are the new royalty. I like to take their image down a peg and make people think. It’s not all from a negative place or a place of envy. I like to depict them as humans, flaws and all.”
Brandon: What do you think of the artist-as-celebrity?
Shawn: “I think about how Basquiat is bigger than anything now and how much of a positive influence he has had on my work. I was reading an article from back at the time of his death and it sort of read like a smear campaign! So much stuff that I hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t putting him in a good light. It’s interesting how our perspectives on an artist’s character change over time. I also think of Picasso and his re-examination as a womanizer.”
Brandon: Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?
Shawn: “Well, I think Andy [Warhol] certainly normalized the use of celebrity, including his own, in his work.”
Brandon: How do you feel about the changing landscape of celebrity in the era of social media?
Shawn: “I think Warhol’s diaries are the most poignant thing in the world right now. What he told everyone would happen is happening. Everyone is getting their 15 minutes and they are using anything at their disposal to get it. I think everyone wants to be famous deep down inside. There are more platforms now than ever to give it to them. It feels like people had to be luckier to find their platform and voice in the past.”
Brandon: You’ve already had some considerable success in the commercial art world. What is it exactly that you see in the fine art world that’s worth aspiring to?
Shawn: “Someday you’ll be gone and if you have a piece in a museum, you’ve left something of yourself behind that you can be sure is taken care of. I think the big galleries and museums of the world are the pinnacle. I think everyone, including myself, aspires to get there.”
Brandon: This isn’t even a question really, just something that I think is important to say about your work. When you see an artist making work about celebrities it can be easy to assume they’re just talking about people with money and success because they want it for themselves. But you’re really “writing what you know,” aren’t you?
Shawn: “Yeah, they say “write what you know,” but I’m not a writer. My work has strong elements of humor and satire. But I feel like there are still some really interesting, nuanced and human stories there to explore.”
Brandon Wisecarver is an artist and curator based in NYC.