Oh, Mary

Asking Why

August 20, 2018
Shawn Shirey

My life has been a series of experiments.

I grew up reading horror fiction and consuming fantasy and science fiction zines. Through my inspiration from these subjects, I started to draw. I always loved the weird and sometimes horrific visuals attributed to these genres so I started drawing them. I learned early (and at great cost) to challenge convention.

I picked up the guitar at age 12 and instantly fell in love. Not with the music, not with the strum and pick. I fell in love with the sound effect aspects of the instrument, especially wah-wah pedals and echo effects.

Immediately, I wanted to preserve the sounds, but I didn’t have any professional recording equipment. So I experimented.

I had two boomboxes with microphones.  I’d record one part, play it on one boom box and play along with it, recording into the microphone of the other.  It wasn’t the most hi-fi experience but I was able to flesh out my first demos and practice songwriting on a bigger level.

In my 20’s I fell in love with electronic music and got my first keyboard and drum machine. I made music every day; went to school and got my audio engineering degree; never stopped creating. Analog synthesizers led me to modular synthesis. And that’s where experimentation really took off.

Modular synthesis is all about experimentation. It doesn’t make a sound on its own. You have to make the connections via cables to get it to function. I could make my own sounds that no one else could duplicate. I’m still sitting in a mess of cables.

I play live shows on occasion with my modular. People often come up to see what I was using.

They want to know not just how, but why. I take them through my set and explain the various networking it took to come up with the sounds I made.

It’s interesting to forget what you know. Forget the popular assumptions and ask yourself why and then follow it up with a quick why not!

I took a photography class in high school. With an old 35-millimeter camera, I shot pictures and they taught us how to develop film with the negatives using chemicals in the dark room. I experimented with superimposing different photos together and even painted on chemicals for interesting effects. When I bought my first digital camera I stumbled through the instincts of tradition in search of new forms of art. Not only that, but my first experiments with Photoshop turned out to be very fruitful; I had my drawing and art background. Many of the tools were the same and I started to realize how I could use all of these tools I’d learned over the years.

I finally figured out to some extent why all of these experiments were so important for me as an artist.


Today I do corporate social media as a member of Action Mary. Though it may seem detached from the experimental medium, it isn’t. My personal history and the drive to create new sounds and pictures has allowed me to apply a broad range of skills into my client work. I’m free to be creative and it’s a fun challenge to mesh my experimental ideals into the client’s voice.

If I stop to consider it, my entire life, every single road I’ve been down, every corner I have turned has led me, inexorably, to this moment in time where I can be free to be successful for our clients.

Experimentation is the key to everything. It gives you the freedom to stand apart. It is a wonder and achievement and sometimes failure. I approach every assignment this way. What can we do to be more creative? How can we push the envelope? Where does originality come from?

It starts by asking why.