This is the fourth installment of the capital lives artist interview series. capital lives features work by Bo Chen, Sydney Gray, Sarah O’Donoghue, Brea Soul, Christine Stoddard, and Nevada Taylor.
Christine Stoddard | Multimedia artist | Exhibiting in capital lives from May 30 to July 4, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Rina Goldman
Can you tell me about yourself, where you come from and where you are now?
I was born to a Salvadoran mother and a New Yorker father in Arlington, Virginia just across the river from Washington, D.C. I lived there until I graduated from high school. Then I spent a year in the cornfields of Iowa before moving to Richmond, Virginia where I lived off and on for five years. Scholarships allowed me to study in France, Scotland, and Mexico during my Richmond days. I moved back to Northern Virginia for a couple of years, bouncing around Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church. Today I live in Brooklyn with my husband, David. Though I live in Ocean Hill, I dart across all five boroughs for art exhibitions, readings, residencies, and other events. Even though I’m based in New York City now, I’m still involved in the Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond art scenes. The DMV will always be home. My husband and I still have family in Virginia and Maryland. In fact, my husband’s side even has a few UMD grads. (Go Terps!)
Right now, I work for the Art Deco Society of New York and run Quail Bell Magazine. I am also completing my art planning fellowship with the 2018 Reclaimed Lands Conference for the Freshkills Park Alliance at NYC Parks as a CUNY fellow.
You obviously have a connection to the DC area as seen in your works, Autumnal Death and “Thirty Pounds in Three Years”, how did growing up so close to our nation’s capital influence your work?
Growing up in Arlington heightened my understanding of history and politics. I saw firsthand that governments are made up of people. Almost everyone I knew as a child had parents who worked for the federal government or companies that served the government. Al Gore and Colin Powell came to my public elementary and high schools simply because my classmates’ parents worked for them. My proximity to D.C. meant I had personal connections to so many national events and figures. The September 11th terrorist attack on D.C. happened in my hometown: Arlington, where the Pentagon is actually located (not D.C.!)My senior year of high school, I interviewed First Lady Laura Bush for a feature on children’s literacy for Teen Ink, a national literary magazine.
When I go home to visit my parents and husband’s family, I still feel a strong connection to national politics. It’s not always for good, of course. I went home to visit my family for Easter and stayed in Arlington for a few days. Since one of those days was a weekday, just about everyone I knew had to go to work, so I accepted a gig to make extra money. Well, guess what gig this Arlington girl accepted? A mascot handler for the White House Easter Egg Roll! I wasn’t happy to see Trump speak that day (or ever), but I was happy that I could help bring smiles to the faces of thousands of children. Plus, I have so many strange little anecdotes from the experience. Surely those details will wiggle their way into my art somehow. You can take an Arlington girl out of Arlington, but you can’t take the Arlington out of an Arlington girl.
How did it feel to photograph a place that means so much to Americans, while representing a place of sorrow and loss? Was there a specific feeling you were going for with the photo collage? What drew you to the title Autumnal Death?
I took the original photographs that I used for Autumnal Death in 2012 while visiting Arlington National Cemetery for documentary work. Then I assembled the images into a photo collage in 2015. The initial piece came about simply because I was revisiting folders of digital photos and scans on my computer and wanted to see what I could revive in Photoshop. I made several different printed versions of Autumnal Death in 2016 and 2017, including printing on canvas. It wasn’t until this year that I printed the work on paper and added pencil, pencil, and marker accents.
Photographing Arlington National Cemetery conjured all kinds of emotions. Of course it’s a place of sorrow and loss, but it’s also a place of reverence and even celebration. It’s full of tradition and people who are proud to visit the graves of their family and friends. ANC is also another national landmark that’s located in my hometown. In that sense, it feels very ordinary to me. I can’t being to count how many times I passed ANC as a kid. It was just more roadside scenery. That’s one of the reasons why I layered the headstones in the image. Remarkably for a place of such national prominence, there’s a certain banality and repetition to ANC for me. When you grow up with something, it’s quite easy to downplay or even forget it. You just don’t have the life experience to contextualize yet, no matter how book-smart you are.
The title Autumnal Death was fairly literal for me. I took the photos in the fall when the leaves were ablaze. The whole cemetery looked like it was shrouded in crimson. It was beautiful, illuminating, and ominous all at once.
Your work touches on some very intense topics, especially “Thirty Pounds in Three Years”, was there something specific that provoked you to present this poem at this point in time?
