Visual Arts Center Director Jade Walker interviews alumnus Jared Steffensen, featured in Torque and Axis at The Courtyard Gallery
Thu. April 30, 2015
Jared Steffensen was born in Fairfax, Virginia. He earned a BFA in Intermedia Sculpture from the University of Utah in 2002 and an MFA from The University of Texas at Austin in 2006. Steffensen seemingly joins disparate realms through geometric abstraction. He was a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant in 2006. His work has been exhibited throughout the US, as well as in Mexico, Germany, and The Netherlands. He is currently the Curator of Education at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City, Utah.
He recently answered questions from Jade Walker, director of the Visual Arts Center, by email.
Jade Walker: After graduating, what did you do and what informed your decisions in the studio?
Jared Steffensen: I moved to Providence, Rhode Island to work for a furniture designer/cabinetmaker for a year after leaving Austin, then moved back to Salt Lake to teach at the University of Utah. I eventually started working at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in the education department.
I still had some things to resolve with the work I was making during school, so I focused on that until around 2011. Much of that work was centered on my relationship to place — specifically Salt Lake City and how to better understand what my relationship to the city was.
In 2011, I shifted from thinking about place in a geographic sense to place as it relates to architecture. I’d say skateboarding influenced that shift. The way in which skateboarding teaches you to see and interact with your surroundings based on how you move through or use them and the endless possibilities provided by that act. I also re-examined the objects and obstacles created to facilitate that movement. In a way, I think that I’ve always approached art making in this manner, but now I’m open to the connection to skateboarding.
JW: How do you negotiate/combine your formal ideas about art with your life-long passion for skateboarding?
JS: I think there is a fair amount of cross over between the two. I see similarities in their cyclical nature, the specific language developed to describe aspects of each community, how that language may not always be understood by people outside that community, and the learning from failure.
For me, it’s about finding the places where they overlap and using those overlaps to inform my work. Whether its constructing architectural forms that have a relationship to both skateboarding and minimalism, recording indexical marks created by skateboarders interacting with those forms, how the body informs and responds to that interaction, or repurposing found objects used for skateboarding.
JW: Much of your past work focused on geographical places. How is the work you have created for Torque and Axis similar or different?
JS: It’s a mix of both, but geography — in a straight forward sense — is less important now or better yet, less noticeable. It’s hard to get away from it, though. I think living in the mountain west; the mountains were always looming over you, always in your field of vision. They act as walls that can keep things out and keep things in and that informs the culture and the people that exist within it.
By moving back to Salt Lake City and reconnecting with old friends that also continue to skateboard into their 30’s and 40’s, my work became focused on that all aspects of that community. It’s a community shaped by the Wasatch and Oquirrh Mountains, both physically and psychologically. The community has intense local pride and a pride in the connection to previous generations of skateboarding (some of them, including myself, are pushing 30 years on a skateboard). That connection to the past and its reemergence in the present is what the new work for Torque and Axis examines.
JW: You are a curator and an educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City. Can you talk about how your day job and your studio practice intersect?
JS: This may be a short and simple answer, but my museum education experience influences my studio practice which, in turn, influences my curatorial practice. I see crossovers in many aspects of my “separate” art careers.
JW: You're about to open Torque and Axis at the Courtyard Gallery, what other upcoming/recent projects do you have?
JS: Back in March, I had some photographs at the Spring/Break Art Show during Armory Arts Week and I collaborated with another Salt Lake artist, Christopher Kelly, on a project called It’s Going To Take Some Getting Used To. At the end of May, I’ll be in a two-person exhibition at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah with Svavar Jónatansson.
JW: What advice would you give to graduating MFA candidates?
JS: Keep making. Find a community (whatever that means to you) and actively be part of it.
Torque and Axis opens May 7, 2015 at The Courtyard Gallery. The exhibition will be on view May 7 – September 26, 2015.
Thu. April 30, 2015
From community-based social design to art exhibitions, symposia, and ethics in art education, department undergraduate students demonstrate the importance of research in Art Education, Art History, Design, and Studio Art.
Students presented projects and artwork during Research Week alongside colleagues across campus. Events included an exhibition of visual art for the duration of the week, presentations at the Longhorn Research Bazaar, and the Undergraduate Art History Research Symposium.
Third year Design students Alexandra Mann and Cassidy Reynolds presented sparkbuddy, a website that enables children to set health goals and connect with other children with similar goals.
“We probably spent around 75% of the semester researching and 25% of the semester formally designing,” described Alexandra Mann. “Good design is well informed within the context of each project. Its not possible to go through the full design process without gaining an in depth understanding of the ‘who, what, where, when, and how’ of your project.”
Natalie Gomez, Visual Art Studies undergraduate, presented a group research project entitled, Speak up! Should artistic expression in art education receive the same degree of legal protection as other types of freedom of expression?
