“There is so much that I do not know, which affects the stories that I tell myself daily. My work isn’t about food, it’s about taste and the hierarchies that structure it.”
Stephanie J. Williams is a tinkerer and doodler. Her work primarily navigates hierarchies of taste, unpacking how “official” histories are constructed in order to understand contemporary social coding and the world around us. She received her MFA in Sculpture from RISD, has shown in Fictions, part of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s F-show exhibitions, as well as with Washington Project for the Arts, Grizzly Grizzly, |’sindikit |, Tephra ICA and the Walters Museum as a Sondheim Finalist (2019), with residencies at Sculpture Space (2021), Williams College (2021), the Corporation of Yaddo (2018, 2022), VCCA (2016), ACRE (2015), Elsewhere (2014), Wassaic (2014), School 33 (2018-present) and Vermont Studio Center (2006). Recent projects include support from a Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund Fellowship in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins (2020), Seamless: Craft-based Objects and Performance at Rutgers (Camden) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum Women Filmmakers Festival. She currently teaches stop motion for Maryland Institute College of Art.
Image courtesy of the artist
Stop Motion, 12 min.
Image courtesy of the artist
I used to think that when I grew up, I’d be a butcher. I had no interest in running a store nor providing any kind of practical service, but I liked that food as a raw material, when turned into a prepared meal, could be transformed into almost anything. I would prepare meals with my mother, the jobs that my sister thought too gross to touch. Working together, I learned how to remove a turkey gizzard, how to prepare liver, how to clean a squid, about shrimp paste and fish sauce. This stuff is honest even in its pieces. These pieces, even when dissected from the whole, connote something too important to be politely omitted.
john ros / For some reason I feel like I want to start with your artist statement from your website. I refer to this quite often with students because I love that it talks about art and practice through life and relationships and food as materials. I especially connect to this as a first gen American. Food is always a way to connect back to the old country. I would spend countless hours hovering around the kitchen listening to stories about Cuba and learning how to cook from touch and smell and taste. No recipes. I think this way of learning also helped guide my practice.
Specifically you state, “I learned how to remove a turkey gizzard, how to prepare liver, how to clean a squid, about shrimp paste and fish sauce. This stuff is honest even in its pieces. These pieces, even when dissected from the whole, connote something too important to be politely omitted.” Can you talk more about your connections to food and art practice? What would you say is “too important to be politely omitted” in art for you today?
Stephanie Williams / My food research has been the easiest way to converse about who we are and unpack the stories that we tell ourselves that affect our communities. Think about visiting a country for the first time and getting to know the food. It’s a map of agriculture, major historical events; an intimate exchange with across communities. Think of the stories of migratory contexts entrenched in Tacos al Pastor, General Tso’s, Carolina Gold Rice, etc.
Why is it that Filipinx cuisine includes lechon, leche flan, adobo? This shows the common colonizers shared with Mexico and Puerto Rico not to also mention Banana Ketchup, Spam, and the prevalence of American fast foods in the Philippines, traces of American occupation and Filipinx appropriation. When I was growing up none of my American friends knew anything about the Philippines much less what we eat. This is still something I encounter even though the US was one of two major colonizers of the Philippines with large populations of Filipinx people here in the states, my family included. This is evidence of erasure. In the past handful of years, Filipinx restauranteurs specifically have done fabulous things to start that conversation for mainstream folx. Bad Saint in DC and Jeepney in NYC are just a few folx whose voices I feel indebted to.
Within my own work, I’m interested in the stories that are largely ignored or have been erased. The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre occurred just a few days ago, a story that I had never learned about in American History classes. Neither were the stories of the Bataan Death March during WWII that my grandfather shared anecdotes with us about. I only learned about the American soldiers at Pearl Harbor. Secondarily, there were mentions of a mix of British and American territories including uninhabited islands (Wake and Midway islands) with the Philippines thrown into the mix. (Daniel Immerwahr NPR interview)There is so much that I do not know, which affects the stories that I tell myself daily. My work isn’t about food, it’s about taste and the hierarchies that structure it. Is there a correlation between what we find distasteful and the communities we consider fringe? Who made up those rules? Official histories are the stories of the powerful not the stories of what actually happened.
