Last week on Valentines Day 2018, I had the pleasure of meeting painter Stephanie Pierce at Steven Harvey Fine Art Gallery on the Lower East Side in New York City. This interview is a discussion about the work in her current exhibition “Signal” that includes seven paintings and two collages.
John Mitchell: How long did you spend on the nine works in this show?
Stephanie Pierce: It’s hard to say exactly, because several of these were started in the other places I was working (Fayetteville, AR where I lived and a residency in Marnay Sur Seine, France) before I moved to New York in the summer of 2016. Most of them were worked on for at least a year and a half, and only one of the large paintings took under a year.
JM: You grew up in Memphis right? How did you get into making paintings? Did you have help early on – an inspiring artist in your family or a teacher or someone like that?
SP: Yes, I grew up in Memphis. My first mentor was my high school art teacher, Bill Hicks, who had a huge impact on me and many other students who are still practicing artists. Working with him changed my life. I had the idea that I wanted to be a painter, long before I worked with him but if it hadn’t been for him I probably wouldn’t have found a way into art school. There were no artists in my family or exposure to art but eventually I had a close friend whose mother was an artist. That family kind of took me in and she exposed me to being around art and artists. She never talked to me about what she did, and I was shy to ask her much, but her studio was in the living room, and when we went in there I would study the work she made, the materials she had around, and how different the world was that she had created than the one I knew. After seeing her tube watercolors, I convinced my Aunt to give me $7 to buy a cheap set of them at Woolworths. I was around 11 or 12 years old. From then on my walls were covered in drawings and paintings and a few years after that I met Bill Hicks.
JM: After high school, then what happened? How did you get from Memphis to New York City, and who were some of the important teachers or influences along the way?
SP: That question is so big! Everything happened – there’s about 23 years and what feels like lifetimes between when I first left Memphis and later moved to NY!
The shortest way I can answer:
I went to undergrad at The Art Institute of Boston, where I worked with two very supportive faculty, Michael David and Liza Folman, both printmakers, who I worked with so closely that I sometimes joke they were my surrogate parents. Eventually I met Gideon Bok at Yale Norfolk who was a big influence because of his work and because he was the first serious painter I met who also came from the underground music scene. I had grown up and lived within the punk community since I was young and it’s always been an important part of my life.
Between leaving Boston and moving to NYC (this is a long span of time – almost 20 years!), I lived in Chicago, Memphis, Asheville, NC, rural TN, Seattle, and Fayetteville, AR. I’ve always moved around and traveled a lot. After undergrad I went to Europe and biked from the west coast of Ireland to eastern Poland. Along the way I’ve learned about other things that fed me as an artist, like gardening, plants, building, playing guitar and drums, and observing the natural world.
I went to graduate school at The University of Washington in Seattle where I worked mostly with Denzil Hurley, Riley Brewster, and Ann Gale, who were challenging critics and gave me a lot to think about. After leaving graduate school I moved to Fayetteville, AR where I lived for 10 years previous to moving to NY. While there I taught at the University, owned land, built a house, ran a DIY space called Lalaland for music/art events, and did a radio show.
JM: In each painting there’s a feeling of different times of day, shadows move, the light changes, everything is shimmering, dissolving, coming into and dropping out of focus. Describe how you make one of these paintings – starting with the stretcher, support, priming and on to how you begin a painting and how you work through to a painting hanging in an exhibition.
SP: Normally I build the stretchers and do all the stretching and priming/oil ground. Since I’ve moved to NY I don’t have a table saw to rip lumber, so I’m reconsidering how to build them. The scale of the larger work is usually my height and is a size where I can reach the whole canvas without using a stool. Most of the larger paintings also fit into the bed of my truck, which also happens to be my size.
My work is made by observing things in my immediate surroundings over long periods of time. After the surface is ready, I start looking everywhere for a way in, asking everything around me, “are you a potential painting?” The process of looking and hand wringing before I start painting takes much more time than I’d like to admit. I dread that part because it usually feels like I’ll never find the opening to begin. Once there’s something that offers a glimpse of possibility, that might be a kind of light, a cryptic narrative, or the potential read of things when next to each other, I begin. If I see a possibility in something that makes me nervous I try to gravitate towards that, especially when I don’t know if it will work or I’m questioning a need to give myself permission to do it. The paintings track time and light observed through many layers of painted information and are accrued to the point of barely coalescing confusion. They are constantly revised throughout the process. I paint during all times of the day, preferring daylight, and use the changes in light as it happens. In the process of working on them I paint both towards understanding what I see and away from it until things are brought to a heightened experiential intensity and have a hallucinatory sensation.
JM: The many straight edges that occur throughout these big paintings are so unusual looking. They don’t look taped but I can’t figure them out. How do you make the straight edges?
SP: Secrets! It surprises me how many people ask about this. Edges are really important to me. I’ll just say I don’t mask with tape or use stencils. It’s all made with my hands.
JM: How about your color? Are you mixing all of your color on the palette table before the paint goes on or do you also mix on the painting as you go? And do you think about these individual paintings in terms of the overall color of each or are you more consciously focused on the internal color dynamics, leaving the color of the painting as a whole up to the chance build-up of whatever happens?
SP: I have certain colors that are always on my palette and I add new colors as I discover a need for them. Usually I have at least 4 versions of each primary out and some secondaries. I spend a lot of time mixing, mostly on the palette with a knife, sometimes with a brush on the palette. The color evolves as the painting progresses and I never know how it’s going to develop ahead of time. Eventually the paintings start to show their own logic and relationships of color and decisions are made based on the painting as well as observation. I’m constantly finding shifts in color, space, light, etc., as I add layers I leave openings that reveal the underpainting. The interactions between layers offer further divergence from concretizing things too much.