Stephanie Graham is an artist living and working in Chicago.
I’m interested in making work about subcultures, social class, relationships and Black America. I draw upon the stories of friends and strangers alike when creating staged imagery for my photography and video projects.
Interview with Stephanie Graham
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Stephanie! Can you talk about your introduction to art-making? Do you recall a specific moment when you first identified as an artist?
Oooh, this is a good question and hello to you btw :) Thanks for interviewing me and including me in all of this, it's really cool.
Okay so my intro to art making was grade school, little art projects where I wasn’t really that good, but looking back and seeing some of the things I created I wasn’t that bad, but I felt art was a struggle for me for sure. I remember feeling really bad about going to art class because I just was going to have a hard time. So fast forward to high school, I had to have an art credit to graduate, and I would go to some youth thing at my church, and this girl was sharing her photography (the work wasn’t that good honestly it was just snapshots of friends) but she was printing them in a dark room and developing film and telling us all about it, and I really liked what she was saying and the best thing abut what she was saying is that photography classes fulfilled art credits. I was overjoyed to hear that, it all just seemed interesting and filled a need, because all I knew was that I wasn’t a good artist and I was able to not take ANY art classes in junior high. I just didn’t want to be bad and struggle though a class again. So the next semester I enrolled in photography and really loved it. I like to say Jesus showed me photography and that was the start of my art career.
Now calling myself a artist, I only did that sometimes, so lets fast forward to the year of 2012. I had been out of college for seven years and working in the movie business, and even did a stint of working as a career advisor at a design school helping photography and design students find work and I was still making images but it slowed down a lot I don’t know why I was just scared to make stuff. It was paralyzing. I could go on about that, but the whole artist thing. So…. Creative Capital partnered with the Chicago Artist Coalition offering this weekend workshop for artists in the middle of nowhere in Champaign, Illinois. I applied for the weekend and was accepted into it, and thank God for that it was exactly what I needed. That weekend I met 25 other talented artist and we learned about strategic planing, fundraising, and promoting our work. It was amazing. I felt like I was in a episode of “The Wire” where all the drug dealers meet and talk about what’s going on in their communities, it was seriously like that, a big meeting of the minds.
So at the end of this workshop we all were going around and recapping the weekend giving our thought sand the great super great Erik L Petersen (omg I’m such a fan of this dude’s work) he made a comment that the weekend reminded him of how important it was to call himself a artist and how its a career/trade of value, and how much of a privilege to be a artist and share our talents and take those talents, and ideas seriously as we move through the world because what we do it important, and it was such a HELL YEAH MOMENT for me. Now if you were to ask him, he might not remember that to remember it that way, but it gave me pause I was like YES EFF ALL THESE STUDENTS AND DOING THINGS FOR OTHER PEOPLE, you can do for others and should of course. So yeah I started calling myself a artist for real for real after he made that statement. Its important I’m a mutha effin ARTIST!
What are the benefits of living and working as an artist in Chicago? Has the South Side in particular influenced your aesthetic?
Okay so I love the Southside, thats where most of my family is and I spend a lot of time there. Growing up I would go there and it was just so colorful and busy and so many different types of people. I cant explain it I just loved it and wanted to be there all the time. I’m from super suburbia and the color palette is cute but its not rich like the Southside is. The colors are so vibrant, its gives me goosebumps thinking about it. I love color.
Now because I spent so much time in my childhood and college years commuting to and from Chicago, I will tell you that its super duper important for me to live in Chicago. I’m over those long drives, I’m not knocking the suburbs or anything but for me, its what is best. I’ve done the whole many years in my car on the Metro (with no internet), paying for gas, train tickets. I’m good on that. My life is in Chicago, my family, my friends, my job, art people, its all here and it doesn’t take me to long to get to them. Living in the city around where everything and everyone is... its #selfcare LOL.
If anything my experience living in the ‘burbs and all the commuting has made me see that I can really go anywhere without tension. You wont hear the “omg you live so far, omg the show is sooo far” from me. Folks like to act as if Wilmette, Evanston, Roseland, HydePark its all so far away. I don’t believe that, hop in your car and get to riding. Make it happen, get out there.
What is a typical day in the studio like for you? Is your process more rooted in planning and routine or spontaneity?
So my studio day starts at night after I get home from my day gig. I can sometimes find time to get a email in here and there, take a call or resize a quick photo but for the most part my studio day is studio nights and weekends, lol.
