Stephanie Beck – Artist

Stephanie Beck is a Contemporary Visual Artist from Brooklyn, NY

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Artist’s statement…
I am inspired by images of archaeological sites, architectural history, aerial photos and my own explorations through various cities. My work plays with the manipulation of space and architectural structures; exploring patterns of settlement and structural design within real and imagined cities, in two and three-dimensional forms. I am interested in the formal qualities of architecture and also in how architecture reflects, or, alternatively, forms the lives and beliefs of the people who construct it. I see buildings and structures as surrogates for ourselves and use them to investigate and illustrate our human frailties.

But secretly I am most driven by a sense of wonder and play.

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What are you currently working on
A piece inspired by the complex compression of space in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn, where I am attending a studio residency.

Why are you an artist?
Because it’s usually fun, often exciting, sometimes scary and always interesting. I feel it is where my greatest talent lies and it is the most authentic and meaningful work that I can do—it is the way I can live my fullest life.

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How important is art for you?
Making, viewing, thinking about and discussing art is how I have chosen to live my life, so it’s fundamental to me and how I see the world. But I also am aware of its importance to humanity—art is one way we learn about history and religion and is one of the ways in which a society defines itself. Unfortunately funding for the arts in the U.S., and many places, is being cut, which denies the vital role it plays in the creation and examination of culture and the importance of encouraging creative thought and expression.

What is it about Visual Art you find compelling?
The sheer creativity of it and the ability to make an emotional, experiential or conceptual connection with another person. But perhaps most importantly, it reminds me that despite the horrible things people are capable of, we are also capable of amazing, beautiful, powerful works of art. All of the arts are humanity at its best.

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Your art education was…?
I studied Art History as an undergraduate and worked in various art museums within Education and Curatorial departments, so studying, viewing and talking about art from throughout history and around the world is a huge part of my art education. My formal studio education consists of classes in college and later in continuing education programs, a one-year post-baccalaureate certificate and two years of graduate school. And now as a working artist I am constantly looking at and reading and talking about art, so the education never ends.

Was your education helpful, or a hindrance?
Both my background in art history and my studio classes were extremely helpful to me. However I do think that a crucial point in my career was really questioning everything I had learned and all the assumptions I had made and ultimately throwing a lot of it out to start on my own authentic work. But I don’t think I would I be making my current work if I did not have that background to question and rebel against.

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What did you do before or during becoming an artist?
Before graduate school I worked in art museums within Education and Curatorial departments. My first full-time job was as with Public Programs at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, where I assisted in presenting films, concerts and lectures focused on the arts of Asia. Later I worked as a Curatorial Assistant for Islamic and Later Indian Art at the Harvard Art Museums, where I learned an enormous amount about Persian, Turkish and Indian art. At the same time I was teaching painting and drawing classes at a local community education center. Since graduate school I have taught art at various levels and held various part-time office jobs at a performing arts organization, a law firm, temp agencies, etc, etc…..

Is there any one thing that has given you a big buzz in your art career so far?
The most exciting moments in my art career so far have been my recent projects in which I have set my work out into the world and allowed it to interact with a natural or urban environment on its own. It was very freeing to literally let the work go and just see what would happen. I also loved the social aspect of it—it was fun to create work that spurred me to work with other people —some were friends, some were volunteers, some were complete strangers. It was also so rewarding to see the public watch and interact with the work. Usually it has been kids who physically interact with the work—they are much more curious and open than adults.

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Did the place where you grew up have an influence?
I think my family’s moving from place to place has had more influence on my work than one particular place. We moved about every three years, so I had to orient myself within a lot of new houses and places. This made me very sensitive to issues of space and architecture.

What or who inspires your art?
Daily life inspires my art—I’m becoming more reactive to my environment and making more site-inspired work, so place plays a big part in what I make. I’m also often inspired by history, especially how structures and places change over time.

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What caused you to choose the medium you currently work in?
I used to paint in oil, but during graduate school I deeply questioned why I was painting and what type of art I wanted to make. I realized I just didn’t love the medium of oil paint enough to pursue it so I went back to what felt most natural and authentic to me, and that was drawing. I created a lot of drawings of lace, which began to look like maps to me. I started cutting the lace/maps out and discovered a whole new world of sculptural drawing with the paper itself. This has since led to more 3-dimensional, sculptural constructions.

Has your work changed much since your early efforts?
Yes, radically, thank goodness! But I love to look back at my older work—it’s an amazing record to have of your own development.

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Have your artistic influences altered over time?
I entered graduate school as a traditional oil painter focused on the figure, so my influences at the time were artists such as Degas, Lucien Freud, Alice Neel—a wide range of figurative painters. However I had been working in an Islamic and Indian art department for 3 years prior and looking very closely at gorgeous, delicate drawings and paintings and text and this attention to line and different considerations of the representation of space began to come out in my work once I stopped painting. I really questioned my interests and inspirations and realized they were much larger than simply painters, and often outside the “fine art” world—I’m inspired by a wide variety of artists, but also by literature, poetry, design, crafts, and just the physicality of the world itself.

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You know you are successful in Visual Arts when…
You are still making art when you’re 80.

Does the “creative process” happen easily for you?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I have learned that I need to just start working, even if I don’t really know what I’m working on. I rarely fully plan things ahead of time. I think through doing, and pieces will often become something other than what I originally intended. I think we each have a unique creative process and need to trust it.

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Do you get creative glimpses of urges happening and how do you work with these?
I often have a lot of ideas floating around and can get a bit distracted since I’d like to try them all! I try to write them down so I at least have a note to come back to when the time is right. Of course most of them don’t come to anything, but you never know when an idea will ripen over time and reappear. And you also end up with a fascinating journal of thoughts.

