At 14 years old, most kids are just trying to navigate the complex halls of their new high school, avoid general embarrassment, and find a date to homecoming. But at 14, Shamis McGillin had already begun to build a brand which would later become his club culture based art direction label, STUDIO ULTRA. By the time he graduated high school, McGillin, now going by stage name ULTRA, was designing professional websites and photographing some of the worlds freshest faces in the modeling and fashion industries.
From the fields of Iowa City to the alleys and high rises of Chicago, ULTRA, now 21, is planning a big move to New York City on the tails of a successful career in art direction and fashion photography. Ever the surrealist true to himself, ULTRA hopes to capture the realities of his battles with mental illness and developing his queer identity and transcend into a realm of high fashion and fantasy. Off-Kilter talked with ULTRA, this day sporting a tattered black tank over a leather chest harness and six inch tall knee high black platform boots, about the challenges of remaining an ever-evolving artist in an industry known for rapid decay.
Off-Kilter Magazine: How would you describe your work?
Shamis McGillin (ULTRA): My work to me is very hypnogogic, the state between dreaming and being awake. Based in reality and fantasy, I like to take things that are already there and repurpose them. When I’m building looks for clubbing, for example, I keep buying lampshades and turning them into head pieces or hair accessories. It’s about taking things that already exist and finding a new reality. I don’t come from money and I’m surrounded by people in the fashion industry who do have a lot of money. It’s fun going to parties and seeing everyone dressed up in nice designer clothing but I’m getting the most compliments and it’s literally a lampshade I bought at a thrift store for 80 cents and I covered it in fabric.
There’s a sense of humor to everything I do, as well as a darkness to it. A lot of my work is medical. I like restricting materials, metal, anything that reminds me of hospitals. When I photograph, I like sterile lighting. I was in the hospital a lot as a kid, so it’s really about taking the mundane and bringing them into a fantastical context.
OK: Your work has been also been described as eclectic, futuristic, vivid, trippy, and almost dream like. Amidst the fantasy, what grounds your work in a personal way?
SM: I deal with poor mental health and a lot of the time, I dissociate and don’t see things the way they’re supposed to be. My doctors and I are pinpointing early signs of schizophrenia. I have a lot of visual hallucinations and paranoia, so the way I view the world is often absurd. Having dissociation and hallucinations is scary and can cause depression and anxiety, but being able to turn it into something real and then go the club and drink about it, get fun reactions to how I personalize it, that’s what is fun about it. That’s how it’s personal to me. I take these things that are mundane and make them absurd.
OK: What are your favorite mediums to work in?
SM: First and foremost, fashion photography is my main medium. But fashion is the next. You can see a reflection of me in the work I create, even if it’s a test shoot for a modeling agency. Lately, it’s been all about fashion on myself. Taking things that already exist or don’t exist yet, and making something. I don’t limit myself. I ultimately want to be a creative director or art director, because I have such an umbrella of a vision. It’s kind of like a cinema package, where a movie comes out and they also sell it to McDonald’s. I have a big vision that can apply to every kind of medium, but I like to work in fashion the most.
OK: How has club culture influenced the aesthetic and process of your photography and other visual art? What are some other big influences on your work?
SM: Being part of the club culture makes me realize that anything is possible. That might sound silly, but through the club, I’ve been able to network with people I would never imagine i could have networked with.
I’m from Iowa City, Iowa. Growing up, I was interested in the Myspace and club kid culture. I was 13 when all of this was happening, and it all seemed like fantasy. One of these people, Amanda Lepore, worked with [Andy] Warhol. To me, Amanda Lepore was a concept, a digital image, some words in a magazine. Then I got the chance to meet her, not just the chance to be at one of her parties, but co-host a party with her. To have her introduce herself and be like, ‘Oh yeah I know your work,’ it’s made me realize that all this stuff seems like fantasy, but if I can meet Amanda Lepore and have her be such a nice person, no one is off limits.