But, its a mix of planning, spontaneity and routine. So I have set days for certain things in my practice like Mondays and Saturdays I do podcast stuff, Wednesdays instead of eating lunch with co-workers I might spend time to research exhibition opportunities or try to get studio meetings or schedule meetings or hangouts with people. Tuesdays is $$ stuff, things like that. Filmmaking and the way I do my photography has lots of planning to it, I work on getting all that set up so that I can film or take pictures in scheduled time. Batch it up, if that makes sense, its very hurry and wait. If I have a certain theme or idea I want to film or shoot I try to batch that into as many consecutive days as I can. With my new project Love You Bro I’ve been photographing men that had been best friends for a long time and I had a particular setup in mind, so I tried to schedule as many subjects as I could to photograph over the weekend. Its just a easier way to work, that way I can set everything up once and then take everything down once.
I know you have a background in film. What films or filmmakers have left a lasting impact on you?
Man, I love all sorts of films even Lifetime movies, lol. But my two go to films are Brooklyn by Spike Lee. Its just a good ole summer time of foolishness and I love that film, my mom took me to see that in the theater. The other is Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimous its about this girl becoming a concubine its so good, and its beautiful. I love that film.
Is there an explicit relationship between your video work and photos? Why have you chosen photography as a primary vehicle of expression?
You know at first I would say I was a photographer because I can’t draw and then drop the mic. This is true though I am not good at drawing I’ve gotten better but there is a great room for improvement, its just not my strong suit AT ALL. I believe that the mediums of film and photo are best for me because it is the most literal way for me to share my ideas and thoughts. You can be more experimental with film and photography, sure, but what you see is what you get with photography. To me its black and white, I don’t want to confuse anyone about what I’m making. I’m a photographer because I don’t know how to draw. Period. If I didn’t have photography I wouldn’t have art. It was the easiest way for me to get involved in the arts. I want to draw and paint though, I would love to learn that. Maybe one day, but I love photography and video, its so much fun.
What is the significance of your shooting locations and how do you choose these specific environments?
Its a mix of things. I like to keep things simple even when its complex so a lot of times it just out of what is easier, in terms of proximity to shooting locations, where my subjects are located and things like that. Other times its places that I remember and when I think of something I’m like oooh this would look good here. Sometimes right at the beginning of a project I have a idea in mind and then I look for what I saw in my mind.
You often pair humor with complex content that challenges our understanding of black identity, gender, social class, and relationships. In what ways do humor and self-portraiture inform meaning in your work?
Okay you are really bringing it with the questions, these are great and really making me think.
Okay so I grew up knowing, loving and obsessing over the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Cindy Sherman and Anthony Giocleoa, so their influence is there, they are great. I want to be just like them.
The use of humor comes very natural to me. I don’t really sit and think “ooh how can I make this funny, or here is the punchline”. I laugh all the time about something and call things stupid while laughing, its just who I am.
These days everyone is a political analyst and social commenter, “Mister/Misses Do-Good Pants” out here. I’m over that, its very annoying. I think its common sense that everyone should be treated equal. Duh thats what God wants. Duh! So when people stray from that give me a break, and even worse is hypocrites. I cant stand that. Even though everyone is a hypocrite. So its good to make work that shows folks being silly. Like everyone needs to get over themselves. Its my hope with my work that I make people say “oh yeah? this is another way to look at it, I am being silly, let me change this right now and get it together.”
As far as me using myself in my work, I’m still not sure why I’m drawn to using myself for some projects. I think its a lot of things. Sometimes its actually my stories, other times I want to try something new, its easier to use myself and I like the challenge of trying something new. I’m starting now to see myself more a performance artist than I did before especially with my project stephtalksproper who is a rapper that is interested in becoming a rapper only so she can be famous and have Instagram likes. I used to think performance art was so weird, but now that I’m being more open to it, its not so weird, or maybe I’m just weird. Its both. LOL.
What narratives inspire the characters you portray in photos? Are there always elements of your personal experience being translated? When and why did it become necessary for you to assume multiple identities within one image?
Okay so this question is probably directly about my Fella project right? These stories were mine talking about past relationships, it wouldn’t have worked for me to have someone else, its not funny then. I also wouldn’t want to help someone recreate their own past relationships. Me telling the story exactly how I remember it, is a part of the work. So, me playing a guy I used to date—thats funny.
My friend and artist Lyn Basa tells me “you make these carbon copies of yourself as different people”. I thought that was funny. Maybe me being an only child has something to do with it.
Can you talk more in-depth about the Selected Black Experience Council and your intentions behind initiating this project?
YES, everyone wants to be black. Black people rule the world, all that we do and are is what the world wants to be. Now, one thing I hate about this is that black folks are always calling someone else black. Bill Clinton is black, Teena Marie is black, anyone with soul, swag more than three black friends black folks will say “aww girl she might as well be black she one of us, she pass.” I hate that because everyone has their own criteria for whom they decide gets a black pass. My organization, the SBE, we have the final say of who does and does not get a black pass.