“Thirty Pounds in Three Years” is a work of fiction. It’s based loosely on family lore, as well as the story of a woman I interviewed for an article I wrote for a feminist website. My personal feelings and experience influenced the work, as well. Like many people I knew, I was unusually sluggish after Trump was elected. I ate too much, spent too much time in bed, and left my apartment as little as possible (working for home made that all too easy.) I got a lot of writing and art-making done, but I was not taking advantage of the fact that I lived in New York City. It was hard to enjoy anything. Too many activities and pastimes felt frivolous. Eventually I got out of my rut and delved into my local community. It was not easy, but I think anyone who enjoys relative comfort in life has a duty to give back to others. If more Americans cultivated a generosity of spirit in the first place, Trump never would’ve gotten elected.
In your artist statement, you mentioned layers – both physical layers, like collage, and metaphorical layers pertaining to womanhood and femininity – can you elaborate?
Stories and interrogation drive my work. I use photography and video to explore how the digital age has both empowered and silenced women, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized voices. For every #metoo or #blacklivesmatter movement, there are trolls producing opposing hashtags. My process is one in which analogue meets digital, mimicking how our real lives and online lives overlap. I make sculptures and paintings and then photograph them to merge with screenshots from social media. I scan clippings from books, magazines, and newspapers and composite them with photographs of gutted electronics. I take video footage in my neighborhood and cut it with video footage downloaded from free websites.
Exploring feminine power and energy is integral to all that I create as an artist, both online and offline. I feel that energy and power everywhere in nature, which is one of the reasons why I am drawn to flora and fauna imagery in my work. Just as the digital age has failed to truly empower marginalized people, it has failed to solve our environmental challenges. A culture of technological obsolescence and a culture of disposability go hand in hand. We must foster a culture that allows all people and nature to thrive.
Where do you see your art going from here? Any more projects in the works?
At the moment, I just want to take it project by project. I have some firm ideas about what I want to create, but I’m still in an experimental phase. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to go back to school. I just finished my first year at The City College of New York (CUNY), where I’m pursuing an M.F.A. in Digital & Interdisciplinary Art Practice. Everyday is a new chance to try something and possibly fail in a supportive, academic environment where I’m supposed to learn. Learning often means failing and starting again. Since I’m in this experimental stage, it’s also a good time for me to try out residencies. I had completed residencies before coming to grad school, with my longest and most intense one ending just before the academic year began. I was the artist-in-residence at Annmarie Sculpture Garden, a Smithsonian affiliate in Southern Maryland. Honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my life and set me on my current path. I want my work to be playful while investigating important issues across disciplines. Artists are also researchers and communicators.
Right now, I have an artist residency at Brooklyn Public Library’s Eastern Parkway branch in Crown Heights through mid-July. I’m making sculptures and assemblages out of found and recycled materials with the public and then using them in photo and video shoots. The residency will culminate in an exhibition on July 14th. On June 23rd, I have a mini residency at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum in Woodstock, New York. They have a program called Habitat for Artists that’s kind of funky. Artists work in a temporary, 6’x6’ studio installed in a public space and invite the community to watch them or even create a project with them. After I finish up at Eastern Parkway Library, I’m headed to Laberinto Projects in El Salvador as a visiting artist for a couple of weeks. I have some ideas for a photography and writing project in mind based upon exploring where my mother lived during the country’s civil war. We will see what comes to fruition. In August, I will begin a 6-month residency with Staten Island MakerSpace, which is partnering with organizations like the Small Business Development Center at the College of Staten Island and the NYC Business Solutions office to help artists get their ideas off the ground. The details for this opportunity are still being solidified.
The ongoing project—at least until I graduate—is my M.F.A. thesis. I don’t have to solidify my thesis quite yet, but it’s certainly on my mind. I’ve been researching and making smaller projects as prototypes. One is an interactive electronic book called girl with camera. You can view it here. (See if you can find the hidden elements!) We will see where my art projects take me when I graduate next May.
You wrote a book, Water for the Cactus Woman, can you tell me about that process and a little bit about the book itself?
