Creativity
Alia Shawkat on How Art Helps Her Recharge from Acting
By Casey Lesser
Oct 23, 2017 12:32 pm

At the age of nine, Alia Shawkat began acting in earnest. Early on, she appeared in Barbie commercials, landed a small role in a David O. Russell film, and, in 2003, made her debut as the devious ingenue Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development. The critically acclaimed sitcom would carry her freckled face into the living rooms of millions of Americans for the next three years.

Since then, Shawkat’s become an esteemed staple of indie films and TV alike. Now 28, she currently stars as the misguided millennial crime-solver Dory Sief in the noirish comedy series Search Party, which returns for a second season this November. Shawkat also recently appeared as a seductive pre-school teacher in the fourth season of Transparent and co-wrote and acted in the forthcoming film Duck Butter, and in 2018, she’ll return as Maeby on the fifth season of Arrested Development. Despite this busy schedule—and in addition to moonlighting as a jazz singer—Shawkat has developed a serious art practice.

Work by Alia Shawkat. Photo by Emily Berl for Artsy.

Work by Alia Shawkat. Photo by Emily Berl for Artsy.

It started in New York around a decade ago. “I’d gotten into Sarah Lawrence and I left after three days,” she tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “Nothing against the school—it’s beautiful—it just wasn’t for me.” Pressed to choose between freshman year at the liberal arts college and a role in an independent film, she opted for the latter. “I kind of got my own education, though,” she reasons. “And then I didn’t act for a year. I started painting.”

Her boyfriend at the time gave her a space to work in his parents’ basement. “I started with a big canvas and a bunch of scrap paper. I didn’t really know anything about my style,” Shawkat recalls. Growing up, she’d filled notebooks and diaries with drawings and doodles, but she never formally pursued art.

But that first painting soon lead to many others. “That’s when I got more into visual arts and found the artists I liked,” she remembers of that time in New York. “I would get dressed up and go to museums by myself every day.” These days, she’s gravitating towards the figurative works of R.B. Kitaj—“I’m definitely the most inspired by him right now, his colors and placement of a mix of cartoonish characters and realistic images”—and George Grosz—“he’s one of my favorites, these amazing line drawings.”

Work by Alia Shawkat. Courtesy of the artist.

Work by Alia Shawkat. Courtesy of the artist.

Shawkat’s own work skews toward drawings and paintings, in a raw, at times scrawled aesthetic, picturing people and bustling patchworks of color and texture. A drawing she posted on Instagram a few weeks back was a gut reaction to President Trump’s move to end DACA—a feverish, dreamlike scenario of a young man putting out a fire, while his thoughts and his vision are consumed by money.

“I think that any kind of art is naturally responding to what’s going on,” Shawkat notes. “I’ve been feeling kind of frustrated and a little helpless lately, and I think a lot of artists are. Art is very important in these times, but sometimes it’s hard to know that when you think you should be flying to Houston and helping people,” she adds (we’re speaking just after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston). Those frustrations have come through in her art recently, she admits: “My work has definitely been a little more angry— there’s more of a scratchy feeling, like I’m taking it out.”

As far as her process overall, Shawkat tends to be spirited and spontaneous. “I’m not a very organized artist,” she says. “I like to have a lot of materials and different colors and textures to pull from. I just look around and see what works in the moment. I don’t usually pick one medium in a piece”—though she’s particularly fond of oil pastels.

Work by Alia Shawkat. Photo by Emily Berl for Artsy.

Work by Alia Shawkat. Photo by Emily Berl for Artsy.

“I take a lot of bad photos on my phone and then I go home and mix them together. There’s something about little angles I see on the street, and the way people look when they’re walking. I’ll do a quick sketch version of them and add them into a big montage.”

A series of drawings of Donald Trump she made years ago have also surfaced recently. “Weirdly, I did those before he was in any way political. He was just a character,” she notes. “I never understood where he was coming from.” In one, Trump’s tie is dragging on the floor, in another, he has large, sagging breasts. “Now, I don’t feel like drawing him at all,” she continues. “Maybe I’ll go back to that though. I’ve always wanted to do political cartoons, like Ralph Steadman, but I always end up doing more abstract stuff. I’d like to do some version of abstract cartoons.”