Stephanie Williams: studio at Williams College (Williamstown, MA), 2021
Image courtesy of the artist
jr / YES! I love how food connects us. Even in the unknown. Of course, whenever people are presented with the unfamiliar, fear of the unknown can arise, but somehow food has a way to bridge some of these gaps and bring people closer together. This fear is likely part of the cause of the colonization of food as you mentioned—the dominant cultural obfuscation of a recipe or meal to render it more palatable. I also love that you say that food is a way to talk to people and hear their stories. What is it about the universality of food that makes it such a great connector? And in your opinion, how or why is it that the fine art world strays away from this universality? Making people feel alienated or disconnected, especially in an ever-more visual world?
SW / The connection to food is a simple one, I think. You literally take it in and it becomes a part of you, there is no convincing or thinking needed for food as a moving experience. The power of things or “vibrant matter” (Jane Bennett) communicating to our states of being. Food also mirrors so much of how we identify and how we see ourselves navigating a social terrain. Everyone has a meaningful food experience that has transformed their state of thinking/analysis into something visceral. Eating something delicious for example. A friend of mine recently sent me an essay about the language of our bodies by Kathy Acker (Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body) in which she talks about the states of essence while bodybuilding opposing states of language connected towards building meaning. Food is a portal into those states of essence. As we take in information viscerally, how we process our experiences is something different from a language of assigned meaning. In a state of essence, I feel at one with my body. To take in. To be aware. To shift weight. To simplify. To be present. In a state of meaning, my being and where my body sits in a political context aren’t always aligned. In states of meaning, my body is less my own. It is a symbol. Fine art’s universality or not is a big question that I don’t know that I have an answer to without knowing what we mean by the art world. Context is important. Is this a western question? A question of class or accessibility? I don’t know that it’s fair to assume how “fine art” functions for everyone. Speaking for myself, I know that I am often suspicious in many gallery settings because I don’t always know the rules that are expected of me. I get so far into the activity of breaking codes of meaning. My experience of art requires an investment of time, curiosity and building a specific knowledge base, something that not everyone, myself included, always has access to. That delay creates a gap between art experience and experiencer. It’s a question I ask myself all the time when I make my work, what and how I am communicating.
jr / By default, when I talk about the “Art World” I mean it as the large and seemingly ubiquitous, institutional, capital “A” capital “W” western way of doing business. The boogie man so-to-speak. The gate-keepers at the government, corporate, education, tech levels of all we do, which includes the non-profit industrial complex. I think of this in a way that relates to your notion of “official histories” and who gets to tell those histories. Whose world are we living in by default. (This is not always the case, but overwhelmingly, in my experiences, all-too-often is the case, which is why I have always been more attracted to artist-run, community-organized projects that are free from non-profit and corporate funding.)
SW / I don’t know that these boogie men have ever represented the interests of universality. These institutional structures that you’re describing, as intricate as they can be, have not historically shown interest in marginalized voices detached from profitability. My art world is most directly affected by my local communities in and around DC/Baltimore and small batch conversations around topics that are important to me. I work primarily with non-profit spaces when showing work, but I also don’t think that it’s so easy to disconnect from capitalist structures either. I work in academia whose focus more and more equates sustainability with profit, however, my job as an academic has allowed me time to make art and to have these conversations with folx that I would normally not be able to have seated in a position where I am believed. We can certainly be smarter about how we share our resources and energies in these contexts.
Stephanie Williams: studio at Williams College (Williamstown, MA), 2021
Image courtesy of the artist
Stop Motion, 12 min.
