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Virtual arts: how Ellen Sheidlin redefines art in a Gen Z world

ExplorerArts & Exhibitions

Ellen Sheidlin is a shining example of an artist who has successfully bridged the gap between the virtual and physical worlds. We sit down to talk with her about her creative process, the impact of social media on art and why authenticity is the true key to success.

For centuries, art has been a key medium for self-expression. It acts as a creative record of societal evolution; telling stories of politics, religious diversity, relationships, and how humans interact with the world around them. As our lives become ever more immersed in the virtual space (hello, metaverse!), artists have also evolved to find new, creative ways to stay visible and assure relevancy among a digital savvy generation.

Of course, a key platform for promotion and expression these days is social media. Social media has become the main vehicle for us to interact, learn, shop, and discover. For all the good social media has brought to society, it also has a dark side – namely, a perpetual war with fake news, copycat creatives, cancel culture and transparency concerns. The art world – cemented in originality and authentic storytelling – seems at odds with this; in its traditional form, art simply cannot thrive in such a brave new world.

Or can it? In recent years we’ve seen painters, digital illustrators, poets and photographers cut through the noise to build verified profiles and strong online communities of enthusiasts drawn to consistent, authentic storytelling and genuine connection. That level of authenticity that has also opened these artists up to a whole new audience of followers who may have never seen the work of these artists otherwise.

Ellen Sheidlin is one such example of an artist who has embraced the possibilities of the digital realm to strike a sweet balance between traditional art and the virtual space. The twentysomething Russian artist, also known professionally as Sheidlina, is renowned for her weird and wonderful work; surrealist mixed media that is enjoyed by her millions of Instagram followers and art enthusiasts from all around the world.

Sheidlin is something of a disruptor in the art community, and her evolution as an artist also sways from the traditional path. Sheidlin was 16 when she started her first digital profile, which she set up with one objective: to prove that it is possible to exist authentically in both the real and virtual worlds. It wasn’t until Sheidlin was 26 that she decided she wanted to move into physical art, heading to Florence to study classical painting and drawing.

After graduation, Sheidlin found ways to experiment with combinations of art forms and techniques. As she practiced all she learnt at classical art school, she thought about disabling her digital profile to focus solely on physical art, but realised that it’s possible to find a happy medium between them all. Sheidlin makes incredible use of colour and her works – no matter the medium - exude whimsical quirk. Her photographs particularly have earnt her cult following among a large Gen Z audience on Instagram for their unusual editing, but more so for the messaging behind them.

Many of Sheidlin’s works explore and challenge the complicated relationship we all have between social media, originality, body image and self-perception. “My art is about acceptance, finding commonalities and not differences between us,” she explains. “My [art] is about revealing yourself and your personality. That getting out of your comfort zone is comfortable.

With 4.5 million Instagram followers, Sheidlin understands all too well the pressures of social media and the way our digital personas can easily mask the realities of the real world, but says the key to feeling comfortable in the space and finding your community is to keep true to yourself. “Show who you are, do not hide from the world. Turn ‘strange’ into a compliment, believe that people are not your enemy, but can be like-minded supporters,” she says. "Individuality should not be seen as selfish, it can also combine the positive aspects of the collective consciousness.

Sheidlin’s advice has certainly worked for her, having collaborated with the likes of Nike, Estee Lauder, BMW, and Instagram. Despite her significant digital presence, Sheidlin still enjoys the traditional art gallery experience and has had solo exhibitions in Russia, France, Germany, Japan, and England. In October, she exhibited her solo show, ‘Comprehended by Fantasy’, at The Social Hub Florence, as a way of bridging the space between the traditional and modern, leaving her mark on the city where she studied and where she and her husband now call home. This special exhibition afforded Sheidlin a chance to introduce her Gen Z digital audience to the romance and magic of a gallery experience, while making her whimsical work more tangible and bringing the social aspect of social media into the physical space.

I like the idea of gathering young people full of potential in one place, teaching them to communicate with other cultures, and then letting them go out to conquer the world'' she says. “I was always afraid to lose this connection with young minds. Many students in this place will have the best time of their lives; I like to think that someone will meet their true love in the gallery... I want my art to remain in their memory."

For Sheidlin, the virtual world serves only to enhance the artistic experience. Social media gives artists a valuable platform to create personal galleries, explore sides of themselves that may not have existed, and to create without physical limits. Sheidlin’s even coined a name for this art movement: ‘survirtualism’.

For someone known for whimsical and at times wild creativity, Sheidlin, ironically, is a stickler for a routine. “I like to bend myself to a schedule. My day starts with writing – I put my head in order, dumping potentially toxic thoughts onto something material. I never reread them,” she says. “Next, I need to spread the brushes and squeeze the paints onto the palette. I devote myself to my work with attentive madness; for me there is no outside world in the preparation process, I spend all my time in the moment. Art feels like gifts are given to you every day.

If you’re an aspiring artist or an established one looking to build your own digital community, Sheidlin has three simple pieces of advice. “Give each of your ideas a chance to exist. Don't betray your inner child. And never forget, you shape your reality with your thoughts.” Wise words from a creative who truly embodies what it means to stay curious!

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