woman at computer

Imaginary Friends Become Real Friends in Alake Shilling's Art

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Alake Shilling spends the bulk of her workday in comfortable silence, creating peacefully in her living-room studio. The artist, born in 1993, finds inspiration in cartoons from her childhood, from Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop to the Care Bears, and her work includes a universe of recurring, made-up characters. Shilling enjoys shopping for household goods—crushed noodles and flours, exotic salts, cotton balls—and crafting premixed textures for her paintings and sculptures. For Shilling, it’s all tactile. Pivoting more and more toward sculpture, such premixing is vital, allowing the artist to build things smooth and soft and gelatinous, things others want to touch.

With sculpture, the process is more improvisational. Shilling elaborates, “The clay simply tells me where it wants to go.” It often becomes a cat or a turtle or another form of beguiled wildlife. It’s always a surprise, the clay and glaze coming together in a manner that may well seem beyond her control. Shilling maintains a rich inner life, allowing the images she conjures, eyes closed, to come to life in her work. Though she never knows what might happen, she wants those moments—epiphanies, in a sense— to translate to her canvases and sculptures.

She enjoys working from home; previously, the artist leased a few studios, but she felt the process interfered with her creativity. Wes Anderson films help fuel her artistry. Those occasions where she needs a bit of background noise while she works, Shilling will play Anderson’s Rushmore, finding community in the director’s eccentric, artistic characters, enjoying the nostalgic comedy of the coming-of-age film.

She hopes to communicate a deep relatability in her work. Growing up, Shilling often felt disconnected while visiting art museums. Though she enjoyed looking at the works, most positive feelings were quickly shrouded by an overwhelming state of confusion. Therein lies the connection to her own artmaking, lively cartoon paintings living in vivid worlds, surrounded by trains and cars, thick clouds and blooming flowers. The works are reminiscent of childhood in a way that allows the viewer to understand immediately.

This all feels good to Shilling, who tends to question her abilities in other areas of her life. While there are times where she grows so anxious that she hesitates to leave home, she’s confident in her artistic vision and finds solace in the sheer act of creating something beautiful. Shilling describes completing a piece as the “best feeling in the world,” all while emphasizing that there’s nothing else like it in her life. She continues, “The feeling is indescribable. So, to reach that feeling again is what keeps me going.”

woman on floor making art
Multimedia artist Alake Shilling in her West Coast home studio working on Star (2022).

Some of her latest work includes a sculpture Shilling will release with Avant Art this summer. Entitled Lady Dots (2022), the piece is the second of four sculptures in a series curated by Darren Romanelli. A cute cartoon bug with pronounced eyelashes rides in her anthropomorphic car, which shares a similar facial expression. Light blue and full of emotion, the work depicts the same enchanting, playful characters for which the artist is known.

“These works are important to me,” Shilling explains. “They help me express my love of pop culture and fine art.”