Image courtesy of the artist
jr / When I think of taste I think of a few things. First, the sense of tasting. Putting something in our mouth and being able to sample it, feel it, understand it, describe. Second, taste as in the subjective “taste-level” of something or someone based on their aesthetic choices and/or beliefs. Third, taste that is rendered through our histories—determined by the few for consumption by the many. This is the hierarchical space you are referring to—the unnamed deciders of diction or style or cuisine or…
All of these aspects relate to art and relate to your practice on different levels. I think about PINOY/PLOY, 2016 and the balut tongues lapping up Aunt Jemima Syrup crawling on Uncle Ben’s Rice. I think about your dedication to stop motion animation as well as your precision within space and surrounding in your textile and installation work. I think about your dedication to who you are and the story you tell while providing space for others to tell their story, whether in the classroom or out of the studio. How do the hierarchies and power dynamics of taste keep pushing your practice? Do they ever collide? Is this idea of taste always at the forefront? Or does it ebb and flow? And if it isn’t always at the fore, what takes its place?
SW / I worry about declarative statements. I’m a true gemini so it really depends. I always have questions about social coding (what dictates the agreed upon rules of a culture). Maybe it’s because what I find most comforting through my expression of my being is challenging to the worlds around me. I’ve never thought of myself as an activist though. I am interested in storytelling while taking a hard look at subtext, the polite omissions that exist because declarative statements rarely leave room for fullness and depth.
I think about these things because those omissions are often aimed at my self expressions. My identity contexts aren’t considered in mainstream rule making. I can say that I am a DC/Baltimore based cis-gendered, black, Filipinx, queer, bald woman, who through self-taught means, makes floppy sculpture, and creepy stop motion films. All true, but there’s a lot in-between those words and a lot of stories that people make up because of those words too.
“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist though. I am interested in storytelling while taking a hard look at subtext, the polite omissions that exist because declarative statements rarely leave room for fullness and depth.
jr / So, in thinking about this further, relating to identity, in part, through food—and as a “DC/Baltimore based cis-gendered, black, Filipinx, queer, bald woman, who through self-taught means, makes floppy sculpture, and creepy stop motion films”—the in-betweenness of everything—the gaps—play important roles in not only finding footholds in our own senses of being, but also our ways of co-opting the status quo. Activist or not, I think this is connected to your thoughts on “social rules of acceptability.” Though often frustrating, I now find these in-between spaces, places of personal power and agency. Social rules sometimes seem to not apply to me because they were never made for me (as a Latinx, non-binary, queer person), or rather made to reduce access to someone like me. I guess what I am getting at is, what does it mean to find your own space or family and build oneself from within that unique support structure. These made/found spaces also have their own sets of social rules, but they seem so different from typical, more ubiquitous social rules. How do these in-between spaces provide you with personal power and/or defeat? How do you learn from them in the studio?
SW / Social rules apply to everyone because we are participants within a society. Those expectations don’t go away just because I don’t agree with the rules as they currently exist. I navigate these rules because I have to.
Storytelling is my way of creating voice and conversations about the body as an abstracted reorganization, a way to expand what a body is and how it functions as opposed to how it “should be seen and used.” I have become more interested in the conflict between having a body and a body’s political subtext especially during a year of covid and protests to the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Covid called attention, on a very basic level, to the limitations of our bodies and on a more complex level, highlighting past and present social inequity. The violence shown against black communities highlights for the mainstream that there is a difference existing in a body so steeped in politics. The rules certainly apply and have consequences. I don’t always have the luxury of appearing impolite in these conversations. Power vs. defeat isn’t much of a choice because it implies that there is one.
jr / Being self-taught is another layer of in-betweenness. Can you talk about how the institution prepared you for success as an artist? But also, how did it fail you in the need to become self-taught? How does this affect your own pedagogy in the classroom?
SW / I am not a self-taught artist, my academic institutions didn’t fail me. Some things stuck while others did not. I use means that are readily accessible to me to amplify parts of learning I find interesting — I went to undergrad and grad school and got a job at an art school. I am self-taught in techniques that I had an introductory knowledge in or no experience with, just a curiosity.
