Corbin Shaw on chasing dreams and keeping the faith

One of the UK's most exciting young artists advises us on how to get creative

Hero image in post
photo: Stan Dickinson, Circle Zero Eight
Hero image in post
photo: Stan Dickinson, Circle Zero Eight

One of the UK's most exciting young artists advises us on how to get creative

By Rhys Thomas05 Jun 2023
13 mins read time
13 mins read time

“I'm passionate about looking at men, football, and analysing the English psyche. I'm passionate about clothes and the way that we look. And daft things, I'm quite passionate about the London Underground and the different tile work across different stations. If you're gonna have a conversation with someone at a party and they chat passionately about that? Fucking brilliant!”

Corbin Shaw is a 24-year-old artist from Harthill a town on the outskirts of Sheffield. He’s passionate. If you don’t know the name, you may recognise his flags. St George’s Crosses, Union Jacks (and others) with endearing and tender text on them that subverts expectations of England, masculinity, and working class upbringings among other themes. “I’M NEVER GOING TO BE ONE OF THE LADS”, and “WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS”, are examples. The text is the same font as tabloid newspaper, The Sun. He’s worked with the likes of Women's Aid and Fred Perry, and been exhibited in a show alongside photographer Martin Parr.

Not bad going, is it?

What some won’t know is that up until just two months ago, Corbin was actually working a retail job; part-time, but still. There’s more than meets the eye to his story. Born into a strong football heritage yet with a general sense of clashing with the masculinity that the generations above perform, Corbin grew up with a complex relationship to home. And by extension, an unsure sense of self.

Leaving home for Central Saint Martins (which, yes, he first heard of in the song Common People by Sheffield Brit Pop legends Pulp) only muddied the waters. The (softer than some) lad from Sheffield, whose dad is a welder, mum is a barber, enrolling into one of the most prestigious art schools in the world. It’s chalk and cheese, to say the least.

“I hated who I was, and where I was from. I asked myself: ‘What does an art student here look like?’, and tried to become that. I tried to get rid of how I sounded, I muted what I was into and tried out different things with my appearance and hobbies.” He says.

But after a while, and thanks in part to a video Corbin filmed where he interviewed his dad about his paternal grandfather, Corbin found he wanted to explore and who he was. People at the uni liked the project, too. He stopped trying to look like he was on the way to Berghain, and dressing like himself again: trackies, football tops, loafers, trousers. He also stopped straining his vocal cords against the South Yorkshire accent that wanted to come out. He took the flags from the football terraces and planted them right in the middle of a gallery.

“I came to the conclusion that I can only really be myself. I now see the advantages in that. Most people in uni come from similar backgrounds, I'm different and I can show this world the things I know, who I am” he says.

Of course, there’s more to his work than flags. Corbin works with clothing, sculpture, performance, dance, sound and more. Generally, he is going from strength to strength as an artist and the future looks bright for him: collaboration with large luxury fashion brands, plans for a solo exhibition. So we figured, who better to give us some advice on chasing our own creative dreams, even if they feel at odds with where we come from.


I made a jacket for Belstaff recently, I called it a supporter's jacket. It was meant to be a bit of a joke about the way that heterosexual men refuse to take a bag with them, but are also obsessed with utilitarian wear. So they'll wear a jacket that was made for a tour of Afghanistan, with its millions of pockets and that, to the football. The jacket from Belstaff I altered was made for orienteering but on a bike, and it’s often worn by football fans. So I was thinking about the journeys supporters do all around the country, and like, what if we changed all the pockets to suit the needs of the football fan.

I found pictures of lads on trains, with all their things on the table, as a reference. So it has sandwich pockets, crisp pockets, beer bottle pockets, a bottle opener, a lighter. There's a window to stream football on, a train ticket holder on the chest. And then I changed the lining, I wanted that to be some boy’s conscious of how much he loves his friends that he travels around with it, maybe doesn't talk about. Which comes from me generally being really interested in moments of tenderness among men that we overlook. That's a theme I'm constantly open to seeing examples of in the world, and there's demonstrations of it in most of the work I do. The lining is an English flag with the words “BY YOUR SIDE” sewn on top.

I'm not a writer or a researcher, I wish I was. I want to meet an artist that I really admire and to ask them: how the hell do you do the research? How does it happen for you? It's all so personal though, isn't it.

When I was at CSM an artist who was running a project said "if you can get your idea whittled down so that you can tell somebody who's not involved in art about it, and they understand it, then you've cracked it." That's always really stood with me because I think sometimes art has a tendency to just completely waffle in art jargon that nobody understands. And then like, who is it for? Sometimes Tate Modern gets a bit of a bad rep, but when I was 17 I went there for the first time on a school trip, and I could understand it. That was brilliant, it was a gateway for me.


My practice, to boil it down, is that I'm obsessed with men, and what men do. How they dress, how they speak, what they wear, how they perform their gender. On all spectrums of life - from young to old - and all the different transitional periods that we go through. Also how we choose to project our gender into objects, whether that be flags or big cars, or jackets.

Also, I really like when you can kind of put something back in that environment and it’s so subtle that it looks like it belongs there, but it says something that isn’t typically said in that environment. Like putting one of my flags in the crowd at the football, though sometimes mine are a bit too obvious.


