I rush to Steph Becker’s studio in between thunderstorms, on a Monday night in mid- June. Visiting Steph’s studio was refreshing, a result of the combination of cold beers and the direction our conversation took – discussing mutual observations of the problematic union of consumerism and art. In an over commercialized art world it is necessary to seek out artists with more humble motives, hence an interest we both have in folk and outsider art. The walls of her studio are plastered with large paintings replete with raw brushstrokes, and seemingly simple yet intimate representations of a menagerie of animals heavily layered with house paint in subdued pastels. We sit on the floor, using two un-stretched paintings as our picnic blanket.
Picnic: This is the first studio that I have not been to before, the other artists I’ve interviewed so far were people I had visited before. So I’m excited to come here and see your work in this environment, the studio environment is my favorite way to view it. The only time I’ve seen your work was in a group show at Calico Gallery and an installation at Desert Island. Granted it’s been about a year since I’ve seen your work- you’re working in a new medium, can you tell me what you’re working on & what we’re surrounded by?
Steph: The work I’m doing now is different from the stuff you’ve seen, the work at Calico was very small and detailed, more stressed over and more cramped. I wanted to do something different, bigger, less cramped and less stressing about it. I’ll do a drawing and then go over it and then think “is this good? I’m not sure” and re-do and re-do. So with these I wanted to do more immediate work and be okay with what I was doing, not stress about it.
Yeah, these are a lot looser and painterly than the work I’ve seen before… the little ones. It looks like you’re having fun with it, I saw on your Instagram you were drawing animals from memory, without using the internet?
Yeah that was part of it too, with the past little ones I was definitely looking on the internet and being on the computer a ton looking up animals. With these I didn’t know what to draw, so I just started drawing every animal that came to mind and not worrying about why I was drawing this… just what comes to mind. I like that style a lot, I’m really influenced by folk art. I’m attracted to art where it’s drawn, maybe not accurately, but it’s more interesting to see their interpretation of the animal. I think these might be closer to my interpretation of the animal rather than looking at the internet and trying to draw what it actually looks like. I’m not so worried about getting all of the features correct.
I like that, that approach of drawing from the internet is problematic too. You’re always drawing from someone else, whoever took the photo, so you’re relying on their interpretation, their lens. Which is funny to think about, even if it’s not a direct appropriation.
Yeah, maybe this is more getting to find my style, if you’re drawing from other people’s drawings or photographs, it’s not your style.
Do you like Bill Traylor? These remind me of his blacked out animal figures.
Yeah, I like him and David Shrigley, being able to not be very detailed but still be very interesting. I’m trying to make work more simplified but equally as interesting.
And on the unstretched canvas too, they feel very sculptural.
These works lead to wanting to do more 3D stuff, which lead to the rug works.
Coming back to the papier-mâché work, I’ve seen a few installations you’ve done, your 3D work seems equally influenced by sculpture as it does by illustration, combining the two. Did you go to school for sculpture or illustration?
I went for sculpture but ended up doing a lot of metal smith and jewelry work. I do like to make things more 3D, but this is more fun. There are lot of jewelrists who make art pieces but it still has to be wearable, and pretty, it has a lot of restraints to it.
You need someone to buy it.
Yeah someone has to want to wear it.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Mass Art in Boston.
Are you from Massachusetts?
I’m from Westport, which is an hour south of Boston, it’s a farmland / ocean mix, very country, it was a shock to move to Boston, and New York too is very urban.
I saw you hosted an event yesterday with your collective FPOAFM, who / what is FPOAFM?
It’s a collective, there are a lot of members, what it’s about would depend on who you’re talking to. The main thing we can all agree on is wanting to work with and make art with people we admire, but not having anything to do with money. Because if you want the work to be sellable it really changes the way that you’re making it… who’s going to appreciate it, you have to compromise a lot. If sales are in the back of your mind you change a lot stuff. I used to do the Brooklyn Flea two years ago, I found that it really changed the way I worked. There was stuff that sold really well, so then I would make more work that’s similar that people seem to like. People like whales – I guess I’ll make more whales and then your’e just drawing a lot of whales for no reason. So FPOAFM was a response to that, not having money be a driving motivator. It’s pretty depressing.
