Thinkspace is pleased to present Stephanie Buer’s ‘Hiraeth.’
Hiraeth is a Welsh word, meaning to miss/long for a place that you can never visit again. It perfectly captures the emotions felt by Buer for her beloved Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan. Buer’s urban landscapes explore the many layers of history found in the marginal areas of cities. She is fascinated by how these places change as they succumb to the manipulation of vandals, artists and the resilience of nature ever slowly growing alongside.
In anticipation of ‘Hiraeth,’ our interview with Buer discusses the impact of the Packard Plant on shaping her artistic style, her MFA program and the type of teacher she would like to be, along with the power of women (especially when in avalanche territory).
What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? What themes were you exploring?
The inspiration for this work came from a box of old photos I found while cleaning out my studio last summer. The photos were about twenty years old, taken during my first years of undergrad at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and they were of the Packard Plant, all from my first visits to the factory. The inspiration is two parts, first a beautiful bunch of old faded analog photos, and second this beautiful, old automotive factory in Detroit that I fell in love with during my formative years as a young artist and which in turn became the inspiration for my early art-making. It is about exploring the themes of connection to and love of place and also this feeling of nostalgia. Remembering a place, a time and all the feelings and inspirations that came along with it, being young, moving away from home for the first time to Detroit, falling in love with the city, and finding my voice as an artist.
Do you recall the first time you visited the Packard Plant? Who were you with, what did you find, and what were the feelings/emotions it stirred in you?
I absolutely do!! It’s such a wonderful memory. Outside of school a friend and I used to spend a lot of time at the Heidelberg project, we loved exploring that spot and getting to know the artists who worked there. One day, one of the artists was planning to go gather materials for an installation piece he was planning and he was telling us about this old factory where the Salvation Army used to store donated goods and then at some point abandoned the operation. So, there was this rumored space in the basement of the Packard plant where there were supposed to be loads of old, donated goods and he wanted to go there to gather supplies. We joined him in the adventure and that was my first trip to the Packard Plant. We found out that there was indeed a giant room filled with abandoned, donated goods, I remember distinctly a small mountain of old pumps and we all climbed to the top, it was so surreal. There were giant boxes filled with belts, ice skates, winter boots, pants, etc. It was so weird.
We also wandered the whole factory which is about a mile and a half square, so it was enormous. It was so wild and I immediately fell in love and started going back to visit at every opportunity. When I moved to Detroit from my home, it was the first time I had ever lived in a city. I’m a rural gal, my childhood was spent almost entirely out of doors. The city was a bit of a culture shock and I was so homesick for quiet, rural spaces. The minute I entered that old building, it made me feel like I was home, it brought me back to those spaces that I missed. It was so quiet and peaceful, plants and trees were growing wild, I remember in the spring you could even hear the winter ice melting, dripping from the floors above. So much of it, oddly enough, reminded me of home. Those were the feelings and emotions that it first brought up in me.
When exploring buildings or finding source material, do you need to connect with a space or focus more on its visual textures/composition?
Both of those aspects are important in my practice. I absolutely need to connect with a space, to spend time with it, to walk and explore it. I think the second aspect, takes place more often in the studio, but I do spend time in real life exploring visual textures and compositions, especially in framing the photos that I take but then through those photos, in the studio is when those aspects become imperative.
What was the most challenging piece in this exhibition? How did it help you grow as an artist?
Because I was trying to mimic the look and feel of old, analog photographs, I found the color palette to be new and challenging. The most pronounced difference was in the pieces Sunset and Sunset II, I loved the color palette so much, it was very nostalgic but very different than my usual colors which lean heavily into a blue/purplish range, these had so much green and yellow. I like how they came out though. I think that any chance you get to venture outside of your normal mode of working, helps you to grow as an artist, it adds a broader range of knowledge to your ever-growing toolbox of skill sets.
Can you share with us a piece of artwork or an artist who has had a significant impact on you?
The 20th-century American painter, Andrew Wyeth has definitely had a significant impact on my work. Especially his watercolor landscapes of winter scenes of the countryside in Pennsylvania where he lived. I am so madly in love with his monochromatic palette, his minimal compositions, and his dedication to representing the banal in such a classical and melancholic style. They’re just so beautiful.
You love to backpack and go mountaineering when not in the studio. Can you share with us your pack must-haves and one of your favorite trails you’ve hiked or places you’ve climbed?
I do love backpacking and mountaineering! What a fun but challenging question! Let’s see, my backpacking pack is entirely different than my mountaineering pack. When I’m mountaineering my pack is so full of essential gear for whatever climb I’m doing, whether it’s alpine ice, alpine rock or glacier travel, that and I have to go as light as possible so I can be quick, so I love to splurge on pack weight when I’m not mountaineering. I love to bring fun food items when I’m just backpacking, like a fancy mountain charcuterie, some wine or fresh veggies, something surprisingly luxurious for a remote mountain camp. It’s always such a joy to share with your friends and such a treat for yourself too. Food tastes like a million times better in the mountains after a long day of hiking.