When asked about the impetus for the research topic, Natalie Gomez explained, “It was an issue that we felt would be extremely beneficial to us and our peers as artists and future art educators.”
On Friday, April 24, seven Art History seniors presented their honors theses papers at the third annual Undergraduate Art History Research Symposium. The event celebrated the end of an intense semester spent writing a thesis paper alongside the students’ normal coursework. Art History senior Tracey Borders presented a paper entitled, Urbi et Orbi: Politics and Patronage in the Papacy of Boniface VIII.
“This process has helped me grow as an art historian and as a person,” said Tracey Borders. “It has been one of the most challenging experiences but entirely worth it. I hope to get involved in government after graduation, and the tools I have acquired through the research and writing of my thesis will be extremely useful for the career path I hope to pursue in Texas politics.”
The university’s Office of Undergraduate Research organizes Research Week every year with the School of Undergraduate Studies and the Senate of College Councils. Each year, Department of Art and Art History students participate in this university event and proudly present work resulting from hours spent in the studio, library, and in the community.
“There is no ‘education’ without research,” Natalie Gomez remarked. “Research is essentially a thorough inquiry and that skill is required of all students entering any profession.”
Thu. April 30, 2015
Imagine holding a ceramic vase thousands of years old. The only thing between this 1000-year-old artifact and your skin are the white museum gloves your professor gave you at the beginning of class.
“For a well-rounded education it is important that students have the opportunity to engage in multiple modes of inquiry,” remarked Dr. Astrid Runggaldier, lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History. “Especially in this digital age, working with objects like the artifacts gives students the chance to acquire skills and knowledge through analytical and creative processes that put them directly in touch — literally — with the material they are studying.”
In her course Art and Archaeology of Ancient Peru, Runggaldier utilized the Art and Art History Collection and allowed the students to handle the objects. Students learned to formally analyze artifacts and then wrote final papers focused on the art historical and cultural context of a chosen piece.
“The collection's highlights include valuable textiles from the American Southwest and pottery from the Pre-Columbian Andean cultures, but the sheer range of materials, as well as the breadth of cultures and time periods represented in our holdings offer extensive opportunities for coursework and independent student work,” described Runggaldier.
The collection has had a long history at The University of Texas at Austin. The Texas Memorial Museum (TMM) acquired contributions as early at the 1930s. Over 60 years, TMM received contributions of ceramic, metal, stone, textile, and wood objects from Central and South America as well as smaller collections from Central Africa and the American Southwest.
“This is one of the most significant collections on campus, and the department was critical in saving the collection when it was deaccessioned from the Texas Memorial Museum in 2005,” said Department of Art and Art History Chair, Jack Risley. “Now our challenge is to find a long term home for these objects, where they will receive proper archival stewardship and be easily accessible for study and research.”
Recently, objects from the collection were included in Between Mountains and Sea: Arts of the Ancient Andes at the Blanton Museum of Art. The exhibition was guest curated by Dr. Kimberly L. Jones (PhD in Art History, 2010). In 2013, Dr. Jones was appointed the Assistant Curator of the Arts of the Americas at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). In an upcoming DMA exhibition, Inca: Conquests of the Andes, seven works from the collection will be on view. Inca: Conquest of the Andes opens May 15, 2015.
“Beyond, their use to the campus community, these are important objects for the wider public to know about,” said Runggaldier. “Their recent inclusion in museum shows in Austin and Dallas is a positive development that I hope to see more of.”
Wed. April 29, 2015
Ultraviolet, on view at MASS Gallery, includes work by Ezra Masch (MFA in Studio Art, 2012), Tim Schmidt (MFA in Studio Art, 2011) and Amy Yoes. The exhibition was organized by Scott Proctor (MFA in Studio Art, 2007).
Recently, Ezra, Tim, and Scott answered our questions by email.
Scott, why did you decide to include Ezra, Tim, and Amy in your group exhibition Ultraviolet? What draws you to their work?
Scott Proctor: Tim and Ezra had the studio next to mine for a couple years at Artpost on Cesar Chavez. During that time I was able to see them develop as artists while learning a whole lot from them both. Time passed and we moved to opposite sides of the country.
I started to think about the sculptures they made while we were neighbors and the new work I have seen since they’ve moved from Austin. What excites me about their work and its evolution is how both artists give movement and life to inanimate objects and spaces using sound and light and/or the suggestion of sound and light. They create sculpture that is not kinetic by nature, but avoids being still.
Then I was introduced to the work of Amy Yoes, a Houston-born NYC artist that was using light and image in a totally different way than Tim or Ezra. Alluding to the unseen or exposed, these three artists have a similar interest in creating experiential works that use different approaches to technology to activate objects and space.
