(In an gesture that offers a tantalizing glimpse into the creative process and speaks volumes about the person, Gayle Stevens has generously allowed me to recount the following.) As we exchanged e-mails, Gayle offered to share a brand-new image to unveil in fotosavant. Taking her up on the offer I received
”Untitled” (shown at left). Less that two hours later I received the following e-mail;
(“Phases” shown below left)
A rapid change in direction during composition is not unusual for many artists, but disclosing it is. Her willingness to do so tells you a lot about Gayle Stevens. An almost child-like ebullience and lack of self-consciousness in a world of frequently black-clad poseurs is refreshing to say the least.
We reached Gayle outside her home/studio in Downers Grove, IL and met up the next day at the F295 Symposium in Pittsburgh.
fs: What are you doing right now?
SGS: I am sending out work for exhibition to four different venues and I just found out I will be in The Soho National.
fs: Scanning your CV you seemed to have an educational background (BFA – The School of the Art Institute of Chicago 1996, MFA – ’99) that is usually followed by a steady ascent, yet for the most part there is a gap from 1999 to 2008. What happened?
SGS: Part of it had to do with my personal circumstances. There was a cluster of events that come as you pass through life. For one thing, I was a re-entering student who had experienced marriage, raising a child, divorce and re-marriage as I was finishing my education. During the same period I lost my father (who died in 1996) and my mother (who died in 2003).
fs: Were you also sustaining a creative life during this period?
SGS: As much as I could. I was doing very different work back then, a lot of sculpture with safety pins.
fs: Safety Pins?
SGS: Sculpture was a major part of my early work and I was creating large scale installation pieces from safety pins. But they were so large and cumbersome that transporting and installing them required a team of assistants (usually consisting of friends). With everything else going on it became too much and so I turned to a medium were I could essentially work alone.
fs: And the rest is history?
SGS: Hardly. Back then photography shows were reluctant to even consider handcrafted photos. I couldn’t get in a show to save my life. Thankfully that has changed now, though multi-media galleries continue to be more accepting than conventional photography galleries.
fs: You were also dealing with the usual struggles inherent in marriage, raising a daughter (Who later followed you to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and paying the mortgage.
SGS: Yes, so I did what I had to do to keep the boat afloat. I was doing commercial photography, assignments and assisting.
fs: Not quite what you had envisioned?
SGS: It was less a question of what I had envisioned than of not conforming to people’s preconceptions of someone with my educational background. There was one time in particular when I was talking with a clerk at a bookstore and I fell into a conversation about my backround (MFA, etc). When she asked me what I was working on at the moment (I had just come from a commercial shoot with Bill Gates of Microsoft). She was like, “and that’s what you’re doing?”, as though an MFA was a ticket to a life of art shoots in lofts.
fs: So what changed for you?
SGS: I realized that my work was not adequately expressing my point of view. So I simply walked away from photography for a while. It was a risk but I learned an important lesson. When you are blocked, sometimes the greatest favor you can do for yourself is to not do photography until it hurts. When you are starving for it you come back with a renewed appreciation, determination and clearer focus.
At about that time I became aware of the wet-plate collodion work of France Scully Osterman. It struck a chord with me, so I was excited to see she was teaching a class at the F295 Symposium. Unfortunately the class was filled. My luck turned when a last-minute cancellation created an opening and I snapped it up.
fs: Wet-plate Collodion can be a challenging medium for a beginner.
SGS: I had done meditation in the past so I made it into a very Zen-like activity. I made a perfect plate on my first try and it was “love at first pour”.
fs: Even though you’ve been prolific in the medium for a relatively short time, there seems to be a clearly discernable journey in your work. Does it feel that way to you?
SGS: Very much so. At first I was engaged more in depiction and rather self-conscious composition. In my more recent work I feel that I am using the medium with it’s foibles and imperfections to interpret my subjects. This is particularly true in “Pass” – a study of post-Katrina, Pass Christian and now in “Calligraphy”.
fs: Are you conscious of any specific influences on your work?
SGS: I received a fascination with mystery, alchemy and secrets from my grandfather, who was a life-long Mason. From my father (an engineer by trade) I received a way of looking at things as constructions. My way of using multi-frame compositions is reminiscent of an engineer’s approach to creation.
Creatively the work of France Scully Osterman and Mark Osterman opened my eyes to new ways of expression. Michael Mazzeo, John Coffer and Jill Enfield were also great teachers and examples. Aesthetically, Surrealist Painter Leonora Carrington has had an ongoing impact.
fs: Was there a particular moment or two when you thought you might actually be a success?
SGS: There were several, but two stand out; First was when David Bram featured my work in Fraction, Second, was when I learned I’d been selected for the Critical Mass Top 50. I wanted to scream the news to someone, but I was home alone. So my cat Charles got an earful of my excitement.
fs: Any words of advice for emerging photographers who are trying to create a body of personal work while they try to pay the rent?
SGS: It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true; find a way to make it work. Do what it takes for a day job. Be prepared to walk away from creating for awhile to recharge the batteries.
fs: You’ve been teaching photographic processes to students at DuPage for some years, as an educator what do you find is bringing students to handcrafted photography now?
SGS: In an age of multi-tasking and sensory over-stimulation, the freedom to focus on a single task to the exclusion of all distractions can be very liberating. Young people seldom have the opportunity to be completely present in the moment. To work successfully with handcrafted processes you have no choice but to focus completely on the task at hand.
fs: Thank you for being so generous with your time. I have to confess you are not what I expected.
SGS: I get that a lot.
Keep up with S. Gayle Stevens and view her complete portfolios at; www.sgaylestevens.com