Spotlight Project: Featuring Emily Stergar

Spotlight Project

The Spotlight Project, created and curated by Michael Hopkins, brings attention to artists who might be known locally or regionally but deserve to be seen by a much larger audience. Each post will feature an artist that you may not know, but should.

Michael Hopkins: When was the exact moment you realized you were going to be an artist?

Emily Stergar: There was never an exact moment for me. I was always painting or drawing some silly cartoon faces. I was constantly helping my dad build something around the house or barn. I followed him around wanting to learn how he fixed things or changed a tire. I was interested in knowing how to build or do things with your hands. When I graduated High School, I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I thought 18 was too young to have to decide that. My father just looked at me when I told him this and said, “Why aren’t you going to art school?” It was then I realized I could have a career as an artist. My parents thought I would learn to be a designer, but I had alternate plans. When I stepped into my first sculpture class, I knew this was where I was supposed to be. I didn’t care about how I was going to earn a living. I was happy doing what I wanted, and I knew everything else would follow.

MH: The Stack series seems to be influenced by Brancusi’s sculptures. Did his work play a role in the creation of the series, if not, what was the impetus for the series?

Emily Stergar Stack VIStack VI, 39” x 12” x 26”, wood, styrofoam, aluminum, 2016

ES: I can see where Brancusi’s work would be an influence for this series, but I hadn’t really thought about that until recently. When I started making this series, I was considering how elements or materials are combined. For me, this translated into layers or a more physical term, stacks. The process has been more of an intuitive one where material, weight, balance, and juxtaposition have guided my decision making process.

The stacks are an organization of materials and objects into an understandable and orderly pile. The piles refer to the layers of the earth, but also to the materials obtained, whether they are found or are man-made. They are elements that are palpably seen and unseen in the spaces of earth we occupy. I have been interested in the balancing of these components. The ability to physically and conceptually create a sense of grounding for myself and the viewer.

MH: The sculpture Stack II is made with steel, cast aluminum, and cast dirt. I am not familiar with the technique of cast dirt; could you tell me more about it?

Emily Stergar Stack IIStack II, 8” x 3” x 16”, steel, cast dirt, cast aluminum, 2015

ES: Cast dirt is similar in approach and concept of rammed earth. Rammed earth is an ancient building method seen across the globe the construction of homes. These homes are very sustainable and durable. It’s also an extremely labor intensive process, even when utilizing tools and machinery. I have taken the idea of this and applied the method to building my forms. I call it cast because I build flasks to give the dirt/earth specific shapes-very much like casting into a mold. I’ll begin with mixing the dirt with cement and water and then pour or shovel it into the form. Tamping or ramming the dirt down becomes extremely important. To build a more solid and stable form, the dirt must be compressed and compacted. In the past, I have used a pneumatic tamper, but I mostly ram it by hand with 2×4’s or a tamper (a metal square attached to a wooden pole).

Now, depending on what I’m after, I’ll change the variables. I experiment with how much I ram the dirt. Sometimes, I’ll ram it until it becomes smooth, and other times I’ll ram it to give a crater or roughness. I also experiment with the recipe. I have seen several different recipes that incorporate lime, plaster, concrete, etc., but I will typically use dirt, cement, and acrylic glue. I will add in rock, vermiculite, and ball clay. I also play with the amounts of what I add. In doing this, it will give the forms “layers”.

Once they are cast, I’ll demold them 24-36 hours later. Then, they cure. How long depends on the weather. Right now, it’s taking over a week for the forms I cast to completely dry out. Last fall it was less than a week.

MH: To me, outdoor sculptures rarely seem to work. Too often they try to reach and even pander to a large audience that they lose most if not all of their impact. How do you avoid this?

Emily Stergar DredgeDredge/Building Blocks, public art installation, Paramount School of Excellence, Indianapolis, IN, cast earth, steel, 2016

ES: Good question, Michael. I think it’s always a challenge to convey your ideas to a large audience. On one hand, you have to be true to your idea and your vision. On the other, consideration of who your viewer is and the location of the piece, is crucial to its success. But, even if the work panders to an audience or is conceptually inaccessible, the beauty of public work is that it’s available to everyone. It has the potential to reach people who would never find themselves in a museum or gallery. For instance, a work I recently installed is located at a school in a not so affluent part of the city. The school grounds have been made open to the public, allowing not only the students but also the community to come and enjoy the sculptures without having to travel or have a historical knowledge of art. They can simply have a raw reaction to the work that is purely their own.

