Graduate Division: Grad Journal
2014 Edes Prize Winner, and MFA alum Spencer Stucky
The second profile in our Edes Foundation Prize winner series is dedicated to Spencer Stucky, an SAIC MFA alum, and an instructor at the school’s photography department. Winning the Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists in 2014 greatly assisted in furthering Stucky’s creative practice, and has led to a number of opportunities, among them an exhibition at the Elmhurst Museum.
Stucky studied art history and fine art at the University of Oregon for his undergraduate education, after which he worked in book design and publishing in San Francisco. His research and artistic concerns include Scandinavian modernism, the politics of architecture, and idealism in design, and he has worked in situ at historically significant architectural sites in Finland and Sweden. Stucky is currently working on several projects including a 24-minute film and a new gallery space in Chicago.
Amie Soudien: How would you describe your current creative practice?
Spencer Stucky: Nearly all the answers—the final exhibition results— to any aesthetic questions I have, I find within research processes. I usually pick out a specific object or narrative out of a broader history that is emblematic of my other concerns. Photographic theory is probably the foundation of where the consideration comes from in my practice. There’s usually a lot of supplemental material to my exhibitions. I like the viewer to experience the zone I’m establishing, and if they’re curious, they can continue to dive into the specific histories of each object or work. Hopefully, each layer they uncover will enhance their understanding of the entire exhibition.
AS: At the time that you were nominated for the Edes, what kind of work were you making at SAIC?
SS: At that time I was focused on the politics behind specific architectures. I was primarily interested in Scandinavian Functionalist Modernism and its ideals, and comparisons with scrying and divination practices in other parts of the world. I focused on 1800 B.C. Mayan cultures and how scrying stones operated as sites of potential. I tried to connect these ideas to the natural healing power that Scandinavian architecture was trying to harness. I was focused on the Paimio Sanatorium in Finland which was designed by Alvar Aalto in the 1930s. The sanatorium used to house and treat tuberculosis patients. There was no cure for tuberculosis then, so you would go to these sanatorium sites and hopefully wait out the disease and try to survive.
The designers thought that prolonged exposure to light, fresh air, vegetation would be beneficial to the patients. There was all this optimism put into the possibility of healing individuals through design and architecture, and the the most advanced technology at that time—bent plywood and concrete casting, techniques that hadn’t been used before. I tried to connect the potentialities in the Paimio Sanatorium, and how Mayans used a technology like keystone in early Mayan civilisation, that had divine properties.
AS: How did your research interests manifest in the exhibition?
SS: I made my own scrying stones. I came across this scrying stone from 1800 BCE Peru in the Americas section at the Art Institute. It was so beautiful I had to try and recreate it. I had these guys in California make me large obsidian slab mirrors. I positioned the mirrors on top of furniture from the sanatorium in Finland, that they very kindly loaned me. I made armature that followed the design principles Aalto and the museum had used, using colors that he had specifically designed for their calming or soothing abilities. These were some of the aesthetic considerations that were pulled out of the research. I included annotated photographs of the sanatorium, the Museum of Natural History of London, and the Art Institute that were framed, hung low and arranged as if they were text bodies, to cue viewers into these sources.
It was also cool from an architectural historical nerd standpoint because I was able to show them in the Sullivan building’s galleries for the first time, a building that Aalto used to look for structural strategies for the large windows he did in Finland. I next showed the exhibition at the Elmhurst Museum in Elmhurst, Illinois, and in the house there designed by Mies Van der Rohe. Van der Rohe looked at Aalto’s glass use to look at his work, so I got to position the work at both the page before and the page after in architectural history, so to speak.
AS: After getting nominated, how did you prepare for the application?
SS: I think what helped was that I had done a lot of the preliminary research, in terms of logistics. I had very concrete budgets, I had talked to crews and studios to produce the work I was interested in doing. I had also successfully worked with institutions before in my work, which may have given the adjudicators confidence that I could do it again.
AS: What advice do you have for current MFA students who are about to go through this process?
SS: It sounds cliched, but if you’ve actually prepared ahead of time, and tried to identify the roadblocks in accomplishing the project, as well as figured out how you might accomplish the project without the funding, then you’re golden. There’s much less risk for the funding body to agree to take you on, because you’re not totally reliant on them for the funds. Nothing ever goes as planned. If something goes wrong, you’ll be able to keep going because you have another plan in place. Also, don’t be afraid to let your excitement about your project come across to the interviewers.
AS: How would you say the grant assisted with your art practice?
SS: It was huge. It let me take two years to almost focus full-time on my work, and definitely helped me make work I would never be able to do without the backing of the foundation. It also gave me an incredible confidence boost. What you decide to do might be difficult, but people are receptive to asking for things. I never assumed that I could walk into the archives of the Moderna Museet in Sweden, and work in the museum. Meeting other awardees was also cool, and seeing how they engaged with their practices.
AS: What are your plans for the future?
SS: I’m working on a film I would like to get onto the festival circuit, and then exhibit. I recorded soloists from the Royal Swedish Ballet performing works by Trisha Brown in buildings from architectural movements that were relevant to social services in Sweden in 1930s. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever worked on; three years from the initial research until now. It’s interesting for me because my relationship to art in general has changed in the last three years.
I’ve got a show that I did here going to Denmark in October. I am also working right now on an exhibition related to the book I recently completed, that looks at police power in the United States. It focuses on prison architecture, as well as how PR firms handle interfacing with the public, and how these schema fit into the aesthetics of incarceration. I don’t actually know what the result will be, as it’s all in the research stage. I’m hoping to share that exhibition here in Chicago in October, in an exhibition space that I’ve started with a few fellow alumni from SAIC; Michal Samama, Bachar Bachara, Simone Belleau, Lucas Briffa and Elana Ailes.