Do you have a personal description of “Art”?
For me it’s impossible to define. I like to keep it open—it allows for more freedom and various points of view. I’m very interested in questioning traditional Western definitions of “Art” and how that determined what was seen or not seen throughout history, and the impact those definitions still have on how the Western world views art today. Of course contemporary art, especially conceptual art, has been questioning these ideas for years, which is why artists today have so much freedom to make their own definition (or non-definition) of art.

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Does the sale of your work support you?
Not yet. I’m currently teaching and do temporary office work.

Do you get to other artists exhibitions, openings etc?
Yes, openings are the best time to catch up with friends and meet new people. And I will definitely go if the artist is a friend–I fully believe in artists supporting each other in every way possible, whether it’s through attending openings, sharing exhibition/grant/job opportunities, giving each other critiques, or just talking about life as an artist. I also enjoy viewing shows, although openings are usually not the best time to really see the work. If I’m interested in the show I’ll come back when the gallery is quieter.

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Do you have much contact with other artists?
Yes, and it’s important to me. I love seeing what other people are doing and hearing about their ideas and inspiration. Some of the best things about being an artist are all the amazing people you get to meet and the amazing art you get to see behind the scenes. I have learned a tremendous amount from other artists.

Some say the lifespan of many “artists” post educationally is about five years, any thoughts on that?
It’s certainly a difficult career to maintain, especially if you have to support yourself with one (or two or three) other jobs. Other aspects of life are also important; relationships, family, travel, and unexpected realities of employment, health, etc, can strain or cease your work altogether. However I think we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the idea that being an artist or having a “successful” career means constant exhibitions, reviews, etc. Just continuing to think about and make art, at whatever level, in the midst of the rest of life, and drawing from the rest of life, is a huge achievement.

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Do you have a personal philosophy that underpins your work?
I have a few phrases that I think about from time to time, but one of my favorites is “It’s all invented”. This reminds me that everything in our society and all our ideas about art, have literally been made up, and are still being made up. It takes the pressure off to conform to someone else’s arbitrary definition of “art” or “good” or “right” and allows me to take things a little less seriously. Of course I’m still very serious, but I’m enjoying letting my art become more playful.

What sort of research and or reference material do you do for current works and has that changed over time?
As my work has become more site-specific/inspired I’ve been doing more research into the history of the places in which I’m working. I’ll also create sketches or take photos of buildings that inspire me.

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Do you hope the viewer will “get” what you are trying to communicate or do you feel compelled to spell it out to them?
Some of my work is more literal than others, although I hope I’m not totally spelling things out. I don’t want my work to be too obvious—I feel that can shut down the experience for the viewer. For the most part I like keeping things fairly open so that viewer can draw from her own experiences to react to the work and create her own meaning from it. I enjoy hearing different interpretations of my work—sometimes it’s exactly what I was thinking, which is rewarding, and other times it’s a completely unique and surprising reading of my work, which can also be gratifying in a different way. I think our work often has more in it than we think, which I find exciting.

The business or marketing side of Art can be a challenge to some, what are your thoughts?
I think it depends on what kind of career you want. I think it is incredibly important for schools to offer some sort of “Business of Art” class to help prepare students for the realities of being a working artist. If you are trying to make it a viable career, then you are essentially your own business. The business aspect is not easy, and for most of us not fun, but it’s not impossible and there are skills and tools that everyone can learn.

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Tell us about getting caught in a creative “slump” and how you got out of it?
It always comes back to working, working, working. Eventually you will work your way out of it. I just came across a great quote by Chuck Close, “ Inspiration is for amateurs, and the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That about sums it up.

Is your work process fast or slow?
It’s pretty slow, so I like to break it up by also working on small pieces that I can complete quickly—lately these have been collages and small prints. It can be very rewarding to create a finished piece in an hour or two.

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
To learn as much as possible about art from around the world and throughout history. Don’t limit yourself to contemporary art, or Western art, or art you are immediately attracted to—stretch your boundaries. If possible, travel! I would also encourage everyone to find her or his own authentic voice—of course we are all influenced by each other, but don’t let someone else (an artist, curator, critic, teacher) define you or your work.

How often do you work in the studio?
It depends on my situation, but generally as much as possible. Now that I’m working day jobs again I have less time in the studio, but I get in almost everyday, even if just for a couple of hours. However I think it’s also important to take time off from the studio once a week or once every two weeks to regroup and come back with fresh eyes and enthusiasm.

How did you manage to survive financially at the beginning of your art career?
I had full-time jobs in museums before graduate school, but since then have been able to get by on part-time work (for the time being; New York is a very expensive city!). I was also fortunate to get a grant after graduate school, which paid for a studio for a year.

Did you have an inspirational teacher, and how did that affect you?
I’ve been lucky to have some great teachers who have left me with ideas and phrases that still echo in my head. A sculpture teacher I had would often say: “Process saves us from the poverty of our intentions” (not his quote), which is a concept I rely on a lot. An English teacher taught us to “slaughter our darlings”, ie .to get ride of whatever isn’t helping the overall piece, even if it’s a detail that we absolutely love. But the most inspirational teachers have been those who are still working on their own art. And then some of the most inspirational people in my life are not teachers but friends, family, and people (not necessarily visual artists) whose work I admire.

What is your work space like?
Usually quite messy, which may be surprising given the somewhat pristine quality of my work. I’m often working on more than one thing at a time, and often in more than one medium and I’m not very good at putting things away. However this can lead to exciting connections between things.

Do you collect anything?”
Experiences.

What has encouraged you to keep working as an artist?
I ask myself what kind of life I want to look back on when I’m 80.


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