Friday Featured Artist: Tracy Spencer-Stonestreet
by Julie Alvarado
AltDaily, September 21, 2012

JA: You have a show at the Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery this weekend; tell us a little bit more about it:

TS: Yes, I do–Intrusions of Grace. It opens this Saturday, September 22, and runs through November 2. I’m really excited about this exhibition because it includes a lot of firsts for me–it’s my first solo exhibition in the Hampton Roads area, and it’s also my first exhibition combining so many different media into one body of work. The show includes sculpture, drawings, collages, installation, and video, so it’ll be a well-rounded introduction of my work to the HR community. There will also be an interactive piece the night of the opening–guests will be helping me make a large floor drawing with a rocking chair.

JA: You graduated from the University of North Carolina with your MFA and now teach art at Hampton University. You assign the style “Southern Gothic” to your work, saying, “Like the literary genre, my work presents the complicated (darker) side of American life – cultural complexities of our domestic roles and expectations.” This resonates particularly—to me—in pieces like “The Dinner Table,” and “(Untitled) Sofa.” For our readers, please elaborate a little bit on the how and why of the themes you seek to explore in your work?

TS: I am inspired by the layers of meaning, signals, and desires that all exist within the American home. I use my own experiences—growing up in a big, loving Southern family—as the catalyst for many of my pieces and explorations. Most interesting to me are the ways in which we learn social conditioning and cultural behavior, and how they conflict with personal desire. I give physicality to moments of this internal crisis through an on-going investigation and deconstruction of furniture and other domestic objects. The backdrop to our learned behavior, the home is the stage on which we relentlessly practice identity. There seems to be both an interior and exterior power struggle within members of a household—a push pull of acceptance and rejection—that I want to be visible in my work.

JA: Through your use of what you term as “mainstream classic suburban” furniture in your work, you focus on exploring middle-class America, specifically the Southeast. How do you feel economic mobility differs in that region compared to the rest of the United States, as you try to explore and communicate in your work?

TS: I’m not sure if economic mobility itself differs, but the historic lens through which we view our economic and cultural present is dramatically different in the Southeast. This region, and North Carolina in particular, relies on an agricultural economy closely tied to the textile industry, one that has seen substantial disruption, if not erasure, over my lifetime. Our economy has also been closely linked to severe class divisions: enslaved people, mill town workers, and now migrant workers have really carried the burden of production in the Southeast without seeing a financial benefit. And maybe that is what I see in the Southern middle class—a heightened awareness of where we’ve been, both high and low.

JA: Tell us about a key experience that was influential or revelational to you artistically.

TS: When I entered graduate school, I considered myself a painter. Even as found objects began to take over my work, it was always wall-based, and this seemed incredibly important for me. I was sort of using the wall as a legitimizing factor for these otherwise non-art materials. For one project, I took a tabletop, gilded it, dragged a tethered silver spoon along its surface, and then of course hung it on the wall. During a discussion about this work, artist Ashley Florence referred to it as a dance performance instead of a painting; all of a sudden I realized that this was performance—that the act of scratching the surface of the gold was far more relevant to the piece than the resulting painterly aesthetic. The next piece I did was ‘The Dinner Table,” which was essentially the same premise of scratching off a veneer, only this time in real space (the floor) and real time. The switch away from a definition of painting was completely liberating in a strange and visceral way. It’s a much more honest approach to making work for me: my pieces serve more as a record, or artifact, of their creation.

JA: The perception of your work can vary greatly depending on the viewer’s background, upbringing, and preconceived notions of family and home, as the viewer is forced to reexamine oft-overlooked everyday objects in a new context, viewed through the window of their subconscious. What are some interesting reactions or interpretations you’ve received?

TS: I’ve had a lot of really great responses to my work, especially from older people who recognize the furniture from somewhere in their past. They’ll get a look of pleasant nostalgia, even if they’re looking at a completely destroyed version of their mother’s couch. While some of the imagery is jarring and slightly violent, most viewers understand that it’s not about domestic violence–that tension, compassion, and control are present in all households, even incredibly happy ones. Most of the interesting reactions I’ve received are from the ones who can relate any of my pieces back to sex; while some pieces, like “Untitled (Lovergirl),” are explicitly sexual, it is rarely my primary objective (but more often than not, it’s the viewer’s primary expectation).

JA: You have a series of pieces created from found ceramics (kitschy figurines one might find in their crazy-cat-lady’ spinster aunt’s parlor) modified with a block of concrete entombing the head. Perhaps my soul is a little bit dark, but I interpreted this as representing the idealism and naiveté that sometimes accompanies the expectations many have regarding the “American Dream” that can be an unseen dead weight in the everyday struggle. What was your intention behind this series?

TS: I love your interpretation! The blocks are definitely a kind of burden, one that comes from the weight of expectations from others as well as from the self. Think about the challenge of maintaining that porcelain smile every waking second. But maybe the figurines are much happier now that there’s a concrete guard up between their emotions and the world, and the concrete is actually lifting some of the burden of perfection.

The concrete blocks also served as an extremely blunt way of “owning” or revealing these little found objects’ real nature. Mass-produced porcelain figurines are stand-ins for the more traditionally elite artworks found in wealthier homes, so by adding the blocks, I am adding emphasis to their role as kitsch.

JA: Tell us a little bit about your process; working with found objects as you often do, which usually comes first, the concept behind the piece or the found object?

TS: Most of the time, the concept comes first. It’s always a challenge for me to find the right objects to start with—I have an image in my head of the piece, and the confidence that it exists somewhere—but then I have to locate it with as little compromise to my vision as possible. This requires a whole lot of searching through yard sales, craigslist posts, and junk shops. The process of searching for that perfect object also serves as brainstorming for future projects; I am constantly inspired by odd piles and strange arrangements of stuff.

JA: While living in Raleigh you founded a student gallery, organized rotating galleries and exhibitions, and were a contributing force in the art scene there. What ideas and experiences did you gather there that could be applied to the emerging cultural scene here in Hampton Roads?

TS: The most important element needed to create a vibrant art scene is a handful of motivated, eager artists. Artists usually have a clear idea of what they want in the community, a lot of energy, and an overlarge dose of resourcefulness. My efforts in the Raleigh community were all based around a need: as young artists, it’s really challenging to find places to make and exhibit work, so I created places for myself. And it took very little if any money. I found that business owners were really receptive to our ideas because it gave them a reason to turn the lights on, have people visit their space, and potentially reach a new clientele or even a new renter. It’s a win-win, because as artists we need space in order to transform environments, and as property managers or owners, they need someone to do the transforming.

The best advice I can give the Hampton Roads area artists is to not wait around for the art scene to become what you want it to be: make the phone calls, meet the owners of empty buildings, begin relationships that will create good energy. Get a group of galleries together and start an art walk. Pay attention and participate.

JA: Although you haven’t been living in Hampton Roads for very long, what has your experience and exposure to the local art scene been like? How do you think it could become more accessible to creative types who are new to the area?

TS: Unfortunately because of work, I haven’t spent as much time exploring as I’d like. Most of my discoveries have come through listings in Veer and AltDaily, and I’ve tried to visit galleries to feel out the local community. That’s how I found Lorrie, by visiting her gallery to see a show that looked interesting, and then having a great conversation with her about the local art scene. It seems that there is a lot of talent here, and a large group of energetic community members. One thing that I think could help would be a designated art walk on the first or third Friday of every month—it would give newcomers an opportunity to see the spaces and meet other creative people in a single night.