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You know how it feels when you encounter something new and it changes the way you see things? I recently made such a discovery: the Stella Photography Collective. This tightly-knit group of twelve Chicago-based women artists, who formed in 2008 for disciplined monthly critiques, has mounted a superb show, “The Nature of a Collective”, now at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA) through November 30, 2014. As I walked through the exhibit, I found myself wondering more and more about the nature of their Collective – my interest sparked because their show is remarkably cohesive and attentive to the sum of its parts. In this piece, I will explore how the Stella Collective has benefitted its members’ creative lives, with the express hope that it will provide ideas for artists in other communities. My review of the artwork in the exhibit will follow tomorrow.
The Stella Collective’s show at the UIMA in Chicago explores the topic of “nature” in a unique but interrelated way that seems significantly different from other themed group shows I’ve seen – and I think I found out why. The unusual confluence is embedded in the relationships that the artists have developed with one another over time, something impossible to achieve when an independent curator chooses multiple artists to represent the idea for a show.
Clearly, the influence of Stella runs deep. Fascinated by the venerable tradition of a Collective – something our modern, rushed lives rarely permit artists to put into practice today – I asked several members of Stella how it has affected their creative lives. Photographer Jean Sousa shares, “It has provided me with a forum for developing my work that is both supportive and critical, a respectful balance with both being extremely important, particularly at the inception of a new project. Just the process of having a critique forces one to articulate and pointed questions from the group can help one focus the direction of the work.”
“Stella is a haven for me”, asserts photographer Suzette Bross. “Being an artist after grad school can be lonely – a very ‘tree falling in the forest will anyone hear?’ sort of thing; to have the support professionally and personally of Stella is a marvelous gift. It is amazing to see great work every month and to be able to talk about it in a serious way. The meetings help me pull my focus back to my own art when the rest of life demands my attention.”
Mixed media artist Aimee Beaubien reflects on the instrumental effects Stella has had on her work: “Our influence on one another is provided through a consistently dynamic system of support over multiple years. We bring our ideas and work-in-process to share and we are rewarded with an expansive conversation that guides us towards making connections between previous bodies of work, our lived experiences and the potentials for new directions. Just the kernel of a suggestion may have the most unintended impact in our personal production: during a meeting in my studio, Patty (Carroll) declared with great enthusiasm that my work ‘wanted to jump off the wall’. That nudge came at just the right time for me to seriously begin entertaining what form working off the wall might take – and so it goes for each of us in our own ways.”
Stella founding member Patty Carroll thinks one key to its success is its level of professionalism, something I think is readily visible in the caliber of artwork in the “The Nature of a Collective” show at UIMA: “Everyone in the collective is professional and serious (about work and each other!). I don’t think the group would work well if we were more casual. A glass of wine, a sense of humor and good work keep us going! At the meetings, usually there are suggestions from the members for the work that cannot be found without a real critique. It is grad school seriousness after school, and well into our careers. Personally, I think that getting feedback from the group is far more valuable than casual comments from observers on one hand, or professional portfolio reviewers on the other side. After watching each other’s work over a few years, we all have a sense of the content, form and ideas behind the work, which helps immensely.”
Indeed, it is this consistent interaction over a significant amount of time that hints at the secret sauce behind the Stella Collective’s cohesive exhibit. Suzette Bross suggests, “Even if we are working on our own ideas, our crits over the years may have rubbed off on one another unconsciously. Or perhaps because we liked and respected each other’s work before we joined, we make work that would appeal to one another and is cohesive on a certain level. I’m not sure which it is – the chicken or the egg!” This has to be one of the most intriguing potentials for a Collective and a clear indication of the powerful and far-reaching benefits of gathering a group of colleagues on a regular basis.
I can’t help thinking there’s a lesson in here about the double-edged sword of connectedness. At a time when we’re all hyper-connected through social media, we are also threatened with losing actual human contact if we’re not vigilant. The Stella Collective is an example of what can happen if we step away from our computers and back into each other’s lives. “The Nature of a Collective” show at UIMA proves it’s a model worth pursuing.
In alphabetical order, the members of Stella Photography Collective are: Aimee Beaubien, Suzette Bross, Patty Carroll, Barbara Ciurej & Lindsay Lochman, Liz Chilsen, Christine DiThomas, Mary Farmilant, Alice Q. Hargrave, Kate Joyce, Mayumi Lake, Jean Sousa and Margaret (Peggy) Wright
For more information about the Stella Photography Collective, visit their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Stella-Collective/232415016798522