I took one weaving class in undergrad which I hated because my teacher hated my sampler. I had an allergic reaction to the dyes and made a mess of things whenever I tried to make something. Sewing was not a part of the class so I spent most of my time painting ugly paintings and welding big steel things because it was awesome. When I graduated, I couldn’t answer the question of why my work needed to be engaged with painting and steel so I stopped. I wasn’t interested in metal necessarily. I was interested in how to make objects with flexible planes.
My mom knew how to sew and I had nowhere to store my sculpture so she taught me the basics of a pillow case then a pair of pants. These things fold easily and don’t take up much room. But garment construction didn’t go well so I started making things without patterns. When what I tried to make didn’t turn out, I went to my public library and looked at hand sewing and quilting books and copied the stitches that made sense probably because the ones with illustrations were easier to follow. The teddy bear making books offered me the most. In Providence I had such amazing access to so many kinds of textiles and people were willing to donate their fabrics and old sewing machines so my making was super cost effective.
I liked the cheap gaudy stuff the best and formed a real kinship with remnant fabric (the end of the roll stuff too, tacky and cheap to be sold at full price. Your vinyls, polyblends and lycra). Taste in these spaces was akin to worth. I also started making my own latex sheets and sewing those, thinking about the repetitive gestures of my hands and asking why some fabrics were considered more tasteful than the ones I loved. I liked the things that were considered in poor taste, which led to making work about valued identities or the “mixedness” of amalgamated identities, the loaded act of “passing” for “real/identifiable” identities and understanding how “good” taste is structured around power. Social coding expressed through sumptuary laws is still an interest from American slavery to the Filipino Barong Tagalog.
I took an amazing intro survey to stop motion in grad school with sophomores that were so much more confident than I was. I made many bad animations but liked the repetitive nature of the work and that anything that can be posed in front of a camera in sequence counts as legitimate stop motion.
It was so low tech, but you could potentially make anything if you had enough patience. I wasn’t interested in any of the rules, to be honest there weren’t many. Folx were so supportive. We could sit and talk excitedly about the many different ways you could tear a piece of paper for the “right effect.” Youtube and libraries were amazing in filling in the gaps. The stop motion community is a generous one. Folx really like sharing what they’ve figured out and I wanted to be a part of that.
When I started adjuncting, the animation program at the school where I was teaching was discontinued so I shared what I knew about stop motion with my Foundations level students. They were so excited about building in miniature, inventing their own material, creature creation and moving image—a bit of a combination of many things from their other art classes. Stop motion is a process whose malleability really informed how I wanted to teach because you have the freedom to build with anything.
I grew up watching stop motion in movies without realizing what it was. I thought that it was just an older way of producing special effects. It seemed like anything was possible, but like many special effects focused movies of that time period, characters were flat, indulging in so many stereotypes to make storylines digestible to a larger public — The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. My agenda for my animation community is to try to get as many folx excited about stop motion by creating work that trusts their audiences and contributing towards changing who has traditionally been in control of this medium.
Stop Motion, 12 min.
Image courtesy of the artist
jr / You’ve talked about your community in DC and Baltimore. How have you identified these spaces? What makes a strong community in your mind? Have you found spaces that were once nurturing, but that maybe you outgrew and had to leave?
SW / The arts are a small world that I don’t think that you ever outgrow. You’ll continue to have overlap. My communities in DC and Baltimore are pretty supportive, especially for emerging artists. We also have a robust DC backed grant program. When I returned home to DC after school I would run into the same folx at openings so conversations became less awkward to initiate. People were and continue to be very generous with me (Hillyer Art Space Sister Cities Grant). My role has changed in recent years as one in service. I’m on the board of Tephra ICA in Reston which is doing the hard work of creating a space of equity and voice. I’ll also be returning to Hamiltonian as a mentor in order to support their new cohort. Baltimore is still an art scene I have so much to learn from but conversation has always been easy for me there. Folx really stick up for one another and it’s so easy to follow up after initial introductions. I’ve met so many hardworking folx at all experience levels who are so excited about helping art to just exist (Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund and the Sondheim Prize).
jr / I like that you talked about the complicated relationship with academia… “I work in academia whose focus more and more equates sustainability with profit but also a job that has allowed me time to make art and to have those conversations with folx that I would normally not be able to have from a position where I am believed.” During a job interview, a search committee member once asked me why I wanted a job within the institution if I was so critical of the institution. This puzzled me, but I understood the notion. It is our job as teachers to bring varied and difficult conversations to our students. It is also our job as academics and artists and citizens, to be critical of the governing bodies that control our spaces and/or function in our name. I guess in some ways this is a continuation from the question about social norms but also relates to ideas of being self-taught.