YEAH! If artists based their worth on monetary values 99% would not make art any more.
Yeah, just in life too, money shouldn’t be the goal, what makes you feel accomplished. In art, it’s weird, if someone buys your drawing you think it’s good, but that shouldn’t give you confidence as a human being that someone wants to pay you money, it’s a terrible measure.
With FPOAFM you have a lot of free art + activities. Yesterday at Braddock Park you were giving away free tiles and you did an event a while ago where you were giving away hand-made mugs and tea? I like that social aspect of it, that anti-commerce approach.
Yeah, it was the opposite of commerce, we invited other artists we like to contribute drawings and then we slip cast a bunch of cups, made their drawing into decals and put them on the cups. So it was very simple and fast. You didn’t have to worry if the drawings were sellable. Everyone was so happy to get something for free in New York, their minds were blown. It was very exciting. If you try to sell a bunch of cups, at the end of the day your soul is just crushed, even if you sell a lot it’s very depressing. People try to bargain you down, or ask weird questions. It’s very crushing. Where giving it away felt more like a gift, at the end of the day we were pumped rather than being exhausted. It’s weird, when you sell something to somebody in a weird way they’re strangely mad at you. When I was doing the flea market – a weird relationship is formed where you’re mad at them and they’re mad at you, it’s a weird anger thing, but when you give a gift everyone is closer.
When you’re selling something, especially a functional object and a piece of art, the average audience never realizes how much work went into it so you’re either pricing it too high and not selling it and you’re depressed, or you’re pricing it too low and you’re depressed.
Yeah and you’re angry at the person who bought it. It’s terrible.
And yesterday’s event you were giving away free tiles?
Yeah, that was more of a workshop, we had a bunch of clay donated from Ceramics Supply and we were working with Guttenberg Arts Center in New Jersey, they hosted us. We were giving workshops on how to make tiles and everyone was drawing on them. Everyone was really surprised that was free too, they were really suspicious. We’re going to fire it for them and then they can take it home. It was also nice working with other artists at Guttenberg Art Center, they were pumped that we wanted to work with them.
People were drawing their spirit animals?
We tried to get people to draw their spirit animals, but with a bunch of people they did what they wanted to do. People were very confused what their spirit animal was.
What’s your spirit animal?
I’m still searching for it. I think you’re not supposed to look for it, it’s supposed to find you. So i’m not sure.
Your work is heavily influenced by animals, nature, the landscape, and sea imagery, do you get to leave the city often?
Yeah, I try to, if I don’t I get very depressed or lost. I go to Massachusetts maybe once a month. I think about animals and try to hang out with animals a lot – to get out of consumerism again too. Just being in the city and being in Manhattan your self-worth and accomplishments are all related to money and even art. You can be an artist but if you’re not selling work, you’re not getting ahead, you’re not progressing. I think that going home or going to hang out with animals kind of puts you in a different mindset. It’s hard to imagine a world without consumerism but I think that being in nature helps you get an inkling of what it might be like. Even though it’s impossible to imagine, it gets you a little bit closer to that and resets you.
You’re from a farm town on the coast? What animals are you hanging out with there?
I would say my favorite animals that I have to visit every time is the goat farm, I love them. Maybe that’s my spirit animal, they’re just like so grumpy but very cute, just living their life. Goats and dogs, and farms where you can see cows and just going to the beach and seeing sea life which is totally a different world than New York.
In your older work I was seeing online there was a lot of sea imagery, it seems like you were a sea captain in a past life.
I go to the beach a lot. The sea stuff was always another interest in feats of strength, as a way to prove yourself or find a purpose in life. That’s always interested me, ocean life, whaling, or going out on sea voyages, a definite life purpose, a feat of strength. I’m interested in how you find a meaning or purpose that’s not related to religion. That seems like a good way, to go on really long voyages.
What led you to move to New York?
