by George|Published July 7, 2021
The lobby display of our main branch now features the fantastic work of local artist, writer, and teacher, Stephanie Sprague. Beginning with collage, she has since moved on to the mix of abstract and realistic painting styles featured in the images below. In the following interview, Stephanie kindly answers our questions about her life, her work, and the travels around the world that have influenced both.
Franklin Township Public Library: How long have you lived in the Somerset area?
Stephanie Sprague: I’ve lived in Somerset, NJ for seven years. I was abroad for 15 years and while it was time to come back to America, I’d never thought I’d be relocating to NJ. NJ has been a pleasant surprise. It’s the exact opposite of the stereotypes and punchlines to jokes. There’s a lot of beauty here and so much history. I find some parts really mysterious and have had intriguing experiences here, what I call ‘those New Jersey moments.’ And the sunlight is fantastic. A few pieces in my show are a bow to NJ, my self-portrait with the Sun overhead and the two small paintings inspired by DeMott Lane and Middlebush Park.
FTPL: What inspires your work?
SS: Delving into the past. History and mystery. Spirituality and religion. Poets and prophets in our midst. Adventures, excursions, and discoveries. Movement inspires. I love flowers. Nature, both physically and meta-physically, inspire. People can be inspiring most of all. There are certain qualities I see in people that inspire like courage and generosity. People who are into-their-thing, whatever that may be, are inspiring. Sometimes just being in their presence creates these mutative moments like a switch gets flipped. Being around people who strive for excellence is inspiring. Excellence is inspiring.
FTPL: What was it about the work of Hannah Hoch that inspired you to start with collage?
SS: I could totally relate to her rebellion at the propaganda in mass media at the time. We take photography for granted now. But at the time of the Dada movement, photography and photographic-like images in mass media were relatively new. Hoch was in part addressing the power of photography and how it was affecting public perceptions. The transformations in our current techno-media age frequently get compared to the invention of the ‘printing press’ but what gets overlooked is the camera and the start of mass printing of photographs in the 1800s. How did this upend life and society then? How did that upend and affect people collectively? How has this influenced our history? How has this influenced our perceptions and preconceptions of our history? Hannah had a lot to say about this through her collages; not a lot of artists or even writers necessarily have a lot to say and when they do it can lean toward the political or ideological. With Hoch, it wasn’t just hand-eye dexterity on display. She was sharing her observations and insights on these issues. I’m a journalist and broadcaster — it’s been my career and primary livelihood since I graduated from college — so all this resonated. I started my career before the Internet, with hard copy everywhere: papers, books, periodicals, scripts, and magazines. Paper and mass-produced magazines and photographs were a big part of my life and here Hoch was using paper creatively, re-arranging, re-forming, and re-imagining images from the media to share insights about mass media. I could instantly relate, and it seemed like an accessible entry-point for me to actually make art myself. Up until that point I hadn’t considered making art. But I was comfortable with paper. I was comfortable with the content. I walked around her collages up close and said aloud that ‘I want to do this.’ Looking back it seemed prescient: I didn’t know at the time that in just a few short years our world would start to resemble the ’30s. Studying art and Hoch seemed to be preparation for dealing with the 2020s! She still inspires.
FTPL: What helped or inspired you to make the change from collage to paint and other mediums?
SS: It wasn’t inspiration but frustration! Here I finally was collaging. I had reams of old Life magazines, old newspapers and a collection of scraps of paper that normal people would throw out but were like treasures in the digital age – old posters, ads, receipts, maps, photos, wrapping paper, labels off of jars – and I kind of hit a wall with it. One day I ended up collaging with “bleeding tissue paper” and swirling the tints and dyes around with my fingers and thought why not just paint? I thought painting would be a great chance to go back to basics and I ended up loving it. I loved to paint flowers and spent a lot of time on irises. My “Purple Veins” was part of my fascination with irises for a while. After I started painting, I returned to collaging and did stuff like “Walking the Dog.” Going back and forth between mediums has created this variety in my collection which is why I named the show in part “Variety.”FTPL: As an artist from the Midwest who lives on the East Coast with dual UK-US citizenship, do you feel that location has an impact on the work of an artist? Have your travels had an influence on your art?
SS: Yes, absolutely, 100% yes to both questions. But it’s not necessarily the geography of the place or the physicality of the place that is the primary thing. It’s the people in the place. It’s about the people in the place; the present people and the people in the past who inhabited the place affect you. By living in these different places you get answers to questions, questions about history and our past, about the movement of peoples. It’s easier to connect the dots when you have a larger perspective. You see the similarities and differences among places, and I am amazed actually by the similarities sometimes. By detaching from a home-place you can develop objectivity too and that is very beneficial for an artist or writer. For instance, I am a fourth-generation Chicagoan born and bred there and only when I moved overseas did I notice qualities about the place and the people. When I would visit, I would observe new things to the point that even last summer I was uncovering and discovering new things about the city and environs. It has happened with London to a certain degree: I noticed things about the UK when I was in NJ that I was just blind to when I lived there. On travels: I never know when something I have seen or read on my travels will affect my artwork or writing. For instance in ‘Queen of the Universe’ – another artwork that was not going as I had intended – a memory came back of a sculpture I saw in Italy year prior. I couldn’t tell you where I saw the sculpture or what it’s called. I hadn’t consciously been thinking about it at all, but boom there it was and I just ran with the image of the Virgin Mary and something like a relic on this wood panel.
FTPL: What is your process like for deciding whether a painting will be abstract or more concrete?
SS: It really depends on my mood. It depends on what I am totally fired up about most in the moment. Sometimes I take photos of flowers or landscapes or something cool on an excursion and then I just have to go home and start sketching the images immediately. Other times I see these pretty abstracts in galleries or exhibits and want to do my own version of pretty colors just for colors sake. Sometimes I just like working with colors, end of.
FTPL: What subjects and/or themes are you looking to explore with your next project?
SS: Buildings, Old World Structures, canals, and bridges. I am very into bridges right now. I am very nervous and very enthused about this project. Stay tuned!