Her current practice, which is primarily focused on mixed media drawings and paintings, has since become a complement to acting—not only an adjacent creative endeavor, but a therapeutic passion to dedicate her time to off-camera.

Alia Shawkat, Face Bandage. Courtesy of the artist.

Alia Shawkat, Face Bandage. Courtesy of the artist.

“When you’re acting, you’re literally using a lot of emotions,” she says, and adds that to be able to access those emotions quickly is taxing. “You’re interacting with people on the crew, you’re aware of yourself more than you should be in your real life, you’re in this state where you’re pushing out energy, feeding off of people, being reactive, talking about ideas, and being very physical.”

Shawkat acknowledges that she’s been lucky to have done so much acting this year, but that the work leaves something to be desired. “After a while I always just crave something different, because I don’t really have anything else to pull from,” she notes. “You don’t have a normal life between gigs sometimes, so that’s a lot of what drawing is for me.

“It’s a way to reflect on what’s been happening,” she continues. “There was a period of time where I was going out a lot in L.A., going to a lot of parties. Then I kind of stopped and started working again on drawing. All of my drawings were of characters in these packed rooms; there were people everywhere, the walls were always closing in on somebody. [My work] is always an expression of what I’ve been feeling.”

Work by Alia Shawkat. Photo by Emily Berl for Artsy.

Work by Alia Shawkat. Photo by Emily Berl for Artsy.

Shifting gears into making art, though, isn’t always easy. “It takes me a while to just sit down and actually do it, to get back into the rhythm,” she says. “It’s like going to the gym. Nobody wants to do it, and then every time you go, you think, ‘I feel amazing, I should be doing that every day.’ But every day it still takes a little bit of effort to go, even though you know you’re going to feel good.”

This fall, as she’s shooting for Arrested Development in L.A., she’s making her art a priority. “I signed a lease on a studio to just be able to work while I’m actually here, to focus on it,” she explains, noting that the show has her occupied on and off, a couple days per week. “I need to have a routine, of going to a place every day, so I can try to make as much work as possible, before I have to leave town again.”

During this time, she hopes to produce work for a potential future exhibition. Over the years, she’s shown her work at a handful of galleries, like Known Gallery and Dilettante Gallery in L.A. Last year she worked with Dilettante to publish a book of her drawings, and had a book release party at L.A. restaurant Kitchen Mouse. While admitting that she’s “just not very organized,” Shawkat does have ambitions to pursue her art practice in earnest; she’s particularly fond of the potential for a proper solo exhibition at a New York gallery.

Alia Shawkat, Gangster. Courtesy of the artist.

Alia Shawkat, Gangster. Courtesy of the artist.

Until then, you can see her latest work on Instagram. She refrains from posting many personal photos on the site, but admits that it’s “the most successful way people see your drawings quickly.” She’s used the app as a platform within her practice, to display and disseminate works that feel urgent. “When the whole DACA thing was happening, I was able to sit down and draw, and it felt nice to have a response. I could make a small piece quickly and post it and then work on something bigger throughout the day that maybe one day would be in a show.”

That Instagram account and her artist website (where she’s selling drawings and paintings on the range of $100 to $1,200) both use the name Mutant Alia, which has become something of an alter-ego or persona Shawkat uses, inspired by a graffiti tag she saw years ago. “It just said ‘Mutant’ and I really responded to the word. I even have a tattoo of it,” she explains. “My friend said if you add an ‘e’ to it, it’s ‘mutante,’ and in Portuguese that means ever-changing.

“It definitely doesn’t have anything to do with ‘X-Men,’” she adds, deadpan. “But I like the idea of being something that’s always mutating, morphing.”


Casey Lesser is an Editor at Artsy.

Cover image: Portrait of Alia Shawkat in her Los Angeles studio by Emily Berl for Artsy.