After receiving a rock-solid education from Slippery Rock University, 1998 grad Sharif Bey went on to earn his master’s and doctorate while continuing to find time doing what he loves: creating art. Bey received his B.F.A. in ceramics from SRU, his M.F.A. in studio art from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his Ph.D. in art education from Pennsylvania State University.
When Bey was young and living in inner-city Pittsburgh, he discovered he was something of an ‘artist,’ at least according to his friends who always asked him to draw things for them. He really was artistically talented, though, and when he was around 10, he started being nominated for various art programs in the Pittsburgh area like the Carnegie Mellon University Saturday art classes for kids. Growing up in the 1980s is an experience Bey holds dearly because this was a time when people heavily supported the arts and artists themselves.
“I was fortunate to be part of the 1980s landscape in the arts, I was able to take advantage of half a dozen programs,” Bey said. “The benefit of that is that you don’t have just one idea of what it means to be an artist; you have to remain open to possibilities of content and of trajectory. Seeing all those possibilities made it easy for me to be more natural.”
A few years later, Bey got involved in SRU’s summer art academy series, run by now-retired professor of fine arts Richard Wukich, where he traveled up to The Rock to interact with professors and students. This familiarity with those in the art program made Bey’s transition from high school to college much easier, he said.
“I was in contact with some of the faculty and students I met all the way through high school, and thanks to them connecting with me before college, it wasn’t a huge transition,” Bey said. “So, the choice [to attend SRU] was hands-down.”
During his time here at SRU, Bey spent a total of a year and a half in Bratislava, Slovakia as an exchange student through his program. He mentioned that some of his decision to enroll at The Rock was due to the university’s prominence in international collaboration. Later, when he was earning his doctorate at PSU, he traveled again to Bratislava, this time as a Fulbright Scholar conducting research that sprouted from his undergraduate trips to the capital city.
Bey said he is inspired by not only his experiences, which are diverse and interesting, but also by the African and Oceanic cultures and folklore as well as the functionality of pieces. Because he studied ceramics at SRU, he was familiar with how things like mugs and cups were designed to interact with human mouths and be drank out of; he emphasized the importance of remembering how intimate these objects and the creation of them can really be. Even when he’s not necessarily creating functional pieces, he keeps this sensuality in mind.
“There is something sensual and intimate that can’t be discounted [in pieces like that],” Bey said. “A lot of my objects are made in conjunction with the body.”
His own personal history also motivates some of what he does. Growing up, and even into adulthood, Bey experienced a number of cultures and events, giving him a very unique perspective of the world. He cited the beginning of hip hop culture as well as his love for nature and the outdoors as being one particular intersection that inspired his later art.
“What makes me unique is that intersection, between funk and foraging, and between Pittsburgh and Bratislava,” Bey said. “And what’s the relationship between inner-city Pittsburgh and Bratislava? Well, I am.”
His most recent exhibition is still on display in the Renfield Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the exhibition is called “Disrupting Craft” and Bey has 25 pieces in the show. Each piece represents a different chapter, beginning with his time at SRU. In fact, there’s one piece he used in his senior presentation while earning his B.F.A. Much of his work in this show involves the body, whether the pieces are inspired by jewelry, other adornments, functionality or biomorphic objects. This exhibition also shows how often he works with more unconventional materials like glass, clay and metal.
His work has also been showcased by the United States Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan and Jakarta, Indonesia, and he was awarded the 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in the crafts and sculpture category and was the 2018 recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Grant. Bey has also served as a resident artist at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, the McColl Center for Visual Art at Hunter College in New York, the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin and the Pittsburgh Glass Center.
Now, Bey works at Syracuse University as a professor of art education and lives with his wife of 18 years and three children. Though his life may be busy with his career and family, he still makes the time to keep art in his life, whether it be 20 minutes in the morning or an hour on the weekends. The balance may be difficult to find, but it’s worth it as long as art really means that much—and to Bey, it does.
He was brought to Syracuse as an art educator, meaning he teaches art teachers, and he finds many of his students experience a “rude awakening” because they become burnt out, jaded and uninspired. These students of his believe that art is all or nothing, that once they start doing something else, like teaching, art is no longer a part of their lives. Bey works to stifle that idea, promoting the concept through his own work that it is possible if you try hard enough.
“I want people to say, ‘Is this the same Sharif Bey who’s grading and publishing papers and critiquing journals? He’s doing all that and making art and exhibiting?’ Bey said. “Am I doing it all at the same time? No, but I’m finding the time. I want people to be inspired by the possibility and potential to find time in their life to continue their quest.”
Bey said he believes his future has exciting experiences in store for him, and if things continue the way they have been, or even better, “it’s like dreaming.”
“I can say I’ve exceeded every professional aspiration I’ve ever had,” Bey said. “I mean, there’s always more to aspire to, but as far as the future, if things continue this way, it would be lovely.”