How has your work changed since you completed the Studio Art MFA program? Ezra, you recently did a project at the Icebox Project Space that is similar to your thesis project. Tim, you were casting concrete speakers.
Ezra Masch: I started working with sound, specifically using musical instruments, while I was in graduate school at UT Austin. We were right across the street from the Butler School of Music, and I was always taking breaks to play piano in the practice rooms. At a certain point, I realized that I was spending more time at the piano than I was in studio, so I decided to bring music into my art practice. I developed the drum project for my final review. I wanted to create an immersive audio-visual experience that connected the instrument to the performance space and challenged the musician to play with light and space, as well as sound. The project has continued to grow since then.
Tim Schmidt: The biggest difference for me between the work in my MFA thesis — specifically Historic Façade — and my current work is scale. The scale of the current work is definitely limited by the size of my studio, which I also use as a fabrication shop. Some of the work in Ultraviolet was actually made in my apartment in Brooklyn before I got a studio.
Tell us about your work in Ultraviolet.
EM: My project at MASS Gallery is different from my recent project at the Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia. It uses pre-recorded sound from jet engines. (The idea grew out of a previous collaboration with Alex Braidwood, a sound artist who I met at a residency in Iowa.)
The projections show the movement of a material's surface caused by air from the speakers. There's a relationship between the air pressure of the engine, the air from the sound system, and the movement of the image. I designed a two-channel audio loop that shifts the activity of sound and light back and forth from one side of the room to the other. I will continue to work with musical instruments, but I am enjoying this other approach to the audio-visual experience as well.
TS: This new work is derived, at least in part, from the work that I was making at UT, in that I’m thinking about the energetic or even metaphysical qualities of architecture and materials. The speakers were more of a muting of that energy, like Han Solo stuck in carbonite.
If I had the space, I would still want to cast everything in concrete, but living within the Brooklyn allotment of space helps to calm that urge. I do have a car, but I’m still imagining hauling bags of concrete on the subway.
Ezra, after you finished the MFA program, you moved to Philadelphia. What informed your decision and how did it impact the work you were making?
EM: I grew up in Philadelphia. When I moved back, I did so to be closer to my family. But I have found that the art scene is really strong here too. At first I was doing custom woodwork in historic Philadelphia homes, and that really influenced my ideas at the time. I had joined an artist-run gallery space called Tiger Strikes Asteroid, and we were invited to create a project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
We produced an alternative audio guide to the museum, with a variety of sound-based projects by different gallery members. My contribution was a non-fiction narrative piece utilizing the museum grounds as a backdrop. It was a great experience to participate in this project, because it presented a challenge to try something new. It was also a way in which I could respond to being back home.
I’ve been involved in curating shows and exhibiting my own work at the gallery for a couple of years now. And I have been teaching at the Moore College of Art & Design as well. Philly has been good because there are lots of opportunities to show, and there's a really vibrant community of people doing exciting things.
Tim, how have you been spending your time since you left Austin and how has that informed your practice?
TS: I moved first to Chicago to be close to my family and got a job as a project manager for an architectural metal shop where I made a lot of very fancy things for very wealthy people, like shelf brackets that were $1000 a piece. When I took the job, I was a person that knew how to build things. When I quit after about a year, I was a legitimate metal worker.
Then I started my own business which began as an art-handling and crating business and became more of a design and fabrication shop. I made custom furniture and had some really good clients. I then moved to New York to work for an artist, which was a great experience, though I’m more comfortable working for myself, so a few months ago, I restarted my design/fabrication business.
I’ve also traveled to Vienna a couple of times, biked from Venice to Lubljana, Slovenia, rode bikes with a bluegrass band (and all of their instruments including upright bass) across Michigan and halfway back, and hiked the Andes in Peru.
Travel and design have always been influential to me, and now that I share a shop space with several designers, I am looking for ways to incorporate furniture and design into my practice as an artist. I used to compartmentalize art and design, but I’m becoming more and more intrigued with the place where the two meet. I’ve also been influenced by all of the things to do and see in New York and Chicago.
What was it like coming back to the Austin? Do you miss anything in particular?
EM: I miss my friends most of all. And the sunshine. And the food. I had such a good time on this recent visit, installing the show at MASS Gallery. Artist-run spaces are doing big things in Austin, and I'm so happy to be a part of it. My goal is to visit more often.
TS: Austin is a special place. I hope that I always have a community there, because I probably found more justification in being an artist there than I have felt anywhere else.
It is such a talented, supportive, and unpretentious community that is filled with people who create a rad art scene that wouldn't exist otherwise. Even with all of the changes that Austin and the university have gone through since I left, it still feels like home. I do wish I could have been there to take advantage of those new sculpture studios though.
