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Published July 29, 2022

The Possibility of Utopia in Tiny Moments: Susan Stainman’s Studio Spotlight

By Kate Parvenski

Kate is the Content Lead for Testudo and a Brooklyn-based multimedia producer with a passion for art and storytelling. Her work focuses on documenting and showcasing artists working across a variety of mediums.

Susan Stainman's interdisciplinary practice centers on embodied moments of intimacy, connection, and interdependence. We caught up with Susan in her Brooklyn, NY studio to learn more about her work and creative practice.

Susan Stainman is an interdisciplinary artist, focusing in sculpture, installation, and social practice. She is a graduate of Brown University with a degree in American Studies and the Slade School of Fine Art in London for Sculpture. Her current artwork stems from her decade-long Buddhist meditation practice and work as a meditation teacher merging with her sculptural education. She has had solo exhibitions at AIR, Point of Contact, Lock Haven University and Black and Graze in New York City. Her group exhibition history ranges from Smack Mellon in Brooklyn to SUNY Potsdam and Studio 44 in Stockholm, Sweden. She received a fellowship from A.I.R. Gallery in 2013 and has been a New York Artist with the gallery since 2014. She has attended residencies at Atlantic Center for the Arts, Jentel Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, CAC at Woodside, and Vermont Studio Center. Her work is held in universities and private collections nationally and internationally. Stainman lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

Susan Stainman, Wristlets for Being Together. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Tell us about your practice.
SS: I am interested in how to use my art to create the conditions in which people experience connection and interdependence (interconnectedness). My sculptures move the bodies of my participants in space to create those conditions, using, for example, proximity or being physically attached to one another with my wearable works. Specifically, I am interested in an embodied, sensorial experience of connection and interdependence rather than an intellectual one.

My interest in interdependence comes from a meditation practice of more than a decade and an interest in thinking of art through a lens of social change. I use my mindfulness background when I spend time noticing the gestures of everyday interactions, how we express care and comfort towards one another. These most basic building blocks of how we relate to one another is the inspiration for my works. I want my viewers to think about their lives, their interactions with others, and their relationship with themselves in a new light. I believe we change through an emotional experience rather than an intellectual understanding of a situation so everything in the works is about drawing the viewer or participant in so that they might have that embodied understanding: the aesthetics, the textures and colors of the fabrics, the decorative elements, the positioning of bodies, and movement. Some works even have mindful conversation prompts as well.

Many of my artworks also have a collective element that further reinforces these ideas. I have an ongoing interview practice where I record audio interviews with friends, family, and exhibition goers about their lived experience of connection and interdependence. The audio for Shelter for Four comes from these conversations. Additionally, I create events, dinners, and mindful conversation practices both inside my exhibitions and at people’s homes to further add other voices to my works. It is an important part of my practice that I am not the sole author.

Susan Stainman, Poised for Intimacy. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

When people interact with your work, how do you hope they respond?
SS: I want people to have an embodied experience. I want my viewers or, really, participants to interact with the works first from their senses and then their intellect. That is the first and most important thing: what is their embodied mental/emotional/physical experience? So the fabric is definitely in service to this desired response; the composition of the pieces and the way it causes bodies to move in space is in the service to this desired result.

What that embodied experience is, that’s quite open. I think intimacy and connection with others and ourselves can be joyful, awkward, frightening, and beautiful, sometimes all at once. I’ve had participants express all of those and many other responses. My favorite was a time at an open studios where I was showing Poised For Intimacy. Two people seemed unsure if they could sit down. I encouraged them to do so and go through the guided conversation. Over the next fifteen or so minutes, I could hear the two having an in-depth conversation. After they finished, one of them came over and told me that he was kind of annoyed at the beginning and reluctant to go through the whole booklet, but he actually really loved the experience and learned so much about himself and his friend. This was perfect.

Can you speak about your decision to use fabric as a material in your work?
SS: I love fabric. I love everything about it. I love the textures, colors, the pliability, even down to the different weaves. I love wandering around fabric stores and getting inspired by all of it. It’s such a treat for the senses. Some people have trouble buying too many books. I have trouble buying too much fabric. I have so many yards of fabric in my studio waiting to be used.

I started using fabric, because I was interested in non-traditional sculptural materials in my work. I wanted to use a domestic material and process, a process that was considered to be women’s work, an insult really, in a fine art context. As I’ve continued to explore the material, there are so many other things that have felt right about fabric being my main medium. We are covered in fabric every day; we have such an intimate relationship with it and our choice of clothing says so much about who we are individually and how we want to present ourselves to the world. Additionally, there is a direct relationship between my process of making, how physical it is, particularly the small, repetitive, meditative movements of sewing and the experience I am looking for my audience to have. There is a sense of embodiment from start to finish in my artwork that’s vital.

Susan Stainman, Belts for Being Together Apart. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

How has your practice changed over time, during the pandemic specifically?
SS: Before the pandemic, I was using proximity as a way to evoke a physical and emotional experience of intimacy. Portable Bench for Lingering Conversations and Poised For Intimacy are two good examples of what that looks like. Once Covid happened, proximity became taboo, especially between strangers. So I started to think about ways in which distance, particularly six feet, could be intimate as well.

The Belts for Being Together Apart came out of that investigation. The belts have a “tail” of three feet on either side with a zipper on the end. So, you have your own wide belt wrapped around your waist, hugging you in and then this tail that can be zipped to another person’s belt. There are ten belts in total and they can all be zipped together in increasing configurations. Once you are zipped together, you really are intimately connected. You can feel every movement that your partner makes. When one person moves, the other is forced to move. There is an intimacy and a relationship created.

More recently, I have been thinking about the ways in which we are still struggling. After two years of Covid and continued uncertainty, I notice a sense of disconnect in my interactions, my own internal relationship, and society at large. What’s necessary and helpful now? These are some of the questions that I'm asking myself. I don't have answers just yet, but asking the questions often leads to new possibilities.

There is a direct relationship between my process of making, how physical it is, particularly the small, repetitive, meditative movements of sewing and the experience I am looking for my audience to have. There is a sense of embodiment from start to finish in my artwork that’s vital.

How does documentation factor into your work?
SS: Documentation gives me an opportunity to convey some of the emotional and physical aspects of my work to someone who has not seen them in person. While the physical object is important, a photograph of a static object does not paint the full picture of what my work is about. The ephemeral interaction between two or more people must be documented as well. I continue to experiment with how to best convey not just the movement of bodies, but the emotional component as well.

What are you working on next? Where can we find you and your work?

SS: In terms of new ideas, I’m really excited about creating completely immersive experiences, whether physically or sensorially. A completely immersive physical experience I’d love to make would be a space, almost like a room in a home, that is filled with my participatory objects: furniture, wearable works, etc. I have many ideas for dinnerware and ceramics. The walls would be covered in custom wallpaper. I want to create “Susan’s world” for lack of a better way of putting it. A home that is from start to finish about how to create the conditions for people to experience connection: to themselves and each other, in a playful, experiential oriented world.


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