Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Stevie Lee Tanner is a printmaker whose work has always really intrigued me. Her print work is heavily rooted in the idea of "place" and reflecting on areas that she's been or spent time, often in her home state of Ohio. Yet this reflection comes with a level of ambiguity that allows the viewer to reflect on places they've experienced as well. Be it the streets and intersections of a small town or a secluded home in the woods, these places all have specific significance but are able to remain subtle enough that people who've experienced similar places can still reminisce on their own experiences. Tanner's work comes with a familiarity that forces the viewer to dig deeper into the image, take inventory of what they're looking at and reflect on that space or a similar space that they've experienced. To me, Tanner's work feels like a long drive, a collection of small towns that symbolize moving from place to place. In some ways it all blends together into one but when you really dig deep you can find a strong individual presence in each place, it just depends on how deep you're willing to look.
Tanner is more than just a flat image printmaker though, just like she layers images in her work, she can bring the print off of the page with some pretty intricate installation work. I appreciate a printmaker who can control and use traditional print methods but who also isn't afraid to take risks and I think that's why I've always been so fascinated by Tanner's work. She can create a beautiful 2D piece that inspires a deep connection with its viewers but she can also push the limits of print through outside sculptural elements, putting it right into the viewer's face and creating an interaction that isn't often seen in print. I was thrilled to get to catch up with Tanner and talk about all of the ins and outs of her work; inspirations, process, etc. I'm a huge print fan so it was very exciting to get to do this interview and I think that Tanner gave amazing answers and insight. Enjoy!
1. Let's start with your background. What got you into art? The beginnings of your creative process? Schooling? Etc. What has formulated you into the artist that your are?
For me, it was obvious- Art was just the only thing I was interested in doing. I was raised by a very creative Mom who went above & beyond to support me as an artist. Being the first in my family to attend college meant that it was a huge struggle-financially and mentally. But the plus side was that it was really freeing to do it all by myself-to make my own choices. I just became really driven, I had to be focused in order to make this all work.
I had a lot of wonderful mentors in school, and a lot of terrible teachers that I learned from as well! I think if you are fortunate enough to experience higher education, it will undoubtedly transform you. For me, it's been this balance of staying true to my inner artist that will never change, yet at the same time abandoning it out in the woods and seeing what it comes back with?
2. Before we dive into your process, I wanted to get a little insight on your inspirations. The idea of place, this small town aesthetic, seems to be a heavily reoccurring in your work. Is this a specific place? What is this reoccurring "place" to you? My work is centered around relationships to place, so I often reference environments I’ve lived within, or have a personal connection to. Sometimes it’s important that the viewer knows I’m talking about the Cuyahoga River, for example, which became famous for catching on fire. But often what I’m trying to convey is an emotion or implications related to this idea of place, and in many cases the viewer is able to have themselves reflected back to them in some way. Place is both deeply personal and universal at the same time.
3. Next I want to go into your process, you use several traditional printmaking processes, what drew you to print and the specific types of print that you use? Are you a printmaker who tries to achieve the same result each print or do you kind of throw yourself at the mercy of imperfection in print? My background in Painting & Drawing has always informed my work in Printmaking. I only edition my work if the circumstance calls for it, otherwise the work is unique, or part of a small variable edition. I have a lot of love for Intaglio (etchings and collagraphs), because it looks and behaves like no other medium. The depth and richness of surface-you just can't get it any other way. In terms of imperfection, I've worked very hard to achieve the technical skill needed to master the processes I use. But just like all art forms, you learn the rules in order to break them. So then experimentation becomes really important in the work. I enjoy when the viewer is not quite sure what they are looking at, or how the piece was made.
4. Beyond the subject matter, you layer a lot of information in your work and it creates a detailed, deep level of narrative. What goes into the layering of information in your work? How do you decide what is more or less prominent in a piece? I think of my work like poetry- a dance between narriative and metaphor. I use some pretty obvious symbols, but I’m also thinking about material as metaphor. I ask myself: what is the verb, or action? Fading, peeling, tangling, protecting, obscuring, and so on. There is always compositional decisions happening, and lots of just “running shit through the press to see what happens”. I read once that you shouldn’t make and analyze at the same time, since they are two different processes. (Sister Corita Kent?) but that’s hard for me to do. I’m always stepping back to see what the work is saying both formally and conceptually as I’m creating it.
5. As well as the standard print you also incorporate a lot of outside, nontraditional objects into your work. What got you started in this? How do you decide what goes on or into a piece? Does this add another layer of difficulty to your creative process?
I would say that it’s been difficult in terms of risk, since most of my training is in 2d processes. But it’s also something that has always come really natural to me, this inclination towards manipulating different materials. I have always really thought of myself as a mixed-media artist. Integrating unusual materials is just another way to present this idea of place, through a specimen or found object. To summarize: I have a really weird fixation with grass.
6. Finally, I wanted to ask about your installation work, taking the print off the page and into a new, almost sculptural display. What brought about this style in your work? Working sculpturally is my way of playing with scale, and working outside of the confines of a “picture”. Relating to the two previous questions- this idea of material as metaphor is used more deliberately with my sculptural work. There is a lot of literal web-making, nest-making, home-making etc. that I just can’t get to on paper.
7. Moving on to the other side of your artistic career. You're currently working for the Cleveland Institute of art, what is that like? How has your other shop, technical, and teaching experiences led you here? I just feel at home in a printshop, and for me, sharing a printshop with students is even better. I started managing shops in undergrad, and in grad school I had the unexpected opportunity to run the shops & teach most of the print classes. I used that as an opportunity to gain the knowledge to not only teach, but learn how a department & shop runs. I just feel really lucky to be able to work full time in a beautiful shop, in a city I really care about, doing what I love. It’s not super glamorous- lots of dirty work & administrative things- but it’s a really good place for me to be right now.
8. Any advice for students or young artists looking to enter academia? Do it because you love it, not because you’re chasing a paycheck. You’ve got to work your butt off and learn to accept rejection, and most importantly you’ve got to be very flexible. If you are willing to shift your ideas of “where you want to be”, you are more likely to end up there. Academia is getting harder and harder to enter, especially for those right out of school. So again, just be flexible and open to the idea of what constitutes success.
Another important thing to think about is networking. A lot of young artists have the misconception that networking is this obnoxious, inauthentic thing that takes a ton of energy and requires a very outgoing personality. Networking is actually a lot more subtle and organic in reality. Make an effort to keep in touch with your professors, visiting artists, and especially your art school peers. Develop a really dependable reputation (hardworking, genuine) and say yes to as many opportunities you can.
9. Finally, plug yourself! Any new works or upcoming shows? Where can people find your work? If you're in the Cleveland area, you can stop by The Cleveland Institute of Art at the end of August to see some new work in the Technical Specialist Exhibition, which runs alongside the Faculty Exhibition. I'm also included in an invitational print exhibition that will be shown in Monterrey, Mexico in 2020. To check out my work anytime go to stevieleetanner.com and feel free to follow me on Instagram @stevieleetanner where I post my work, but also printshop things, life things, and of course cats!