Other than that, it’s allowed me to work freer. In the club, it’s so haphazard. I not only dress up, but I take photos in the club and when I’m shooting, people are particular about how they want to be photographed. There are a lot of factors involved that when I’m on a shoot in the studio doing an agency shoot. I have control over everything. In the club, I have control over nothing. Working in a club setting is where everything goes wrong, and you’re fine with it.
OK: What was it like growing up in Iowa, which is typically more small town-like?
SM: I have more problems walking down the street [in Chicago], even in Boystown. You’d think this queer boy in Iowa would have such a hard time but really, everyone gets to know you and your personality there. If I were walking down the street dressed like I am now, people would be like, ‘Oh that’s just Shamis; that’s just the way he is,’ and everyone kind of accepts it because there are bigger problems in the world than me walking down the street.
Here, I live in this neighborhood (Logan Square). There is a mixture of Yuppies and also,towards Humboldt Park, there’s a real macho culture and I get harassed on the street. People ask why I don’t live in Boystown, where this kind of thing is accepted. But the thing in Boystown is, it’s cool to be gay, but I’m not the kind of gay that they want me to be. I will walk down the street and gay guys go ‘what is that’.
OK: At what point did you decide to launch your STUDIO ULTRA brand? What was the motivation behind it?
SM: When I was nine years old, I went to New York City for the first time. My grandparents gave me a film camera. It was the first time I was in a big city, and I saw all the people dressed up nicely or the way I do now, and I was inspired. I went around that summer taking pictures of people. I fell in love with it. I knew immediately when I was nine years old that I wanted to move to New York City and do photography and fashion.
ULTRA came about when I was in high school. I was obsessed with Andy Warhol, and one of his “superstars” was Ultra Violet (the stage name of Isabelle Collin Dufrense), who always wore a purple wig. I also started wearing a purple wig and I got obsessed with that name and so I was like, boom, STUDIO ULTRA. It was more of an idea in high school and I would use it to take senior pictures of people. I really started doing what I want with STUDIO ULTRA when I moved to Chicago.
Eventually, I want [STUDIO ULTRA] to be a place where people can come to be a part of something. I could art direct and have a team, just me and a couple of interns, a place where you can come with a vision and we’re would to brand you in a genuine way.
OK: What was the biggest challenge about creating your own brand?
SM: Being taken seriously. I was really involved in web design and graphic design when I first started STUDIO ULTRA in high school, and I ended up getting a job designing the website for the World Trade Center resurrection memorial. They found out that I was 14 and got pissed. It was when they heard my voice on the phone that they questioned my age and all of the sudden it was a problem.
It was also hard to find support not just in the people I work with but also with friends and family and people like my mom’s coworkers because they just don’t understand the culture I work with. I’m this little boy in Iowa and I was just like, I want to be a famous fashion photographer and I want to shoot Lady Gaga and I want to shoot for Alexander McQueen, and that seems so distant from them. Even though I party, they don’t understand this is a viable industry and that I make money to get dressed up. Through those kinds of events, I was able to go to New York Fashion Week. I was invited by (award winning creative director) Nicola Formichetti of Nicopanda through Instagram.
It seems so unreal to everyone, and that’s the struggle, saying I’m not fucking around drinking and on drugs. Honestly, I can’t drink that much because I have to wear all this shit, I have to make sure it doesn’t fall off, I have to wear really tall shoes, people are touching me, I have to be safe, and I have class at 8:00 a.m. I’m getting paid for this, it’s a job. The added bonus is that I get to express myself and socialize with people and have fun. But at the end of the day, it’s a gig.
OK: Shifting gears to focus on your process, where do you find the elaborate costumes for your shoots?
SM: Thrift stores are my best friend. Also, dumpster diving. When I was living in Lincoln Park, everyone in my building was filthy rich. They would leave beautiful centerpieces for their tables in the alley, and I would take it and turn it into a hat. I find things from everywhere and it’s never cost me anything. Another example, I saw an accident outside my house on Humboldt Blvd., and noticed a hubcap that shattered and it was very interesting to me. I walked by later that night and it was still these so I took it and painted it, glued some elastic onto it, and it became a hat. (PICTURE). I have yet to wear it, but I’m excited to.