MH: Your sculpture Bank addresses the water situation involving California, Arizona and Nevada. California is now desalinating ocean water to alleviate its water shortage problem. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant claims that, “The remaining water, 50 mgd of seawater with an elevated salt content is returned to the discharge channel where it is diluted with additional seawater prior to being discharged to the ocean. This ensures that the increased salinity will not impact the marine organisms in the vicinity of the discharge channel.” Do you feel this process will have no impact on marine organisms?

Emily Stergar BankBank, installation, 15’x7’x3′, wood, foam, audio, 2012

ES: No, I think the process will have a definite impact on the marine organisms. The question is will the benefit outweigh the negative?

Brine, which is that salty water byproduct, is generally twice as salinized as the rest of the ocean water. It’s also much denser, and subsequently drops to the ocean floor. The brine plumes then spread along the floor and dilution depends on the wave current, which tends to be less at the bottom. This can wreak havoc on the marine environment. Carlsbad is utilizing an “in-plant dilution” where the brine is mixed with seawater and discharged back into the channel. The problem comes with both obtaining the water and its reemergence. The intake is slow at a fish’s pace, but it will still draw in other marine life like fish eggs and plankton, and the discharge will still be of a higher salt concentration than that of the ocean. While this is better than a direct withdrawal and release, it’s far from the best solution.

The Carlsbad Desalination Plant is estimated to produce 7% of San Diego County’s water, with a portion of that planned to be stored in San Vincent Reservoir. This may allow relief to the county’s water restrictions. I wonder if this is premature. I believe that conservation is essential. With the continual population growth and reoccurring droughts, how many “fixes” for the present will we need to make? And what long–term affects will those “fixes” have on our environment and resources?

MH: Specifically, how does your sculpture, Mars: New Frontier relate to Mars and the exploration of Mars?

Emily Stergar Mars New FrontierMars: New Frontier, 26” x 12” x 26”, cast aluminum, steel, magnifying glass, light, 2015

ES: Well, I can only imagine that a lot of studies will have to be made when a space vehicle reaches mars. We’ll have to analyze specimens to see what qualities they have. Can we grow plants in the soil? What sorts of materials can be found? Can they be utilized on a daily basis, and how do these materials benefit us here on earth?

Mars: New Frontier is a magnifying glass that looks specifically at a cast rock. The cast rock represents the Mars landscape. When looking through the magnifying lens, the viewer has the opportunity to further investigate the surface of the rock below. The magnifying glass also shortens the distance of view just as it would under scientific inspection. We are able to inspect this just as we will inspect the Mars landscape.

MH: Space X has claimed that it can transport people to Mars by 2026-2030; do you think this is possible?

ES: Yeah, I think it’s ambitious, but completely possible. If they start sending missions to Mars beginning in 2018 and every two years after, with all going according to plan…I think they’ll do it. And even if it’s not by 2030, I think someone will definitely make it to Mars. We’ve set our sights on it, just like we did with the Moon, which was thought once to be impossible.

MH: You talked about Indianapolis galleries looking at unsolicited proposals; can you be more specific on this, i.e., names of galleries?

ES: There is one in particular that I was thinking directly about, Gallery 924. It’s a part of the Indy Arts Council, but they only accept local Indianapolis artists.

Also, there is a really great space in Fountain Square that’s part of the Wheeler Arts Center. It’s a bare space that’s great for installations. The owners don’t mind what you do with the space, and it’s currently free to use. I was curated into a four person show there last May.

Another place is Indy Indie. It’s an artist colony with a gallery on the first floor. The space is okay, but they get a good turnout for their First Friday shows. A lot of my students show here.

Additionally, there is the Indianapolis Arts Center and surprisingly the Indianapolis Airport.

Emily Stergar DredgeDredge/Building Blocks, public art installation, Paramount School of Excellence, Indianapolis, IN, cast earth, steel, 2016

MH: What glass ceilings still exist for women artists?

ES: I would like to think there isn’t one. I would like to think that success is derived from persistence, dedication, and the quality of work you make. I would like to believe that we set our own glass ceiling. Here in the States, I think there is more effort for equality. Our “ceiling” can be where we want it to be. But, I do not think this is the case in other parts of the world, where women are not afforded the same rights I receive. So yes, the glass ceiling is very much in existence.

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More on Emily’s work here.
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Michael Hopkins is a writer and artist who makes drawings, paintings, and sculptures. He has work in numerous museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago. He has work in numerous corporate art collections including the Progressive Collection and the Wellcome Trust Collection in London, England. He is a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient. michaelhopkinsdrawings.com