I always think it's weird I make work with text considering I'm not very good writer, I'm dyslexic and I'm not very well read. But I do it anyway. At CSM, everyone was fighting for their right to have a say in that in that space. And there were sort of like, medals of respect socially, I guess. At the time, I thought me putting a St George's Cross in the room is probably the worst idea ever, and so I did that, but I did it in my way. It were me, and it is me, my practice hasn’t changed since then, I’ve just gotten better at it.


I felt really static last year, I hit a stumbling block around the fact that I'd done so much work about home, but kept asking myself how could I do that if I hadn't lived there for the last six years of my life?

I feel more accepted by home now, through doing work about it and talking about it. I want to be accepted by Sheffield, I want to do so much for the city. I always feel like it's my duty to do my bit, you know, fill in the hobnail boots of all the men that did stuff for us growing up in our communities. Like the war effort, the miners, my dad who's a welder, my mum who's a barber. I'm so conditioned to feel like I have to do that for my city.

One of my main aims when I became an artist was to inspire someone from back home to be creative, or to go actually, no, I don't want to do this. I'm gonna go and do what I want to do. I've done my job if that happens, d'ya know what I mean?

I guess I remember why I’m here, what inspires me, and then I try to get back to work. If I’m finding some stuff formulaic, like I do sometimes with the text, I think about the other things I want to do. More than anything I want to be a sculptor, and I love performance. I love people living with the work and it being in a space and having a life of its own. When they made the flags for the Euros, and they were in people's houses all at the pub and stuff. That's what it's all about.


I do sometimes lack confidence, but you should never be afraid to fail. I think things are interesting when you fuck up. And, like, where would you be if you did things right all the time? Of course, there's also a lot of shit that I do make which never sees the light of day, but you just should be always curious, shouldn't ya?

I think it's about not taking yourself so seriously sometimes as well. That's something I've changed recently, I try to catch myself and realise when something is silly and that silly is fine. It's quite clever to do that as well. I love surreal comedy, like Vic and Bob. Artists get terrified of being wrong, or silly, but they shouldn't.

Never tell yourself that you can't do something, like, why deny yourself the chance to do something you love?


I definitely recommend using Instagram as an artist. I think I'm very lucky though, because I gained a following at the time when the algorithm suited images. It’s harder to gain an interest there if you're not making video content, which is really annoying. But it's important because you can be your own promoter, and you can connect with other artists and see work that you would never have seen otherwise. So much of my life, friends, and my work has come out of Instagram. I definitely wouldn't be here without it. So it's brilliant, but it's also fucking shit at the same time.



I think one thing that I've started to notice recently is people being very hell bent on like, who's allowed to use what. I don’t mean in terms of appropriating other people’s culture, never do that, but in terms of owning ideas that come from a similar place. Like, me writing text on a flag is not original, you know? If people send me [images of] fuckin’ flags, and they're like, ‘oh, this person ripped you off’ I’m like… no, I ripped off flags from football terraces and those people aren’t coming for me. People recognise me for doing that. But it's not original really. I notice it when I use materials that others use too. It’s about how you use them, not what you use.

People need to get off their fucking high most of the time and realise that if a group of artists are roughly around the same things, we're going to have overlap. I made work when I started that looked a lot like Grayson Perry's, it happens. As identities, we are a collage of all the people that we aspire to be and like. I'm an amalgamation of the artist that I really like, or I try to be. For me, it’s people like Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry, and Jeremy Deller. You could say that some of my work looks like Jeremy Deller's, but I don't think it's too similar that I've completely ripped them off.

Either way, use the things you’re inspired by, it isn’t copying if you’re doing your own thing. Hip hop is the easiest example to understand. They listened to funk, disco, and electro, mixed it in a blender, added their own thing, and there we go: hip hop.


My advice is to just be extremely passionate about whatever you want to be passionate about. That can be stamps, it can be trains, it can be furniture, or bins, or football, you know. Explore what you want to because you really love it.

I feel like the most interesting conversations are with people who are passionate, even if you passionately hate something, I love people telling me why they really passionately hate it. Passion is a great thing. It's a great mode of transport for where you want to go with your thinking. It drives you forward. Questioning things all the time is also very important. Be that person going 'why is it like that?', ‘what if I did this?’. My mum says I asked a lot of questions when I was little.



I wanted to be independent so I could set my own prices, work with whoever I wanted to work with, and also create different price brackets in which people could access my work. So whether that is a flag [which cost a couple grand at minimum] or a flag but made of polyester [far cheaper], or a small scratch card for 15 quid or t-shirts or whatever. Creating all these different things that people can access my work through that are still me. It's not like a capitalist idea that I want to sell, sell, sell, sell, sell - I'm not fucking living the dream, I live in a flat with five people, in the same room as my girlfriend. There's sacrifices that you have to make to be able to do shit like this. That's life. I'm very lucky and fortunate to have this studio space because I get it at a good rate. I do think that you can make anything happen if you really really really try, but it is incredibly tough.

I worry this could all be taken away from me, but I'll never let it. I'll never let it, I'd dig my heels in. It isn't something I cloud my thoughts with, I think I'd go wrong if I started to think like that. Now that I’m totally dependent on the work to live, it's a whole new reason to light the fire, comfortability is a bad place to be. I think you need to have that burning desire. The 'I have to do this because I have to' instinct, whether that's about seeing something, making something, whatever, go and do it. It's kind of hedonistic but in a creative way. If something is calling you, always answer it.