This Austin Artist Explores Nature’s Structure And Complexity


Shaun Smith with a sculpture of a chimpanzee

Austin artist Shaun Smith’s nature-inspired sculptures include the pictured life-size chimpanzee.

Walking through Shawn Smith’s Austin studio, you would be forgiven if you believed it was filled with works from multiple artists. In one corner, hundreds of slices of metal pipe are welded together. Nearby, a life-size chimpanzee made by assembling small colored blocks is almost complete. Elsewhere, both a paper collage and stained glass sculpture are in progress. “It’s enriching to work with various types of materials,” says the artist of the creative space that adjoins his home. “They’re like different languages being spoken.”

Despite the disparate media, there’s a common thread that runs through his artworks: Smith is utilizing them to explore the systems at work in nature. The stained glass piece, for instance, is an abstract termite mound based on a 3D scan of one found in Australia. Meanwhile, the metal sculpture, featuring slices of steel pipe welded together, is an anatomical representation of a human heart. “My interest is in natural systems, particularly in understanding how human desires have shaped the planet,” Smith explains. “I’m examining the control of these systems and the abstraction of nature.”

Sculpture of a fox

Shawn Smith's sleeping fox was made using pieces of colored medium-density fiberboard.

art made of orange and white pixels

Smith is best known for his pixelated artworks.

3D-printed spore sculpture

"Spore," shown here, was created from arrayed 3D scans.

sculpture made of interlocking steel rings

Smith's anatomical human heart comprises steel rings welded together.

Shawn Smith working in his studio

Smith's artwork leverages a range of texture and depth.

moodboard collage made of images

The artist sources material from a variety of media.

This wide-ranging exploration of materials is new for Smith, who spent nearly a decade iterating on the pixelated wood animal sculptures for which he is best known. “When the pandemic hit, I had a lot of time in the studio,” Smith recalls. “I found myself pondering new ways to approach my ideas, so I gave myself assignments. I posed questions like, ‘How could you do this with paper? What about with glass?’ ” The results have brought fresh energy to his work, which will be on view beginning in April at Craighead Green Gallery.

Smith has found himself veering away from the charismatic creatures he’s often been commissioned to create, such as the giant giraffe he constructed for the U.S. Embassy in Niger. Instead, his new focus is on subjects that challenge viewers—like that termite mound and even a 3D stained glass cloud made with electric components to mimic a thunderstorm. “I’m hoping to bring people into a collective understanding that everything found in nature is necessary. We can’t pick and choose what we want and then discard the rest,” the artist says. Just as the seemingly contrary materials in his studio have a shared purpose, so too does Smith’s subject matter.