SW / I’m simply interested in creating a space where we have enough respect to listen to each other while we establish just what our voices are no matter our experience level. It’s important that everyone comes to these conversations with a willingness to participate and really listen or the art experiment doesn’t work. Something that I admire about my students is that they come from a generation that will not be satisfied with things as they are. They are interested in conversations that currently do not exist in the mainstream. Which makes sense right even from a practical standpoint? If you’re in the job market and looking to hire someone, experience is always helpful, but expanding what definitions of hirable experience is necessary because that job, no matter the skill, will grow into something else. Ultimately we’re looking for the person that can figure things out—those in between spaces. That’s been at the heart of my role as a teacher, especially given the rate of debt from programs like mine, I’m teaching survival skills both in concept/research but very much within a tangible/practical context as well.
Stop Motion, 12 min.
Image courtesy of the artist
jr / We have been talking so much about movement through space. Spaces we create for ourselves and those already made which require our navigation and negotiation. Your animations are so intricately layered with movement. Subtlety in vibration and hum become paramount to the overall story. In the past I have heard you reference Martha Graham. I also loved this notion that you mentioned while visiting one of my classes, that elephants hear through their feet—through literal vibration. I cannot help but equate this to awareness of our own surroundings. Can you talk more about the nuances you seek in the movement of your animation and how these may specifically translate or refer back to some of these discussions to movement throughout social space?
SW / I’m not thinking about the movement as literal navigations through social space. The movements of the puppets must appear organic and natural to that piece of a body but also in congress with its kin, like the role of a singular member of a collective or herd. They are not individual, definable entities that exist without the unnamable/unplaceable context of each other. They are each other’s malleable context. They, in this collective, are an identity of ecosystems. They exist between category and strata. Again, the animations are in conversation with the conflict between a body’s essence (what it means to physically exist in a body) and a body as a political object (a body that is symbol or predicates a larger function or usage outside of its inherent essence). It’s important to communicate viscerally or at least corporeally. I’m collaborating on my current piece with a sound designer, my friend Andrew Paul Keiper because they know sound as language (Rig fabrication from a super talented artist and MICA alum, Glenn Smakula).
I’m interested in sounds that are sensed or even felt vs. heard (I had multiple wonderful conversations with a great artist at Williams College (Sarah Rara) about interactions and interruptions of sound that made so much sense for my current project about bodies. For instance, it never occurred to me that everything makes sound regardless of our ability to hear it. We can sense sound through the physical capacities of our bodies.
I have spent more time than I thought I would have prepping my visuals by looking at how an elephant trunk moves, how an elephant walks with toes fully engaged, how dogs will scratch just behind their ears and continue to echo that movement even after the scratch has satisfied, how fiddlehead ferns slowly unfurl, how bees swarm, how ants contribute to a large task. These snippets make more sense as a contribution to a larger body that is in a state of becoming, not static or even iconic. Our physical states are always changing but political bodies are somehow not allowed to, at least not without resistance.
I then act each of these references out for the practical reasons of occupying the headspace of the inanimate puppet I’m charged with bringing to life. This tells me how I have to hold my weight and where, what parts get tired after being stressed, how to make a movement look “unnatural” when reversed, etc.—the stuff of viscerally communicating an essence of a being that is always changing and morphing through its lived interactions. Communicating with my body by being present has been my main vehicle for story construction.
