In this interview, Stacey Tyrell discusses the dangers of romanticizing the artist.
Right now, how would you categorize what stage you’re in [of] your career?
I would say that I’m at the end of the emerging part of my career and transitioning into mid-career.
Can you talk about how that transition feels? What has been happening in your career that [makes] you feel you're moving from one stage to the next?
“When do I stop being an emerging artist?” is the question that feels like a bit of a running joke with many friends I have that are at the same stage of their careers. I’ve been making work consistently for about 10 years now, so I feel that I’ve hit a point with my practice where I’m a lot clearer with my ideas and what I want to explore in terms of concepts. It takes a while to get there, but I’ve also reached a point where I’ve found the vocabulary (both visually and verbally) through which I feel comfortable communicating. In the past few years I’ve had a good amount written about the work I’m making and been in about 3-5 shows a year, which allows me to feel that I’ve started to come to the end of the “emerging” part of my career.
I want to understand your timeline a bit better. You finished your studies in 2002 and moved to New York in 2011. What was going on during those nine years?
I’m not sure how you arrived at that timeline, but I’ve been in New York City since 2006 (and was visiting it frequently since 2004). After I graduated from OCAD in 2002, I felt kind of adrift because art schools—at least in my experience—for the most part [gave] you very limited information in regards to what to do after you leave college beyond how to apply for a master’s program or become an art teacher.
The two years after I graduated I mainly spent trying to gain employment and experience related to the photography degree I had just received, while figuring out exactly how one has an art practice. I also managed to be in a few group shows consistently during that time, but just couldn’t gain any real momentum in Toronto. It was also tough because the photo industry is so small in Toronto that it was hard to even find entry-level positions at a studio to hone certain techniques that I could then incorporate into my work.
My saving grace just out of college was still being in contact with my friends from art school, who were mainly painters, so I could at least talk about ideas. You have to remember that this is years before social media and people using the internet in their daily lives the way that we do now. So in order to be exposed to art and images beyond the books, magazines, local galleries, and museums I had access to, I would have to physically leave my city in order to see what else was going on.
Even with all of that being said, I’ve always been consistently working on something in some way, shape, or form since I graduated in 2002. In the nine years that you are referencing, I explored different ways of working and tried to figure out how to navigate participating in the art world in whatever capacity that would end up being. In 2005, I was able to intern for a very well-known curator who told me something that has always stuck with me. She said that all of the artists that she knows and works with have different ways of working; some are continuously producing work and others might produce new work every couple of years.
I think that with the proliferation of digital images and how they are distributed (especially in the past five years) via the internet and social media, the need to continuously fill the void seems to create a pressure that tries to dictate to artists exactly the quantity of work they should be producing. I find it really strange that most new MFA or BFA graduates are being churned out of schools where they are more worried about having a marketing strategy in place instead of spending a few years trying to figure out what their style is, how they like to work, and exactly what they are trying to say. Looking back on all of the bodies of work that I have worked on over the years has allowed me to see that because I took the time to explore and not lock into a particular style, [I have] the chance to make the work that I make now.
Oh, I read an article about you on the American Photo site and it says, "In 2011, after moving to the United States..." so I inferred that that's when you moved to New York. Anyway, I know nothing about Canada, so will you give me some background on what the arts community is like in Toronto?
I left Canada over ten years ago, so I couldn’t really give you an accurate picture of what is going on in Toronto or Canada overall. Just like the United States, each region and major city has a particular feel to its art scene. Toronto is geographically close to New York, so I’m sure that there are influences there, but the work made by artists in Vancouver or Montreal have a different feel because of the lineage of artists that came from that area.
Overall, there has always been a vibrant tradition of support for arts organizations, institutions, and galleries, including the government, that has always made funding available to artists on the local, provincial, and federal levels, but like with all funding, it is highly competitive. From what I can see on my trips back home and being on panels with the Canadian Arts Council, a lot more collectives, spaces (both private and public), and opportunities have sprung up since I last lived there on a full-time basis.
Though the answer may be an obvious one, I’m still going to ask the question: why move to New York?
I moved to New York initially to learn and gain experience in the commercial photography industry. I wanted to hone my skills and learn more about lighting and technique. Canada and Toronto, by comparison, [have a] much smaller industry with fewer opportunities to really learn and immerse yourself in the industry, so New York, as well as London and Paris, seemed like a logical choice. It just so happened that a person I contacted in New York was more responsive than other people I had reached out to, and it just went from there.
Ok, so I asked why you moved to New York, but now I want to know why you’ve remained.
I’ve stayed in New York because I have achieved a level of professional success here that I would not have been able to achieve had I remained in Canada. Being here has presented me with some wonderful opportunities and I’ve met a lot of great people who have taught me a lot.
From the moment I arrived in New York I felt at home and surrounded by a community of peers that I had a lot in common with and who had similar goals.
We met at a Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) party. If I remember right, the party was sort of like a pop-up show for the employees to showcase their works as artists. I found it funny, though maybe not “ha ha” funny, how that seemed to be the story of everyone: the aspiring actor, the aspiring model, the aspiring writer working at wherever they were until they got their break. It that what your story felt like?