Big example where I can illustrate this. The N word. Only black people can say that word, if you’re not black and you say this word your out of order, okay. That’s the rule. PERIOD. NOW this rule can be bent depending on what black person you are around when non-black folks decide they want to use the N word.
So.. I’m at my friend Tiffany’s salon getting my hair done she had a client there, and her client was telling me how her brother had a baby with this white chick, Tiffany’s client and this white girl all their kids are outside playing and the white girl says to all the black kids and her mixed race baby “hey little n-words time to eat”. Tiffany's client was okay with this. I was not and spent the next two hours talking to her about it. This shit happens often. I was like, fine, since black folks want to allow folks into the race by letting them slide with dumb stuff like this, I’m going to create a council who will create a framework around this, because there is no way to stop it but maybe there is a way to manage it. Also all the white people that want to be black they can now, but they have to be nominated and approved. I’m trying to streamline all this “yeah she get a black pass stuff”. Thats the main service of the SBE
Its a silly idea because black folks aren’t monolith, people are going to do what they want to do, and you have to be born with the beautiful privilege of being black. Sorry Charlie its not for everyone. I want people to stop allowing people to get away with dumb stuff. So the project looks at the idea of who wants to be black, why you want to be accepted into the black race so much and how to be a ally, if you can actually be a ally.
Find out more about SBE and watch the video here.
You often collaborate with others, whether it has been in seeking out the stories of women from diverse backgrounds for So This One Guy or working with artist Maya Mackrandilal for the #NewGlobalMatriarchy project. What role does collaboration play in your overall practice and how has this evolved over time?
A goal for my work is that we as human beings learn to treat each other with the dignity, and that no matter where we are and where we come from we all share similar experiences that we can relate to, and this is very much the case with So This One Guy. All ladies can tell a story of a crazy dude regardless of your background. Women being vulnerable to share those stories with not just me but everyone thats awesome, I’m thankful they are down to do it. I treat those film days as light social activities at my home where women just so happen to be at my home sharing stories.
I like to work with other people, its cool to have a crew, someone that has your back you have a shared goal. Everyone should be in a crew or two, or three. It pushes you to think out of you own comfort zone when you work with others, because to me you have committed to meet your mind with theirs, and that take compromise and sacrifice. When Maya and I worked together I had never created a character who didn’t really seem like a extension of myself, but I did do that with #newglobalmatriarchy I become a whole other person. I enjoy that, I like doing new things and challenging my own creativity. I love what Maya and I do.
I hope to collaborate with more people in the future, I’m always down to talk about projects and work on stuff. You know how Missy Elliot would work with almost anyone. I like that, I want to create everything for everyone.
See more of the #newglobalmatriarchy project here.
I know you were selected for a Chicago Artist Coalition HATCH Residency a few years ago. How did this experience impact the work you produced or shift your perspective during the residency? And after?
It changed everything when I was accepted into HATCH. I applied two or three times before being accepted. Jaxon Pallas was my curator, I tell people he discovered me, he’s like my Tommy Motala you know minus the dating thing. Its important to note here, that if you don’t get accepted into something, keep trying. I kept applying over and over to HATCH.
Before HATCH I was just a photographer, filmmaker—now I call myself a multidisciplinary artist. but film and photography are my heart especially photography. Since HATCH I’ve gone on to to create installations, sculptures, and performance , pieces and even film programming. It has expanded my world and I am open many mediums that I think makes my projects stronger.
Can you talk about the legacy of Pelle Pelle leather jackets?
So these jackets along with brands like Avirex, Davouchi use to be super popular, celebrities would wear them, drug dealers, anyone that wanted to floss. The jackets ooze money they are beautiful with fur, leather, rhinestones, nothing understated. If you want to be seen you wear Pelle. The popularity has greatly died down but they still hold their value and Pelle still makes jackets. Somewhere the popularity died on them and at least in Chicago, with conversations I have with people they have this “has been” attitude. Which is weird because they are still super expensive, still beautiful and still have their own cult following. Its strange and I don’t get it. The owners behind the jacket is interesting also, but thats a whole other conversation you might not have time for. I wanted to highlight the people that still loved these jackets
What are some sources of inspiration for you that others might find surprising?
Reality TV. Its so good. Talking to people at the gas station while we wait for our pumps to start
Who are some contemporary artists you’re excited about right now? What qualities do you tend to be most drawn to or admire in other artists’ work?
Ooh I’m never good at these type of ‘who in particular’ questions because I am a fan of so many. I love me some Amanda Williams, I’m a huge fan. I really dig Amanda Williams, the house project painting those house all those relatable black colors. I love that, and its super accessible, I could just drive in Englewood and BOOM there is the house. So smart. I like how accessible that work is or was, as I’m not sure if any of them are still standing. She’s moved on from that work but still lectures about it and I like following her on Instagram.
