ARTIST PROFILE + INTERVIEW: Caroline Lathan-Stiefel

Artist Profile

Recently I exchanged emails with Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, a local installation artist whose exhibition Greenhouse Mix is on display at the Philadelphia Art Alliance until April 27.  Lathan-Stiefel combines visual cues from organic phenomena with materials such as pipe cleaners, yarn, plastic shopping bags, and wire in her expansive and imaginative installations, approaching each work as a three-dimensional "drawing-in-space."  She makes these manufactured materials seem wholly alive and sentient as they swath the chosen room (or building) in delicate line and form.

An edited version of this interview can be found here. 

Artist Interview

I On the Arts: How did this exhibition with PAA come about?

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel: The former director of the PAA, Molly Dougherty, had attended an artist talk and workshop I had given at the West Collection in Oaks, PA and afterwards asked if I would do a workshop at the PAA. Eventually I had lunch with Molly and (former PAA curator) Sarah Archer and we talked about doing a future show. Originally, it was just going to be in Gallery A, but later they asked me to make a proposal for an exhibition in the two downstairs galleries and to create a project for the stairway landing.

I would also like to thank the current staff of the PAA, especially Melissa Caldwell and Mat Tomezsko, for their help with this show, and the Coby Foundation for their aid in funding the show.
Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, Lagan (detail). Photograph by Arden Bendler Browning.

IOtA: What is your background and artistic training?

CLS: I grew up in Atlanta, GA (born in 1967). My mother was a docent at the High Museum when I was little and so we visited there often. I remember seeing a visiting Calder show when I was probably around 6 or 7 that included his circus and that made a big impact on me. I went home and tried to make my own circus figures.

My mother began collecting southern folk art in the 70’s and 80’s, including several pieces by the artist Nellie Mae Rowe. Her work remains very important to me. In high school, I was very much influenced by the art environments of outsider artists like Howard Finster. I visited his Paradise Garden in Summerville, GA several times. On one visit, when I was a senior in high school, I knocked on his door and he let me into his studio. He was working on one of his paintings wearing a vest covered in pennies. He told me I could make a drawing on one of his ceiling tiles and so I stood on a chair and added my drawing to all of the other ones that covered his ceiling. Later I walked through his sculpture garden and stood inside his gigantic rickety, rusty conglomeration of welded bicycles and lawn mower parts.

After high school I was a Visual Arts major at Brown University. After college I moved back to Atlanta and got a studio space and three part-time jobs. Eventually I got married to a musician and composer, Van Stiefel and we moved to Princeton, NJ so he could get his PhD. While we were there I began a low-residency MFA at the Maine College of Art, which I completed in 2001.

IOtA: How did you decide upon installation as your medium? What other media do you use?

CLS: In college, I studied painting, particularly with professor Wendy Edwards. I always used a lot of collage elements in my work and my paintings in my senior year were more like large assemblages or sculptural paintings. I incorporated fabric into the work too. After college, I began to make bas-relief paintings with paper mache and paint. The work was figurative with abstraction creeping in. I made one monumental piece that was about sixteen feet long with multiple panels, which was the last piece I made before grad school. The first year of grad school, I worked with the director of the program, Katarina Weslien, and the artist Mira Schor was my studio advisor.  As part of the program, Mira visited my studio in Princeton several times to give me crits and we also visited many galleries and museums in NY together to look at art together. Her strong, honest critiques were integral to the development of my work at this point. She advised me to break away from figuration and to delve deeper into the world of abstraction and to let the materials be what they are.

During the second year of my MFA program, the artist Jeanne Silverthorne was my advisor. I had started to make a series of marker drawings on notebook paper that were like doodles of systems and was also experimenting with sculptural pieces with fabric. Jeanne suggested that I transform my drawings into three-dimensional sculptures. I then made a small model that combined several of the drawings and proceeded to make a monumental version of the model with fabric, yarn, and pipe cleaners in my Princeton studio. I had also seen an amazing photo of Gaudi’s model for the Sagrada Familia. Because his cathedral was so organic in form, Gaudi created an upside-down stress model that was suspended from the ceiling with strings and weighted with little pouches of buckshot.  This image gave me the idea to hang my work from the ceiling with yarn and string and weight it to the floor with fishing weights and to think about lightness and gravity in my work. At this time, I also inspired by Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, an immersive installation he created in his Hannover, Germany apartment and studio from 1923 until 1937.
Part of the Green-House installation.

IOtA: What subjects inspire you?

CLS: Architecture, marine biology, botany, neurological systems, Archigram [an avant-garde 1960s architectural group], music (including my husband’s), furniture, my young students and my children’s drawings, ferneries, and embroidered samplers, to name a few.