Everyone after art school moved here, all my friends, that was a big motivator. I love the country but it’s also terribly boring if you’re there all the time. That’s a definite struggle, I love it there, but I think I could also get very depressed.
Unless you own a goat farm.
Yeah, I think maybe now if I had a goat farm I might be OK.
Whose eyes are these?
The eye part of drawing the animals I usually do last, and it’s the hardest, it makes up the whole expression and the feeling of the animal. This was a study, drawing a lot of eyes to see the shape of them and how the pupils would change the expression without the face.
I love your palette, the muted pastels. Are you using house paint?
Mmmhmm, yeah that was another way to be less afraid to just draw it, less afraid of the materials I was using, because I feel like I’ll hesitate. I’ll have an idea and I’ll hesitate so a lot doesn’t get done because I’m thinking about it too much. This was a nice way to have a huge roll of canvas and some colors that I like and not have to worry if it turned out badly, it’s OK.
But they didn’t turn out badly!
You can just do a whole bunch and some will be good. There are a bunch of rejects I’m hiding.
Do you always work in a subdued palette?
Yeah, I think that’s influenced by my interest in folk art. It always has a subdued palette, I think because they have less color options? I really like Shaker furniture and art, they use this really good yellow that’s borderline awful, that I really like. They’re usually duller colors. It’s really something they thought of and weren’t looking at a lot of reference material so you can really learn or think more about the person who’s drawing it. It makes it a little bit weirder.
I like the naiveté of it too, the hand, the technique, where it’s not tied to some past art history or trying to improve upon it, or one-up anybody.
I feel this way when I’m drawing, if I’m struggling to get it right you can tell in the drawing, kids’ drawings are like that too, you see the struggle, the urge to get it down. A lot of scrimshaw art is like that too, because it’s so hard to do a good drawing on scrimshaw, it always looks like a painful drawing.
You can’t take those marks back! Do you feel the papier-mâché works you’re making are more precious because they’re more time consuming?
Yeah, it takes me a little longer to decide to make it because the process itself takes a lot longer. Where if I had an idea with the paintings I could just try out the idea immediately, and try it out a lot.
You made a lot of rugs though! Are these influenced by any style or culture of rugs?
Yeah, one of the main influences is that I work in Flatiron that has a ton of rug shops. I like the random colors and patterns together. We went to New Mexico and there were a ton of rug shops, all in a different style than what we have here which are typically Persian. I thought it was cool, the heritage behind them too, how different families will have different color schemes or different ornaments they’ll do on them. I like how rug shops are so overwhelming, all the colors get me panicky in a way, too excited.
It would be funny to have one of these in your house, in your living room under a coffee table, completely unbalanced and wonky.
Yeah, completely non-functional.
What are you using as the base for the papier-mâché?
Bundles of cardboard taped together and house paint.
Both your papier-mâché work and these paintings on canvas look texturally very textiley, not sure if that’s a word, but have you worked with textiles in other ways, either sculpturally or more passive sewing?
I haven’t really recently, but a huge thing for me growing up was that my grandma did a lot of quilting, and she would mail me samplers to cross stitch. I think that’s how I got into art, was making quilts. She would send me drawings that I would cross stitch over. My cousin made me a quilt this December, it’s so nice to have, I think of her everyday when I’m making the bed. So much work went into it.
Yeah, that’s what I like too about FPOAFM and the functional ceramics, getting to live with and use this object.
Yeah- I like our house a lot, it’s all hand-made stuff and stuff from friends. It’s so much nicer than having a Crate & Barrel bowl.
Except when your cat pushes a hand-made mug off the table, it’s more heartbreaking when it’s handmade.
That’s the problem, more pain. I feel like this beer is kind of strong, it’s giving me red cheeks.
Yeah I have no idea what’s in it, it’s a home-made beer someone brought to a party. Do you want more quiche or are you ready for dessert?
It’s an experiment, it’s a cherry oat bar, but it’s more of a crumble.
Cherry crisp is my favorite.
Well, I’m all out of questions! Last question, how is the food?
It’s good! I like the crusty bottom.