“I’m interested in making things that look familiar, that can’t quite be identified, bodies, or at least pieces, that echo a naturally occurring origin but are disrupted usually through one or more aesthetic characteristics…”
jr / There is a haunting in your work between the lighting and the movement. A sort of glitch, but somehow without the glitch. Maybe a hiccup or a sigh? There is also a balance between the known and familiar and the surprise—keeping the viewer at the edge of their seat. There is a dark fairytale quality to your work. We cannot help but think of Grimm, especially when confronting HANS, 2015.
I also think about connections to family—both from childhood and in adulthood. In particular, The Lingering Survival of the Unfit, 2018 and Blame It On The Trees, 2017, familial connections interplay throughout present mostly in symbology of materials. Can you talk about how these childhood connections and memories weave their way through your current self? How does learning from these relationships determine what steps are taken in the studio?
SW / I’m interested in making things that look familiar, that can’t quite be identified, bodies, or at least pieces, that echo a naturally occurring origin but are disrupted usually through one or more aesthetic characteristics — for example the movement of a puppet might directly borrow from the movement of an elephant trunk, but the timing is a little too fast, or a little stiff in its positioning. The piece that I’m finishing up is a stop motion called Hospes (rough clip) — the greek root of hospitality, host and stranger. The duality embedded in the meaning of this word reflects the many, sometimes contradictory, subtexts echoed in the words we use to identify both ourselves and each other. It points to the very real limits and inaccuracies of spoken language that we use daily just to simply say that we exist and that we matter. As far as what I pull from, we all pull from lived experience, especially when conversing about social coding and body as political object. These aren’t self-portraits. Lived experience is a vehicle to address larger topics.
jr / You are extremely dedicated to craft and precision. I imagine stop-motion takes so much patience and planning. You’ve mentioned to me in the past about how you used to be more spontaneous in your stop-motion work shooting scenes and editing with less initial planning. I believe you have recently shifted this practice into a more precise one. Can you talk a bit about this and maybe touch on benefits you’ve experienced within different ways of working with stop-motion?
SW / I hold reservation with words like craft and precision because it implies a correct way of making things which I don’t know to be true. I’m thinking about the traces of a body’s movement in space, in this case, through stop motion, the accumulation of many gestures, my gestures as I walk up to a puppet, pose it, walk back to the camera and take a picture many times. My process has only changed to make navigating this journey a little easier. This essence of counting, walking, identifying through-lines of movement of each puppet limb is an extension of my own body changing how it navigates a space and terrain over a long period of time. It’s a meditation on the presence of my body.
Six questions asked of all our guests.
What was the last meal you made?
Migas Tacos for breakfast.
Can you share a recipe?
I don’t usually follow recipes and no, it never turns out the same.
Whose studio have you visited recently that really excited you?
I haven’t been to as many studios as I would have liked to this year, which is why I was so taken with the studio of a student I met while visiting at Williams College this spring: Kester Messan.
What have you seen recently (either art; performance; film, music; stage; etc.) that had a significant impact on you and your work?
I keep coming back to Falling Out by Phantom Limb Puppet Company — the best puppet show I’ve seen in person in a long time.
A sincere thanks to Stephanie from john ros and studioELL — thank you for the generosity you’ve shown in sharing your studio practice with us.
john ros is a Brooklyn-based, multi-disciplinary artist, curator and professor. They obtained an MFA from Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and a BFA from the State University of New York at Binghamton. john is the founder of studioELL where they currently serve as director and professor. They are also a founding director and curator at Intermission Museum of Art and a lecturer at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. john also currently serves as the curator-in-residence at Stand4 Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. john has over 16 years experience in higher education and 23 years experience curating exhibitions and developing community programming.
This interview was conducted over a series of emails which started with a couple of initial questions and led to a responsive conversation. The text has been edited slightly for this publication.
Jeannine Bardo | Dominique Christina | Stephanie Williams | Vishwa Shroff | Chloë Bass | Natalia de Campos & Thiago Szmrecsányi | Elly Clarke | Sameer Kulavoor | Alfonso Fernandez | Nyeema Morgan