I also LOVE Miranda July. I’m into artists that do lots of different things, and she is that for me, do you know her? I want to meet her.
Alex Bradley Cohen is cool, his work looks like you could draw it but you can’t. You can’t draw what he does, I like the colors of his stuff.
I really really like the business model that Ashley Longshore has going for herself she is all about keeping her coins and no gallery systems I think thats interesting.
I also enjoy Rashayla Marie Brown, Mickalene Thomas, Cassie Tompkins, so many.
DGainz is a music video director who consistently churns out work and I love to see that. All the videos are so different and fit the personality of the artist.
The qualities I love are:
People who sell their work to the masses with limited editions, or accessible work.
Artists who do many things at once. that I enjoy seeing in artists is people who are doing many things at once. Thats how I roll so I like seeing people who to do many things, because its easier for people to put you in a box by what you do. I hear it all the time people wondering if I’m a photographer, filmmaker or artist. I personally see all these things as the same but not everyone does. So when I see people that do many things.. it makes me feel good and encourages me to keep going. You can do whatever you want. It’s your world baby.
I also love artists that put great care and time into the pieces they make. I have been in residencies where a artist might not be able to complete the residency and they will just throw a piece together, I think thats rude. If you don’t have time to make a effort, then what are you doing? Don’t waste the time of your guests, fans, patrons, artists anyone but just doing something for the sake of doing it. I hate that.
Tell us about the Nosey AF podcast. Where can we find it?
Ooh okay so thanks for asking about this, I've been a podcast for the longest time, I stared thinking I would do it with my project "So This One Guy" and I even recorded some interviews for it. I stopped that though because it just became to big of a project, it was audio AND video and I was doing it all myself, so in order to simplify my workflow I made that project video only and just didn’t do a podcast at all and it sat in the back of mind.
I really wanted a way for me to be able to extend the conversations I was having around topics I was thinking about as well as produce something consistent to keep my name out there. I love talking to people, hearing stories, learning about subcultures, these are foundations for the work I create. I went back and forth about how/what I should create be it a YouTube channel or podcast. I love podcasts and I had sound equipment so here I am. I launched noseyAF in April and its everywhere you can find podcasts for the most part Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music/Podcast, Stitcher, iHeart Radio and Spotify. The podcast is talking to people about things they are into and they are kind enough to allow me to ask them anything in a safe space. They know I don’t mean any harm I’m just genuinely curious about say. If a Hebrew Israelite will date a girl with a weave, or what’s it like to be Mexican in the 90s or how do you make prosthetic hands for under $50. I also use the podcast as a space to just talk about the ongoings and behind the scenes of my art practice. Its hard work to create something consistent because I don’t want to give anyone crap, that would be the worst thing to waste my listeners time. So far I’m enjoying it. I’m at episode 23, and I have new episodes on Mondays.
Listen to the Nosey AF podcast here or anywhere you find podcasts.
What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I don’t read. I need to, I will read blog posts and maybe a Medium article here and there but I am not a reader. I do have this book "The Hollywood Commandments" by Devon Franklin, which is great so far, I just don’t read it a lot. I read when I need to sit in places for a long time, like getting my oil changed or I'm getting a pedicure, taking someone to the doctor things like that. Now when it comes to what I am WATCHING, OMG its reality TV ALL DAY BABY! LOL , I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Real Housewives, I watch all the franchises, its so silly and fun. I love it, I can talk about any character at any time. Also lately I have been into this 90-Day Finance show, what a crazy ass show! Folks finding love overseas then going to be with them for 90 days to see if they want to be married, its so silly! These people are real going through that most wildest thing in life and I just sit on my couch eating it all up! Its so good LOL. I listen to a lot of instrumentals, people talk around me all day and I talk all day. Its nice to just drive in silence with good beats.
What are some of your interests or hobbies outside of art?
Art is my hobby. I know that sounds super Hollywood, like I’m Andy Warhol with my sunglasses saying with my nose up "Art is my hobby" LOL but it so is. I can brainstorm ideas, strategize projects with you, email someone to see what they are working on and its all fun to me. I'm looking for a hobby though, I have a mentor that suggested I find one. I think I will take some dance classes because I do love to dance. That will be my hobby. I love Real Housewives and chilling with my family and friends.
What are you currently working on? Do you have any upcoming projects, residencies, or exhibitions?
I currently have an exhibition at boundary called stephtalksproper:journey of a rap star. This is about an amateur rapper and its mixed media, this show runs through November 3rd.
October 25th my exhibition “Love You Bro” at the University of Illinois Springfield opens, this is about black men that are best friends. Is all photography and one video created by artist Nathan Wright IV.
Thanks so much for talking with us!
Thanks for wanting to talk to me!