Artist Stephanie Calvert is most known and celebrated for her dazzling, luminous close-up paintings of minerals. When she and I met in painting classes in college, I had a nebulous sense of some secret grit of hers buried beneath her fascination with luster. Recently, I found out just what that secret was: Calvert grew up with hoarder parents in an abandoned schoolhouse in super-rural Colorado, without plumbing or consistent electricity. Two years ago, Calvert’s mother was in a life-threatening bicycle accident that’s left her with permanent brain damage. The accident led Calvert to return home to see her mother–and the schoolhouse where they lived.
Calvert is now making art out of some of the things her parents hoarded as a means of trying to process the strangeness of their family life. It was a privilege to talk to her about her process, the psychology of having too much and not enough, and what she hopes to find through this work.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: I know that this project was born of your return to Thatcher and the schoolhouse in the wake of your mother’s accident. Within the context of that return, was there a particular moment when the idea for this work came to you? What was the first piece you made in the project?
Stephanie Calvert: The idea to return to Thatcher and work through my emotions using art was brewing in the back of my head for a while after going to Colorado right after the accident. What solidified the decision for me was a conversation with a close friend who really pushed me to tell my unique story. That conversation had me get that I was never going to feel “ready” to take this on, but that the time was ripe to start this project. The first finished piece I made is called And Another One. It’s made out of empty Altoids boxes and a wood frame. I found them spilling out of bags in one of the rooms. My mother used to always have Altoids in her purse, and she held onto the containers. I put them together in a piece, and a day later found a whole other box of them, so I took apart the piece and expanded it.
EKH: Have you been living back in the schoolhouse while you’ve been creating this artwork? What has that return been like for you?
SC: Yes, typically I spend a few nights in the schoolhouse alone, working/cleaning/meditating/sorting. Then I take a trip into Trinidad to stay a night at my parent’s house there, to help my dad take care of my mom, shower, connect to the Internet, and pick up food and supplies. It’s been so bizarre to be staying in the building again, especially alone. I’ve never experience space and silence like that. The building has so many memories; it feels like living in a time capsule in a way. And I have come to really enjoy being disconnected, with no distractions from my work. In so many ways, this return feels like a completing of many circles in my life.
EKH: Some of my favorite works in the project play so deftly with ideas of superabundance and chaos, but find something deeply melancholy or futile or still-absent even within that huge volume of stuff; I think of the rolls and rolls of hoarded paper from Page 1, or the assemblage of empty Altoids boxes in the And Another One or the many wood tiles that come together as the scull of Third Life. How do those elements relate in your work: this sense of there being, within this stuff, too much and not enough simultaneously?
SC: In exploring this project, I have the opportunity to explore my mother’s mind in seeing what she held onto, what she deemed as important or useful or interesting. I’ve thought a lot about how she collected useful things to the point of uselessness. Each physical thing you own has a string of energy attached to you, so the space in Thatcher can feel like a chaotic web at times, overwhelming and immobilizing with the sheer abundance. There is also a sense of melancholy for me, in seeing all these things and the building itself fall apart and decay over time with not being used, of half-finished projects and unfulfilled intentions. This is one of the ways I am completely a circle, by finally putting to use these things she thought she would use one day. I get a lot from reordering the stuff out there, finding new value or beauty in it, looking at the things from a perspective of potential and possibility again.
SC: It’s the most physical, emotional, and mental work I’ve done thus far. Each day is a different journey, with highs and lows. The space and things out there are strong triggers for me; I’ll find myself working on a piece or sorting through stuff and I’ll have a breakdown. Especially when I go through my mother’s things, knowing her condition since the accident, it can be so painful to see remnants and reminders of her life when she was young, vital, and engaged. I’m also often reminded of myself as a little girl when I was so angry, sad, and alone. It’s exactly this process that has me face all these challenging memories and emotions and work on giving love to all of it.
EKH: What’s your process been like with this project? Are you working simultaneously on many pieces? Where’s your studio space?
SC: I’ve cleared out portions of the building to use as workspaces. The inside space is about 100×50 feet and 2 floors of classrooms. At this point, I have workspace in several rooms, and areas where I’ve put materials I’m interested in using for future pieces. A typical day includes working on multiple pieces, searching for inspiration, and spending time meditating or journaling. Having so much space to myself is ideal for this internal and external exploration. I wake up before sunrise and take pictures in the morning light, and then I start on one of the art pieces. If I feel stuck or frustrated with one, I move onto to another one, or I take breaks to explore the building and sort through things mining for more inspiration. By sunset I’ve made some dinner and am usually taking pictures again in the evening light. Nighttime can be scary for me – a lot of the building is dark and there are strange noises, insects, and animals. Without much to do in the limited light, I read and meditate before an early bedtime.
EKH: Elsewhere you’ve described this project as means of understanding your mother, of “explor[ing] questions she can no longer answer in her current mental state.” Are you feeling like you’re finding those answers? What do you most want to know or find via the work of this series?
SC: Because of her brain damage, she confabulates now, meaning she mixes up memories, reality, and dreams. It’s hard to say how grounded in reality she is from one moment to the next, and her mind is so chaotic it’s simply not a reliable source to answer the questions I have about our family’s past. In going through the things out there, I’ve been able to get an insight into who my mother was, why we moved to Thatcher, and what her experience was like. I’ve found a lot of her writing, like essays, old letters, and notes, which explain so much and paint a more complete picture of my family.
Stephanie Calvert is Brooklyn-based artist raised in California and Colorado. Her work has been featured in private shows at The Lounge and My Moon, as well as in group shows including Signs of Life (Corridor Gallery), Default World Dreaming (Gallery 151), and En Masse-Raw Artists (OutPut).