Other Investigations: Stella J. Brown

Chicago-based artist Stella Brown received a BA with a concentration in Collection and Display of the Cultural Object, from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University in 2009. Originally from Chicago, she returned from New York in 2010 and currently works in set decoration on television shows, while working on her own visual art and occasionally teaching children’s art classes. This past spring she taught an ArtLAB painting workshop at the Better Boys Foundation in Lawndale, and organized Urban Landscape: The Highwaymen at the Better Boys Foundation, a show of paintings from the Highwaymen school and student artists, hosted by Adventureland Gallery.

Through museum-style displays and collection practices and methodologies, Stella visually represents an event, idea, or place, often drawn from a text, by using artistic, anthropological, historic, religious, and scientific objects, and images. Her research heavy process begins with analyzing texts and other visual information, such as illustrations and maps. Then, continues with a sharp focus on a specific subject, where she concentrated on collecting and seeking out objects associated with that particular topic.

“I’m not just interested in a static display of objects and texts, I want to problematize the idea of displaying information behind a piece of glass, for example, and question the authority that museums and other institutions bring to their exhibitions. I am interested in exploring different ways of representing a moment in time, an action, or a place through visual display, and while much of my work is inspired by a 19th and 20th century style of anthropological and art museums, I try to question its authority and effectiveness.”

This past summer, Etta and I met and hung out with Stella Brown. We talked to her about the processes she’s exploring in her work as well as the exciting new research she was conducting at ACRE. We decided to expand our introductory feature for the ACRE artists we conducted studio visits with and ask additional questions about what they are working on, their process, and their experience at ACRE. You can read about our visit here – Part 1 & Part 2.

Photo of Tiger Swallowtail and moth collected near Steuben, WI
Photo of Tiger Swallowtail and moth collected near Steuben, WI
43°21’N 90°87’W, Hogback Prairie, 2014.
43°21’N 90°87’W, Hogback Prairie, 2014.

What projects are you currently working on? What processes and concepts are you exploring in your work?

“Right now I am working on a couple different projects based around the Hogback Prairie near Steuben, Wisconsin that I visited during my time at ACRE this summer. This is the first time I’ve done a project about a place that I could physically visit and collect from. It put me more in the role of scientist or naturalist studying the site. I’m exploring ways that I can represent the prairie. Right now I’m working on a portfolio of illustrations, maps, and texts, some that I’m creating and some that are found, which will hopefully relate some of the physical characteristics, history, and lore of the place to the viewer. I’ve also been working on a couple pieces that involve rock collected at the site and from nearby that I am encasing in or displaying behind glass. I love the idea that a rock can represent the place that it was collected, especially these rocks because they come from an unglaciated part of Wisconsin, which means they have been at their place of origin for hundreds of thousands of years untouched. For someone from the geologically flat and glaciated Midwest where all the rocks have been spread around like gravel, this is very exciting. I like that rocks can retain a power and magic of a place, and that by putting them behind glass I’m bringing that to you, but also not fully allowing you to touch or experience them or the place they came from.”

What is the role of research in your work and practice?

“Research is incredibly important to my process and work; in fact, I might call research my main art practice. The art that I make is about information, so seeking out that information is a large part of what I do to prepare to physically create a piece of art. Often my research physically makes its way into finished projects. I look at a lot of historical and scientific texts, and online and digital archives are a huge source for me. They give me access to texts and illustrations that I could never find, even in a city like Chicago with great libraries. Much of the material I use in my work is also found or collected. I’ll know, for example, that I want to include a certain publication of a book, or a rock from a site, and I’ll source those items specifically for a project.”

Photo of sandstone rocks collected at Hogback Prairie near Steuben, WI
Photo of sandstone rocks collected at Hogback Prairie near Steuben, WI

How was your experience at ACRE and what was the most valuable aspect of this residency?

“ACRE was great for me. Like I said above, it was the first time I could choose a place to research and immerse myself in it. I intentionally chose to look at the prairie because it was so close to the residency, and I knew I could spend time there. I met a woman whose family owned part of the prairie at one time and she was an amazing source of historical information and local lore. I would never have had access to that if I hadn’t been in Steuben.

I also loved the communal aspect of this residency. I didn’t attend a fine arts program in college, so I haven’t had that experience of being surrounded by other artists working simultaneously and offering criticism. It was incredibly beneficial for me to see what other people were doing and how they were creating and I think that let me loosen up a little. I usually spend months researching and stewing over something before it comes to fruition, but at ACRE I was forced to create on the spot and I’m happy with some things that came out of that.”