Wed. April 29, 2015
Gloria Lee: It's been a long time! I will confess that I occasionally do check in on people via social media networks (yes, lame non-FB-embracer I am) and so I was really happy to learn of your move to New York and your design evolution these past five years. I last worked with you during your senior year, when you were working with both Donoho Designs and League of Technical Voters — both tech-oriented internships and rather radical for design students at the time.
How did your experience in the undergraduate program lead you to both those internships, and what relevancy does your experience as a student relate to your current position now?
Adrian Parsons: The program was really open to me following my curiosity and asking questions about the design of governments and constitutions. That investigation and research led me to discover the League of Technical Voters. I needed an internship to graduate, so I cold-emailed their founder and asked if they needed a designer. It was a slightly sneaky way to get involved in something I care about: "I'll make things pretty for you!" I ended up helping them create a coherent story about how they wanted the government to change — and I got to present it at SXSW, which was really cool!
One of my senior year projects involved designs for an iPhone app. The iPhone was really new at the time, but the design instructors were enthusiastic about integrating new technology and new kinds of interactions into our work. That project led me to working on an iPhone app at Donoho Design Group. When I moved to New York, the app we released at DDG served as a primary portfolio piece while I was job hunting.
One of the more useful things I learned as a student was how to work creatively with a group of people to solve a problem. I came out of school thinking everyone knew how to do this, but it's a rare and valuable skill. The critical thinking skills I developed and the ability to ask fundamental questions like: Why are we doing this? What are we trying to achieve? — are hugely important. In addition, the ability to see the possibilities in a situation — to look beyond the obvious and to question assumptions — is something I use every day. The mindset of embracing process over outcomes hasn't filtered into many communities and is one of the most important things I learned.
GL: Have there been any major changes or constants in your methods of practice over the years?
AP: I've really expanded my technical expertise (most of my day is now spent writing code). I love the problem solving aspect of it but also the power that comes with being able to build digital services from end to end. The creative potentials are endless.
From a design perspective, the thing that has surprised me about the workflow in startups is speed. We deploy changes to Meetup.com multiple times a day. We can iterate incredibly quickly. The other surprise is data, and how it informs the design process. We have 20 million users at Meetup, and about 1 million visitors to the site every day. We do a ton of split testing (A/B testing), and our design decisions are informed by patterns we see in these millions of interactions. It also makes testing very low-risk. If you have a crazy hunch that something would work better a different way, you can deploy it as a test to a few thousand users, get immediate feedback in the form of behavior and data, and iterate on it until you've confirmed or denied your theory.
GL: It sounds like you have found a really interesting way to start a 'side-project' with Orbital Boot Camp. Can you tell me more about your project, and also why you choose to go with Orbital — what was appealing (and different) about this think-tank/accelerator (I know, they really aren't an accelerator in the commercialization sense)?
Absolutely. We're not sure what to call it either. "Pre-accelerator" is somewhat accurate, but it's hard to pin down. I had heard of orbital through friends — but it was ultimately a blog post by Fred Wilson (co-founder of Union Square Ventures) that convinced me to apply.
Gary Chou, the founder of Orbital, is really well regarded in the tech community. He's friends with John Kolko of the Austin Center for Design and an advisor there. Gary teaches Entrepreneurial Design, an MFA course at SVA in New York. We share a lot of the same values, and his deep understanding of the intersection of design, technology, and entrepreneurship is compelling.
My project is called The Lazy Philanthropist, and its an easy way to donate regularly to nonprofits. I found myself wanting to donate regularly, but not knowing where to donate (and not wanting to do the research to find out). I also found the process of donating — especially in smaller amounts — unfulfilling. I assumed other people had the same desire, so I created a subscription donation service. I'm still developing it, but it's been a really fun project and I've learned a lot from it.
GL: Any advice you would give to the undergraduates in the Design program, and in particular to the seniors?
I never thought I'd say this, but it's been incredibly valuable to work in the business world, especially the technology sector. Partially because the landscape is shifting so quickly, but partially because the values and the working methods of the sector are so smart. You can have a lot of positive effect on people's lives and still make money.
Overall, I've had a lot of success working with people who are smarter than me. When I say smarter, I don't necessarily mean raw intelligence, but smarter in a particular skill or category. One of my colleagues at Meetup has an uncanny ability to distill difficult technical details down to important and actionable facts for engineers and non-engineers alike. Some people are incredibly good at conducting user interviews, motivating teams of people, generating press coverage, etc.
As far as overall career advice, I think it's important to understand and utilize your networks (and to facilitate new ones). You have a built-in network with the Design program, which will help a lot when you graduate (in New York, UT Austin Design alumni meet about once a month). Additionally, I went to a lot of tech Meetups when I lived in Austin and after I moved to New York. People I met at those events are still good friends, and have had a huge impact on my career. More than that, though, I've been able to find "my people", the people who care about the same things I do and who deal with the same problems. My network is great for my career, but it's even better for my creative growth.