Shani Richards had no intention of being a metalsmith. But when the Akron-based artist was an undergraduate student at University of Akron’s Mary Schiller Myers School of Art in 2001, a lecture by professor Sherry Simms changed her worldview.
“She was using makeup, jewelry and found objects to make various statements about the female experience,” says Richards.
Richards quickly threw herself into the metalsmithing craft, learning everything she could about the wide range of techniques — from soldering to welding and enameling. Metalsmithing also became a lifeline to address her depression and as a source of empowerment.
“Rather than speaking with my words, I make art that has to do with racism, sexism and dismantling the white supremacist, capitalist system,” says Richards. “I want to challenge the viewer to look deeply at their perspective, make them pause and make them think.”
In “Bulletproof?” Richards created a hoodie evoking medieval chain mail by using aluminum can tabs to represent the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
“I used materials that were considered common to make something for Black male teenagers who are trying to protect themselves from the battleground they walk every day, but who just can’t survive with that kind of protection,” says Richards.
Richards is one of 12 artists chosen by the Sculpture Center to create art informed by community conversations across six Cleveland neighborhoods such as Slavic Village for a June-September 2021 exhibition.
“I’m going to be fearless and figure out how my art can talk about difficult subjects but still have all the love of the neighborhood in the piece for everyone to see,” says Richards.