I have way too many favorite places to pick just one!! If I’m just rock climbing, it would have to be Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, it’s like a home away from home for me, filled with a lifetime of happy memories. For alpine climbing and hiking, definitely Northwestern Washington, The North Cascades National Park, The Enchantments, The Monte Cristo Range there are so many amazing places to hike, camp, backpack and alpine climb in Washington State. To narrow it down though if folks are looking to visit, I recommend a hike to Lake Anne on Mount Shuksan, its beyond stunning. I’ve climbed that mountain so many times and it never ever gets old. Very close by too, is a hike to the base of Mount Baker starting at the Heliotrope Ridge Trailhead, it takes you, in very short order, right to the terminus of the Colmen Demming Glacier and I think getting up close and personal with an alpine glacier is something everyone should do in their lifetime if they are able. They are sadly, melting so fast and are one of the most beautiful and life-changing things I have ever experienced. You can even camp up high, next to the glacier, and fall asleep on the mountain, listening to the glacier move and calf. Really words cannot express how amazing it is, and its actually very accessible.
Do you have any rituals for tapping into a creative flow?
Since so much of my work is inspired by place, I find going for walks or bike rides to be great for getting inspired. Wandering around, mind empty, just taking it all in, looking for interesting moments, textures, and scenes, this really gets me excited to make new work.
We’re very excited for you and your pursuit of an MFA; we imagine that studying on top of your studio work is a lot to juggle. What are some of your strategies for balancing both responsibilities?
It is a lot to juggle for sure but I think working full time as an artist really prepares you for heavy workloads like this. I do have a few strategies; the most important I think is to stay incredibly organized and on top of things. That sounds so lame but for me, it really helps. I make so many lists and have multiple calendars with deadlines and goals, going at once. The unhealthier strategy is that I just work too much, a 12-14 hour day is not out of the ordinary, which is not cool I know, but I think there are busy seasons and slow seasons in life and I’m just in a busy one. In order to balance that though, I think it’s important to take long breaks and schedule one in advance so you can look forward to it. Right now, I’m working towards a break at Christmas time which will be amazing! The other is to carve out time every day for something you enjoy that helps you care for yourself. For me it’s time on my bike during my commute, going bouldering at the gym, doing yoga, or making good healthy food for myself. Whatever makes you feel grounded, and cared for, do something every day to keep yourself healthy and happy.
The MFA will help you be able to have the opportunity to teach. What are some of the characteristics or techniques you’d like to adopt from the teachers who have helped guide you? What are some things that you’d want to do differently than some of the teachers you had?
I was actually awarded a graduate teaching fellowship this year which is pretty cool, they give two students out of every cohort the opportunity to teach a class during their time as a graduate student, so I’ll get to try out some of these techniques sooner than later. Next semester here at Emily Carr, I will be teaching an introduction to drawing course! I’m so incredibly nervous but also excited. In my experience, I have noticed that teachers have this habit of projecting their own art careers, their biases, and ideas of what the art world is onto their students. I’ve had both really amazing teachers who didn’t do this and really awful learning experiences where teachers did project and it’s stifling. I’ve had teachers who believed in what I was doing and supported me, gave me space to be myself which was a game changer, and, on the flip side, teachers who thought that what I was doing had no place in the “art world” that it was too boring, too safe, too commercial, too childlike, too anything, you name it, I’ve heard it. I would love to be the type of teacher who could be more inclusive in showing that there is a place for all types of artmaking, that “making it” in the art world can look like many, many different things.
Most of my teaching experience up until now has been in the mountains, which is a heavily male-dominated space. I’ve really enjoyed watching other women teach, and lead in the mountains. They have a way of creating such a supportive, inclusive environment, one where you feel safe in expressing your feelings, whether it’s a hesitation or an excitement over something you’ve accomplished. These expressions are often stifled in male-dominated climbing spaces, but climbing in all-women spaces is like a festival of feelings and encouragement and I’m here for it! There’s a statistic we all learn about in backcountry travel that I will try and summarize, regarding avalanche safety, which says that there’s this incredibly dangerous age range among men in the mountains, roughly like 24-34 years of age, I’m just guessing here but it’s around there. Anyways, if you add a female to that team the likelihood of the group avoiding an accident goes up like 50% or something ridiculous like that. Women are amazing, they communicate better, they’re more supportive, they listen, they delegate more, and express hesitation because they don’t let their egos get in the way. I think women are incredible leaders and teachers and I plan to bring this energy to the classes I teach. To create a safe, brave space for expression, for trying new things, and for learning, connecting, and sharing. I can’t wait!!
What is one of the most memorable meals of your life thus far? It could be the food or the company that made it have a lasting impression.
A couple of years ago, I went to Japan for the first time to visit my friend Kozy Kitchens and her husband Dan. They were moving back to Japan and had bought an old farmhouse to renovate and turn into their home and an artist residency someday. While we were there, she took us to visit some friends who had a similar old farmhouse in the mountains that they had turned into a bed and breakfast style place to stay the night. We had this most amazing dinner cooked in an Irori, and we all sat on the floor around it and roasted wild game from the surrounding countryside and ate wild, foraged foods from the forests, there were some other friends visiting as well, from all over and it was just magical. The company and conversation were amazing, the food was amazing, and all in this ancient farmhouse in the mountains of rural Japan. What a great experience, I will never forget it! I really hope to visit again someday when travel becomes possible and the grad school craziness is over.
‘Hiraeth’ will be on view from November 13, 2021 – December 4, 2021
Opening Reception with the Artist(s):
Saturday, November 13, 2021