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WMA Artist Interview with Karen Stentaford

The exhibition Path of Entry was to have opened at WMA this spring, but due to the temporary closure of the museum, it was postponed until next year. The group show, featuring artists from around the world and guest curated by Chintia Kirana, was inspired by the poem “Remember” by U.S. poet laureate Jo Harjo, and features work dealing with the environment, the process of reflection, and remembering.

Below is a short interview with Path of Entry artist Karen Stentaford. Be sure to check out her takeover of WMA’s Instagram account on June 11, and others from the Path of Entry artists from May 21-June 25.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, and where do you live and work now? 

Much of my childhood was spent on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland before moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia as a teenager. I currently live in Sackville, New Brunswick where, in addition to being an artist, I also hold the position of Assistant Professor in photography at Mount Allison University. I love being outside – especially long walks with our dog, sewing (re-making and making clothes) and more recently roasting coffee.

How would you describe your artistic practice? What medium(s) do you work with principally?

My work deals with sense of place, memory, absence and community that I explore through the everyday, built environment, landscape, still life and more recently, through portraiture. Since 2009, much of my work has been made in Scotland, Newfoundland and remote areas of Iceland. I am continuously drawn to coastal areas, islands, barren landscapes and the accompanying vernacular architecture of these locations.

I primarily work in photography and light sensitive processes. I employ a range of cameras: from handmade pinhole, digital and plastic film cameras to an 11×14” view camera in both black and white and colour. In 2012 I studied the wet plate collodion process at Scully & Osterman studio. What started out as learning the process for the body of work raw wool, working with wet plate collodion has now become integral to much of my work.

How did you get involved with the Path of Entry exhibition? Tell us about the work you’ve contributed and how it relates to the central themes of the show.

Last May (2019) I had a one-month artist in residency at Vermont Studio Center (VSC) where I met Chintia Kirana who invited me to be part of the exhibition. I began the work included in Path of Entry while at VSC and finished it this spring here in Canada.

Living in Atlantic Canada offers the experience of four, extreme seasons. While many people prefer the warmer seasons, I am comforted by the cold. Each spring I find myself wanting to extend the winter, searching for and excited by every little patch of snow that is somehow surviving in the shadows of the landscape. Snow is an attempt to preserve the impermanence of the changing climate. Each of these cameraless images is a direct record of working on-site, selecting handfuls of snow and placing them on a light sensitive piece of metal, preserving them through silver and light. Working this way facilitates a deeper connection to the landscape. I slow down and become more aware of the components that make up our environment.

What do you do to find inspiration for your work? 

I find inspiration from many different aspects of life and usually have a number of different projects on the go. Work is accumulative, so if I work every day, even little amounts, it adds up.

I love lists, making lists of things that I’m thinking about or want to work on in the future. Sometimes I will make very vague lists before I go out and work as a kind of framework or starting point. For example, last year while at Vermont Studio Center, some of the items on my list were; quiet moments, unnoticed bits, snow, evidence, piles and connection. So perhaps it’s best to give you a list to answer this question.

  • In between spaces
  • Off season
  • Cold
  • Light
  • Emptiness
  • Community
  • Repetition
  • Constancy of change
  • Revisiting
  • Built environment
  • Time
  • Teaching & learning
  • Reflection
  • Interactions with everyday environment
  • Objects
  • Alchemy
  • Family
  • Memory
  • History
  • Curiosity
  • What happens if…

What have you been doing to stay inspired during these times of social isolation? 

When the shutdown initially began, I was still teaching with about a month left of the term. We went from so much in-person contact time, to quickly doing everything from a distance, online. It was a major shift that required a lot of energy to maintain a positive and meaningful learning experience. Since the end of the term, I have been spending time planning for next year, which will also look quite different from previous years. I’m looking at this situation as an opportunity to try out new ideas and ways of working with my students.

I have been using this time to revisit the work I made last year in Vermont. Looking at contact sheets, plates (tintypes and glass negatives), digital images, Polaroids and notes to edit into a number of series. Some of which will stand alone, and others that fit into existing, more long-term bodies of work or explorations. I have, and continue to really value that time of reflection.

Tracking light around our house has also brought inspiration. Really paying attention to how it moves throughout the space each day and photographing it. This act and response is beginning to develop into a series of light in my immediate environment while acting as a kind of documentation of this time. Another project I have started is making a book on our dog, Jack who I photograph daily (#JackTheSpottedDog). Right now, I am still going through the digital stack of images of him, trying to get it down to 100 images that I’ll further edit to 52 for the book.

In addition to working in the studio, I have taken advantage of virtual artist talks, webinars and online courses. One talk that stands out as inspiring was by Aline Smithson on staying creative in the time of self-quarantine focusing on the importance of play in the studio. Most recently, I did a course on making Anthotypes taught by Brittonie Fletcher through Penumbra Foundation. The class was so much of fun. We made images by coating paper with spinach, turmeric and beets – exposed with a negative to the sun’s UV rays – rendering images with mixed results. I will continue to make more anthotypes over the summer months and experiment with the kinds of possible coatings and toning.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your schedule for the upcoming year? What’s next for you?

One of the major changes was this exhibition at the Wiregrass Museum of Art being rescheduled for next year. I’m excited that rescheduling was an option, as I’m really looking forward to seeing, in person the museum and how Chintia’s vision for Path of Entry comes together. In August, I was supposed to be heading to Tilting, Fogo Island, Newfoundland for an artist in residency for the month, which has also, thankfully, been rescheduled for next year. I have a week-long residency at Fundy National Park at the end of July. I am still unsure if that will be possible, but I am hopeful it will work out.

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