From Garage to Gallery with Shawn HibmaCronan

There’s something to be said for youthful passions that persist through adolescence and into adulthood. For many, priorities shift, values evolve, and interests wane over the years. However, there are some who, guided by an elusive mixture of talent, perseverance, and luck, never quite lose sight of what most fascinated them as children. Among them is Shawn HibmaCronan, who was first exposed to metalworking in his grandfather’s garage shop, took an early interest in automobile modification, and has since worked tirelessly to develop his craft and advance his vision as a sculptor.

shawn rocking boss duck hawn rocking boss duck, showing you his creation

In his studio on the decommissioned Alameda Naval Base, Shawn creates diverse, visually arresting sculptures that are often designed to invite (and withstand) audience interaction. Using both large-scale machinery and more traditional tools, he brings a meticulous eye to his work—a product, we’d venture to guess, of his long history with cars. Whether you’re talking to Shawn or admiring one of his incredible feats of engineering and artistry, what’s hard to ignore is the obvious relish with which he approaches his work, and, by extension, his life—maybe that’s just another holdover from his childhood.

shawn showing us some projects

Let’s start with an easy one: what do you do?

I’m an artist. I make big-ass sculptures for public spaces and private collections. I’m also on the Board of Directors at the Berkeley Art Center, I teach sculpture classes at various craft schools, and I advise my community of artists on how to build their large scale artworks.

How did you get into metalworking?

My family is a really creative bunch. I first learned how to make, fix, and modify things as a little dude in my grandpa’s amazing garage shop: ridiculous skateboards, Frankenstein’d bikes, and the like. My cousin Russ and big brother Nick were always deconstructing and modifying their cars in the driveway; my job was to hold the flashlight and retrieve the right size sockets. I watched and learned so much from them. Naturally, I caught the bug too, and have since “upgraded” every vehicle I’ve owned.

Later, I studied fine art at the California College of the Arts, where I got BFAs in Sculpture and Wood Furniture. There, with some completely amazing teachers, kickass shop facilities, and a crazy talented and motivated cohort, I was able to expand and refine my skill-set. Years of sleepless nights, impressive failures, and surprising wins… I completely loved it!

How did you end up in Oakland?

I was born here and have since lived all around the East Bay. I fucking love this town and will likely stick around ‘til I’m considered part of the old guard.

What’s a day in the life look like for Shawn HibmaCronan?

Well, there is rarely a “normal” day. Every day is a different animal—keeps it interesting. I’m either drawing/designing new pieces and making site visits with clients (clean hands days), or I’m making scale mock-ups and fabricating in the studio (filthy hands days). I try and start early-ish in an attempt to keep it 9-5 with a “normal” evening after, though I often stay working/jamming late into the night. The best rhythm happens when the emails, phone calls, and distractions stop. My girlfriend is amazing and amazingly supportive of the hustle; she’s often working just as late on her own creative endeavors.

What’s your favorite tool, big or small?

Well, some might expect me to say my TIG welder, as it actually makes things stick together… My favorite tool is actually the thing that cuts stuff up: my Ellis horizontal bandsaw. No matter how large a piece of steel, it makes clean, precise compound angle cuts, is infinitely rebuildable, and continually pulls its weight like no other tool in the shop. I bet it’s made a million cuts so far. Even though I build big shapes, I still want the parts to click into place. It just makes for better welds and clean up, and keeps the dimensions true, so things fit as they are designed to. No “fudging,” no re-dos! Always trying to work quicker without getting sloppy.

shot of outside, shawn holding a project he's working on

When it’s done, it’ll be shown as a sculpture in art spaces and driven daily. I won’t be selling this one.
As a matter of fact, I’ll probably be buried in it.

I’m sure it’s hard to pick a favorite, but what’s the most memorable project you’ve worked on?

Very hard to pick a favorite project. I’ve built loads of weird things, each of which has been my favorite obsession for a period of time. The most enduring would have to be my van sculpture project. In 2008, I decided to cut up and customize my 1963 Ford Falcon Deluxe Club Wagon (the Econoline body style). Though it was a DMV-registered, street-legal vehicle, it got the same treatment as my other vehicle sculptures: no part was safe from the knife. Today, in 2019, it’s still not finished (though it’s very close). I found spare doors in a junkyard and converted the body. I built a custom tube frame to accommodate modern independent suspension with air ride (it rides low… like, real low). It has a full tube cage to add a bit of safety. Custom seats and lighting throughout. I’ve made and remade nearly every single part of the thing. As it currently sits, the thin body shell is the only thing original from the factory. When it’s done, it’ll be shown as a sculpture in art spaces and driven daily. I won’t be selling this one. As a matter of fact, I’ll probably be buried in it.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a handful of commissions. Smaller ones for private collections as well as a couple of quite large public art pieces for building developments in Oakland and San Leandro. The huge amount of housing and office development happening around the Bay Area has been good for my work. My studio has grown to fit the incoming projects, and I still have the capacity for me. All you developers, give me a call.

Where can we see some of your work?

I have two large permanent pieces in Terminals 2 and 3 of SFO. Commissioned by the awesome folks at Books, Inc. for their Compass Books locations. “Freedom Press” was done in 2011 and “Aeriform Aviary” in 2015. You can find their store before your next flight, take a picture in front of the piece, and even treat yourself to a real book! I have a few upcoming shows in Oakland this year and you can always follow the progress shots in the studio via the ‘gram.

Thank you for supporting the arts!

shot of chore pants laying flat

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