I got into a major car accident when I was 16, I still have flashbacks, and I don’t drive anymore because of that. So for me to be able to take a hubcap from an accident and turn it into something beautiful, that’s what my work is all about.
OK: You also run a fashion label, Entropy Threads. Can you talk about how that started, and what’s unique about the label and why you chose to pursue repurposed fashion?
SM: Truthfully, it’s kind of a dead project. I did it with my friend Nick [last name redacted] (entropythreads.com), who started it, and I helped him art direct. Entropy is a hard thing to talk about because I haven’t thought about it in so long. It was a really cool experiment of realizing what the kind of work I want to do in the future. Artists lose focus on projects all the time and I don’t feel bad.
I did feel like I was prioritizing someone else’s vision over mine for a while, and that took a toll on my mental health. But I can’t get upset that I spent time on that. Sometimes I’ll take photos for an agency shoot that they don’t like or I won’t like something I do, and it’s important that I take it as an experience and not get dragged down by a failed project. I learn process of creation through these things.
OK: How do you approach a new piece from idea to product? Do you wait to be inspired or are you more habitual?
SM: I honor my mental health in my process. It’s like a panic attack. When I have a creative panic attack, it’s exciting, but it can be scary. I have to turn it off so I don’t get distracted. It’s on all the time.
I also have a journal I write in every day. I’m habitual in that way. It’s not like I pull out all the green M&M’s or sit down and meditate. But you do need organization and structure to create. Usually I record an idea in my notes in my phone, when I wake up or I’m drunk and it’s sometimes gibberish. Then I’ll move it to my journal, still a bit hazy, then I have a second journal, a little bigger, where I start sketching out pictures, and then the next journal is a little bigger where I’ll collage. I’m horrible with words and I’m a visual person, so I can only express myself visually. I have a hard time expressing what I want for my visions in words, so I use the collages to translate it into something tangible.
When I’m working with a creative team or a model, I have a really clear mood or vision board that I want to make real. It’s the same thing with my looks. I have to work this way. It’s like, either I work this way or I’m dead. If I have these visions and I can’t make them reality, or share them with people, I’m going to go crazy.
OK: Are you partial to any of your work? I hate make you pick a favorite, but which piece of yours resonates the most right now?
SM: Whatever my most recent work is. I hate my old work. I know it sounds silly, but my visions are so big and I can’t afford that always, so a lot of my work isn’t even final. I almost feel like I’ve been working on the same image for the last seven years.
I recently did a collaboration with my friend Austin James Smith (Instagram @empty.pools – http://www.austinsmith.info/) and it has all the characteristics of what I’m about and all the visions I’ve been having.
Knowing I could do better is my biggest motivation. It’s not being able to settle for less. Every time I make something new, it’s better than the previous work and that’s the way it should be for me. That’s the scary thing about fashion, too, is there’s a kind of spotlight. I don’t want to peak, I want to keep getting better.
OK: You mentioned you’re moving to New York soon – what should we expect from your work in the future and what opportunities will moving to New York lend you?
SM: I love Chicago so much, but the fashion industry is difficult here for what I want to get out of it. It’s great if you want to do commercial luxury, or test shooting for agencies, but I’m still too out-there for the Midwest. Here I’m told to pull it back, where as in New York they tell me to, push it forward, keep going, don’t stop.
OK: How will that be reflected in your work?
SM: If you thought shit was crazy now, it’s only going to get crazier. If people here are telling me to pull back and this is the pulled back version, ya’ll aren’t ready. I have so much more to offer than what people expect and New York will let me do that all the time. I hope they won’t sleep on me.
OK: Is there anything else you want people to know about you?
SM: If you see the crazy kid with the shaved head and the platforms, don’t be afraid to wave at him.