I have always expressed myself through both words and images. Thus, creative writing is a strong component of my artistic practice. After successfully publishing multiple chapbooks—Jaguar in the Cotton Field (Another New Calligraphy), Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares (Semi-perfect Press)and Ova (Dancing Girl Press) are a few of my favorites—I felt confident someone would publish a full-length collection of mine. That someone was Spuyten Duyvil Publishing in New York City. I was floored that the publishing team suggested the book include my visual work, which was something I hadn’t proposed or even considered. The manuscript flowered into a whole other work once I began curating images and pairing them with poems. I’m very proud of the final result, which recently placed in the Danielle and Larry Nyman Family Project Award competition at The City College of New York (CUNY). The official award letter stated that “the committee members unanimously expressed their admiration for the beautiful interplay between word and image as well as for the haunting themes of family love and loss woven throughout.” The Nyman Award recognizes creative and research projects that examine the complexity of family dynamics, which is exactly what Water for the Cactus Woman attempts to do.
I think Moonchild Magazine founder Nadia Gerassimenko describes Water for the Cactus Woman quite beautifully: “Water for the Cactus Woman is an uncannily familiar story about first unrequited love: that of madre absent and grieving and that of abuela prematurely gone but hauntingly present as torrential silence and forlornness—and that of many madres/abuelas before and that of many madres/abuelas after. Water for the Cactus Woman is ‘a coyote’s last cry before the hunter’s bullet’ is ‘a drippy desert watercolor’ is ‘a dewdrop of hope.’ It is a cactus split spilling nectar, desert oasis blooming after monsoon, the sun finally shining its light on you. It is the primal thirst to love and be loved. It is the hopeful courage that self-love could fill all the heart chambers after all.” Ms. Gerassimenko also published my electronic chapbook, The Silhouette Woman, which also peels away the onion skin from matriarchal relationships.
Are you planning on writing any more books?
Yes, I have and I will! For me, it’s more of a matter of getting what I’ve written published—the plight of writers everywhere. Fortunately, I do have a few books coming out this year and next year. First up is The Tale of the Clam Ear (AngelHouse Press), which is a narrative poetry chapbook. The book is about the stories a young woman born with an ear deformity tells herself to feel powerful in this dark ocean of a world. Another book is Naomi and the Reckoning (About Editions), a novella. Naomi is about a 25-year-old woman raised in a conservative Catholic household who has trouble consummating her marriage. Yet another is Belladonna Magic (Shanti Arts Publishing), which is similar in format to Water for the Cactus Woman in that it contains poems and photo collages, but the content is completely different! The themes are different, the narrative is different, the images are different. Another title I have coming out is The Book of Quails (Clare Songbirds Publishing House), which is a children’s book about quails. It was illustrated by the talented Sami Cronk, a fellow VCUarts graduate. Luminous Press will be releasing my prose chapbook, Things I Do Well That Nobody Will Ever Pay Me To Do. I think the title says it all. The book is as funny as it is sad. Then there’s Desert Fox by the Sea, a collection of short stories coming out from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle.
I’m thrilled about all of these releases. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been publishing myself to submit my manuscripts and it’s been working. I’m hopeful that more of my manuscripts will find homes. I have a couple of other titles that are under contract, so we will see what happens.
As a final question, pertaining to the theme of this exhibition, to you, what lies behind the image of power?
What lies behind the image of power is imbalance. I’m going to link you to the artist statement for The Orgasm Archives, a project I created during my first semester at City College. You can learn more about my thoughts and creations related to heteropatriarchal power dynamics here.
Stoddard’s work is included in capital lives at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from May 30 through July 3, 2018.
For more information on Christine Stoddard, visit www.worldofchristinestoddard.com.
For more information on capital lives and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery
Each time that I look at this piece, I catch something that I didn’t see before. There are so many layers to take in and conceptualize, which I think is very fitting for the theme of the piece – the globalization of news and social media. As I continued to discover new aspects within Kudzu, I became inspired to write a poem as a kind of “meditation” on the work. The aspect of the piece that I find to be the most compelling is that everything seems to be connected in some way. I decided to incorporate this idea of connection into my poem, as it relates to the way that social media is spreading and forming connections throughout the world.
A Meditation on Jiha Moon’s Kudzu
From anticipating hands bursts
the plumage of a new species of bird –
the tips of its feathers wetted with
the beginnings of a metamorphosis.
In one fluid motion
its wings draw back,
sending an aura of innovation –
to bathe the world between its wings.
And the world awakens
as leaves become messengers,
with blueprints embedded
into young skin;
as clouds acquire the means
to program new pathways,
to engage with the mountains;
as sky at last discovers a route
to make contact with the ocean.
As if urged by a memo,
the trees create new roots –
with searching fingers,
and pioneering limbs that wrap
across near and distant spaces,
asserting an omnipresence;
lending worldly hands, and –