IOtA: What other artists or art teachers have inspired you?

CLS: In high school, my mother was getting a Masters in Art History, so I had the chance to read a lot of her books. I read books on Dada and Pop Art, and I remember the book Originals: American Women Artists by Eleanor Munro was one that I read over and over. In college, I discovered the work of Eva Hesse, Philip Guston’s late work, H. C. Westermann, Joseph Cornell, Romare Bearden, and Piero Della Francesca. Later I became enthralled with Louise Bourgeois, especially her drawings and fabric sculptures, then, Ndebele South African house painting, Hannah Hoch, the Gee’s Bends quilt artists, Richard Serra (and his verb list), Kara Walker, Diana Cooper, El Anatsui, Kathy Butterly, John Otte, and many more.

IOtA: What has been your proudest moment as an artist?

CLS: It’s hard to find a proudest moment… for me, being an artist is more like an ongoing process with many challenges and the striving to meet those challenges. I find that the moment I finally finish putting up a show, I might feel good about it for a moment or even a few weeks, but then I am already on to the next project and facing new challenges. I really enjoy labor-intensive work and have to work everyday, even if it is only for a couple of hours after a day of teaching (I teach art two days a week to K-5th grade students at Upland Country Day School in Kennett Square, PA and have taught art to children for more than 20 years). I suppose being able to work everyday on my art, while also being a teacher and a mom to two children, makes me feel a sense of pride, but I know most people do the same kind of balancing act these days.

IOtA: What has been your most challenging or frustrating moment as an artist?

CLS: There are challenging moments during the process of installing a new show or project. I have been making large-scale textile installations since 2001 and feel that I am most certainly still learning about this process. Some issues stem from the fact that my studio (which is actually the large garage at my house) is not large enough to install an entire piece before a show. I make the work in pieces and suspend sections in my studio, but put the piece together for the first time when I install it. I actually relish the opportunity to improvise as I install site-specific work because It exciting, but you have to able to realize quickly when something is not working and change it accordingly. I think I am getting better accessing what a particular space needs, but, as I said, I am learning all the time.
Detail of Green-house installation.

IOtA: How did “Greenhouse Mix” come about?  Has Philadelphia inspired you in other ways?

CLS: A few years ago I took a field trip with students from my school to Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia. I had never been there before, but I had heard the name Bartram because my father had taken our family on hikes on the Bartram Trail when I was a child.  I didn’t realize then, but the trail was named for William, John Bartram’s son. In addition to the gardens and strange proximity of the idyllic property to large oil storage tanks across the river, I was struck by the architecture--a very unusual-looking stone house and a smaller greenhouse that included a carved relief of plant forms. I enjoyed researching Bartram’s role as American’s first botanist and studying different plant forms. Most of the work in Gallery B was initially exhibited in North Carolina at the Bascom, a museum in Highlands, NC last summer. I created new work for the work in Gallery A, Hothouse, and my husband made a new sound piece to accompany the work. I also am working on a project in progress on the stairway that in a kind of interaction with the large 1905 stained glass window.

IOtA: How did your interest in nature arise?  How did you decide to combine nature with your practice?

CLS: My father took our family on many hikes throughout Georgia and the mountains of North Carolina when I was a kid. I loved the feeling of being surrounded by woods. Sometimes he found hikes in outdated books, and we had to literally bushwack our way through the trail. This was a bit scary, but I also secretly liked it. My interest in plants and botany has definitely become stronger as I have gotten older. Living near Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square is a plus and I have also gained insight into plants and gardening from my mother-in-law, artist Rosemary Stiefel and from my fellow Upland art teacher and artist, Terry Anderson, both of whom have exceedingly green thumbs. I have gone from killing plants within a week to actually being able to keep them alive for a year and have started seasonal gardening with my husband and kids. In terms of using real plants and leaves in my work, I remember seeing artists do this when I was at Brown when the Harrisons, pioneers of the eco-art movement, visited the department. My friend, curator, Sue Spaid (who was the first curator I met when we moved to the Philadelphia area and who included my work in a few of her shows) also curated a show (and wrote a book) called Green Acres, which has been influential to me.

In general, I am interested in using materials from my daily life in my work. I began to use the pipe cleaners because I was using them in my role as an art teacher and I save my shopping bags so I can incorporate them into the sculptures. Plants are now part of my daily life as well.

IOtA: What do you hope people who see and experience your work take away from it?

CLS: I would like viewers to not only have a visual experience, but also an immersive one—one in which they would feel physically affected by the work because of the way it surrounds them. I also encourage viewers to look through different sections of the work to see new and unexpected views of the different layers. I hope they will be surprised by what they see.