I remember that show and I actually find it interesting that you came away with that impression. It used to be an annual event that allowed co-workers to take a peek [at] what each other [does] outside of the office. With that office in particular, since it's home goods-based, there are a lot of people who have their own businesses and endeavors outside of their day job. I definitely do not consider myself a dilettante. I attended a four-year fine arts program and completed a thesis in photography at an institution that is one of the top in my country. So, I’ve always been an artist, regardless of whether I was actively working on a new body of work on a daily basis or not.
The harsh reality for most artists is that we have full-time day jobs in order to sustain ourselves and self-fund our work. Sometimes these jobs are related to our discipline and sometimes they are not. I’ve been lucky [in] that I’ve worked in a few fields that have allowed me to find employment while also exploring artistic endeavors. I think it’s a bit of a romantic and one-dimensional notion that in order to have a legitimate artistic practice one has to either dedicate themselves 24/7 and make a living off of one’s art alone or be strictly employed in the arts. In my case, what matters is the dedication and discipline you have to have in order to maintain an art practice while being employed full-time.
I want to talk about the pragmatics of being in New York. You’re in one of the world’s most expensive cities; how have you been finding studios, equipment, materials, and whatever else you need to produce your work?
I’m lucky [in] that I’ve always worked in the industry related to my discipline (commercial photography). I’ve managed to have pretty easy access to cameras, computers, and lighting equipment because I’ve worked for digital capture, photo rental, and production businesses over the years. In terms of studio space, I’ve always either worked in my home or the odd time at the business I’ve been working at. All of my materials and other services that I need for my work I pay for myself and collect over a time period leading up [to] when I’m going to shoot.
I always thought that the success of anything has much to do with timing. One may have a great idea, but if the public isn’t ready, or the technology isn’t advanced, or the economy isn’t where it needs to be, then oh, well. It feels that Backra Bluid is gaining an amount of attention that your other projects hadn’t. You also created it during a time when the conversation of the nuance of blackness [has been] global. Do you feel like the climate that we’re in influenced this project or the traction it’s gotten?
The timing of the series does seem to coincide with a lot of the recent racially-charged events that have happened in America over the past few years, but the truth is that I started working on the series back in 2010, which would be about two years before Trayvon Martin was murdered, and five years before Michael Brown was shot in 2014. The issues that the Backra Bluid series is trying to discuss have always been in the back of my mind as a black person, especially one of Caribbean descent.
It had taken me awhile to figure out how I wanted to discuss them visually, but eventually I got to a jumping off point that I felt would allow me to do so. After that, I began experimenting with ways in which I could best create the images that I had in my head and flesh out my thoughts.
Around 2012, events began to occur in the United States that could no longer be ignored by the mainstream media (because let’s face it, police and societal violence and bias against blacks and other people of color never went away). It just happened that by then I had a few images that were beginning to form a body of work.
I don’t think that recent events influenced [my] creating the work because I was already discussing these themes in other ways in my previous work and [I] was specifically wanting to provoke a conversation about how race becomes the frame through which all of us are viewed.
If anything, the events of the past few years [have] given me a new way in which to view the series in an American context. If you look at my CV, it’s only been in the past four or so years that I’ve really had much written about my work or been included in group shows in the United States. The series resonated with people in Canada and Europe before it was written about in America.
From your CV, it looks like exhibiting has been your focus. Why is that? Or better yet, why [aren’t] grants, fellowships, competitions, or residencies part of your focus?
I wish I could say that there was something deliberate about my CV having an emphasis on exhibitions. What I’ve found is that the exhibition opportunities that I have had have mostly come from a previous show that I was included in or an article that was written about my work.
Like all artists, I’ve spent years submitting applications for grants, competitions, etc. But the competition is pretty tough and if I am not making work that fits a particular panel’s aesthetics, then I’m out of luck. Also, over the past ten years, there has been a proliferation of grants and competitions where you have to pay to submit an application, and I have basically stopped entering anything that requires a substantial application fee. Because I am employed full-time, I do not have to solely rely on funding in order to create my work. So regardless of whether I receive funding or not, I would still be making art.
What are you doing now? Where are you placing your artistic focus?
Currently I still work full time in a photo studio for a marketing and licensing company. Like I said before, most artists need a day job in order to fund their work and I definitely fall into that category.
In terms of my own art work, I am currently making work that is taking a closer look at the mechanisms of historical conquest in the “New World,” particularly its symbols and systems. Of particular interest to me is the use of women as allegories by western colonizing nations (i.e. Britannia, Marie Ann, and the Dutch Maiden) and how that correlates to the dysfunctional nature of conquest itself.
Also, I’ve been looking at documents like the Spanish Requirement of 1513, which was a declaration read to native populations on behalf of the Spanish monarchy explaining [the monarchy’s] divine right to take possession of territories and exploit and exterminate its people at will. It’s fascinating to me that such documents and procedures were created in order to legally justify a country like Spain’s activities, especially when you consider the fact that the people they were [reading it] to had no way of fully understanding what was being said to them.
Stacey Tyrell is a Canadian photographer of Caribbean descent. Her works gives voice to the nuances of racial identity outside of the Black American narrative. Her latest project, Bracka Bluid have been featured in American Photo Mag, The Huffington Post, and Marie Claire among others. She is currently based in Brooklyn.