We are starting 2019 off with “Wild Abandon” from Portland-based artist Stephanie Buer. In her latest body of work, Buer returns to Detroit where she explores the city, and shares her finding through photorealistic paintings in oil, and charcoal works on paper. Buer captures the abandoned recesses of the city, finding unexpected richness in its desolation and quietude in its abrupt vacancies. Our interview with Stephanie Buer dives into the inspiration behind this new body of work, what the role of an artist is in society and her dream creative collaboration.
SH: For those that are not familiar with you and your work, can you give us a brief look at your artistic background?
SB: I spent the majority of my childhood and even into adulthood, training as a classical ballet dancer. So I didn’t start pursuing drawing and painting seriously until College. I went to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where I studied drawing, painting and stone carving. Right after I graduated all of my stone carving tools were stolen and at the time they were too expensive to replace, so I started focusing on my drawing and painting. I also worked for many years in car design, while I lived in Detroit, once I saved enough to pay off my student loans, I moved to Portland and started making art full time.
SH: What inspired this latest body of work? What buildings and cities did you explore?
SB: This body of work was inspired by Detroit, a city I love and called home for 10 years. I had taken a break to explore and make work from other cities and was starting to feel a bit homesick, so I decided to go back home for this one. I was also inspired by the cold, snowy weather. It has been years since a good snowy winter and a winter break trip to see family, have coincided. There has been a lot of warmer winters in the last 6 years or so and I just love painting and drawing snow. It makes me so happy, I couldn’t wait to get out and explore. I was home for two weeks and the temperature was never above 20 degrees. It was so cold one of the days that my camera froze! My closest friend and old college roommate recently bought some property and a small building in Detroit. It’s in a neighborhood that is a bit newer to me, so I spent some time with her getting to know some of the places and buildings nearer to her new home. Spingwells, Del Ray, the Old Continental Motors Factory, Corktown, these are just a few of the locations that I worked from.
SH: Is there a particular piece in this exhibition you feel really challenged you? If so, why and what makes you proud of this piece.
SB: I usually draw very blank skies, just plain white paper most of the time. I made a larger drawing that had a lot of cloud work in the sky. I know it doesn’t sound like much but it was quite challenging and I think it turned out well. I also tried some new techniques with the painting of clouds too and I think it was successful. I guess I’m proud of the clouds. Sounds a bit silly but I am.
SH: Abandon buildings can attract interesting characters and private security, has there been a time where you had to talk your way out of a tricky situation? Is there a particular piece from that moment we can reference?
SB: I’ve been pretty lucky, in Detroit, there isn’t a lot of security. Birdman and I had to run and scale a small wall to get away from security in LA once, that was pretty fun. The climbing skills really came in hand.
In Detroit its more often very interesting characters that you run into, and I love that. While gathering images for this last body of work, my friend and I were stopped by an older man, taking his son and granddaughter on a tour of the neighborhood he grew up in. This neighborhood, like most in Detroit was lively but desolate, on account of the riots back in the 60’s. His son wasn’t too amused with the tour so he was excited to tell us some stories from his childhood. He told us that Stevie Wonder grew up in the same neighborhood as him and that as a young kid, he used to deliver milk. He was showing us where his house once stood. The drawing, Searching for Stevie Wonder, is that spot.
SH: What was the most challenging piece in this exhibition? Why and what did you learn?
SB: The most challenging piece was definitely the large painting of the Continental Motors factory. It is the largest painting I have made to date, even building the canvas was a learning experience. I am a big fan of the artist, Rackstraw Downes. He paints a lot of wide-angle landscapes where he exaggerates the curvature of the earth in the horizon and building lines. I wanted to experiment with that and it was very difficult. I find very straight lines and square angles comfortable, they’re easy to make look perfect, but long sweeping, organic lines are so hard to perfect.
SH: What excites you about your work / creative process?
SB: I love painting and drawing. I get excited to be in the studio every day, even after doing this for so long, it never gets old. Going through new images and planning out pieces and bodies of work is exciting. Trying new techniques is exciting. I like the way that the work helps the viewer to see beauty in things and places where they might not stop to look. I love it!
SH: What frustrates you about your work/ creative process?
SB: The sustainability and the business side of an art career are the things that frustrate me the most. There’s not much about the creative process that I dislike. Even the tedious bits, like laying in the construction lines or painting hundreds of bricks, I’m even starting to enjoy a bit of framing! Its just the business part of it that I find frustrating.
SH: Who is an artist; musician, director, any art form – who would be a dream collaboration for you and what would you create?
SB: I daydream about collaborating with a choreographer and a dance company. Sometimes my pieces feel to me like the settings on a stage and I wonder what types of movements and costumes someone would dream up to take place on the stages I would create. That’s a super outer space daydream though, never said it out loud before.
SH: What do you think the role of artists is in society? How does other artwork inform how you move through life?
SB: I think the role of an artist in society has many purposes. It depends on the artist. A few things that I think are important though, are to challenge people, to bring into question the ways we live, and the choices we make. Its also to bring beauty into the world.
I would like my work to encourage people to have conversations about what it means to be more present, to be in the moment and observe the world. It’s a societal lifestyle change I see happening and it worries me. I would also like my work to challenge peoples relationship with the environment, to bring attention to our relationship with it and our responsibility to it. I had some great conversations with myself during the making of this body of work, about these points. I love winter, and I love snow, I love being in it, looking at it, capturing it in my pieces. The reality of it though, is that it is rare these days in the midwest. Growing up winters were always cold and snowy but its changing. I know my work is known for focusing on old, dilapidated buildings and graffiti but I wanted these pieces to also showcase the changes we experience with seasons, wintertime, a unique experience to the midwest which I think is not a guarantee these days. It may be something we look back on in a hundred years or so, as a memory. It doesn’t seem like much in capturing it now, but it may be what is most significant about work which artists are making these days. These thoughts definitely inform my life too, they teach me to live a life that is more aware of my impact. Per the earlier point too, I hope making art reminds me to be more present, to put my phone down and to focus on the things that are important.
SH: If your body of work inspired an ice cream flavor, what would it be called and what are the ingredients?
SB: That is an interesting question. There is a lot of snow in these pieces so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch, although, I’m imagining bits of brick and asbestos, some twigs sticking out . . . that’s yucky . . . maybe like vanilla with chocolate and Oreos and other messy looking bits, maybe in a brick patterned waffle cone!
SH: Favorite way to celebrate the completion of a project/body of work?
A trip! I visited my family in Michigan for the holidays after I finished this last body of work, it was great motivation. A trip to the mountains or some time in the desert climbing is also something I really look forward to. I sacrifice those things in the middle of deadlines so its great to be able to fit them in again.
Join us for the opening of Wild Abandon, Saturday, January 5th from 6 – 9 pm.