Richard Shaw was born in Hollywood in 1941 to an artist mother and cartoonist father. He received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1965 and his MFA from the University of California at Davis in 1968. He later received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. Shaw was part of the San Francisco Bay Area Funk movement, with other ceramic greats: Viola Frey, Ron Nagle, Robert Arneson, and James Melchert.

He received Visual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1971 and 1974. His roster of solo and group exhibitions is extensive, with shows at Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica, the Braunstein/Quay Gallery in San Francisco, Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Perimeter Gallery in Chicago, Thomas Segal Gallery in Boston, and Davis & Cline Gallery in Ashland, Oregon.

Since 1987, Shaw has been a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to that, he was a lecturer at the University of California at Davis, the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The spontaneity of the material propels his and his students' learning. “Being with students keeps me alive,” he stated of his work at UC Berkeley.

Shaw bought his home in Fairfax, California in 1976, where he still lives today. His home and yard are filled with old memorabilia—old gas pumps, a “funky” car—making him feel as if he was “stuck in the 1930’s”. His studio is the same studio that he’s worked in since the mid–70s. His library of molds is stacked floor to ceiling. Shaw was said to have wanted to make the whole world out of clay; his home and surroundings certainly provide inspiration for that goal. 

Prior to college, Shaw was interested in filmmaking and painting. At Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, Shaw first fell in love with clay. In graduate school, Shaw made miniatures in wood, with clay, metal, and glass parts. Wanting to prove to his peers that he practiced what he preached (in the academic setting), he returned to ceramics in 1970.

At White Gate Ranch, a former dairy town in Stinson Beach, California, Shaw collaborated with fellow artist Robert Hudson for several years. Their wives worked in mixed media and painting, respectively, with their children underfoot. The Years at White Gate Ranch, an exhibition catalogue published by the Bolinas Museum for the Art and History of Coastal Marin, documents this time period and the work of these and other artists.

Shaw and Hudson created hundreds of works of ceramic art in a shared studio. They collaborated on the creation of porcelain wares made from slip cast found objects; the resulting objects did not resemble traditional utilitarian pots. This exercise paved the way for ongoing exploration of trompe l'oeil ceramics, of which Shaw is now a master, with his slip cast renderings of books, skulls, food, playing cards, and tools for art making.

His three-dimensional still lifes begin with multi-part plaster molds that produce lifelike clay objects, later assembled and brought to life with the addition of silk-screened and overglaze, transfer decals. His sculptures are so lifelike that even the most skilled ceramicist must pause to examine a piece.  In an episode of public television station’s KQED’s arts program Spark, Shaw stated, “When you fool other guys making ceramics, you’ve got it,” in response to a viewer’s inquiry into why a particular piece included a glass bottle. Shaw’s sculptures trick the eye and call attention to commonly overlooked objects and imagery. He engages viewers through illusion, humor, and sometimes, sentiment. “Sentiment is practically what all of this stuff is about, in a serious way. No, 'sentimental' to me is not a bad word. I mean, I love all this old stuff. 'Sentimental' is more about memory art, maybe times that are old, which you might not even understand” (Richard Shaw: New Work, catalogue produced by the Braunstein/Quay Gallery, 2007; interview with Richard Whittaker, 2006).