Artist Stephanie Calvert transforms the world around her. For the past two years, she has made art with materials she’s found in her parents’ former home—an abandoned schoolhouse in rural Colorado once packed to the gills with stuff. She points out a box spring she found in the front yard, ancient cans she found in a pit in the back yard, rusted nails collected after a roof repair, salvaged wood from a section of the building (the gymnasium) that had collapsed. The work is beautiful and genuinely moving, even outside the context of her family’s story. But stories, context, frame everything we take in from and everything we put out into the world.
A few pieces from this series, “Shame to Pride,” will be on display May 21, from 6pm to midnight as a part of a one-night-only all-women show and fundraiser, Dissilience, at the DUMBO gallery Rabbithole. Proceeds will go to the nonprofit arts organization, A Free Bird, which provides art therapy to young people with cancer.
Calvert and I talked about her “Shame to Pride” series at Rabbithole. We both cried a couple times.
What’s the story behind this series?
When I was eleven, my parents bought an old schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere and we moved there, from San Diego to Colorado. It had been abandoned for years. My parents had the dream to fix it up and turn it into an artist’s retreat, but they just really didn’t have the means to do that. While I was living there, we didn’t have plumbing. There was limited electricity. Being really isolated out there, my mother—she had a little bit of the hoarding tendency before that, but being out there…
We also had a couple deaths of close family and friends and she brought truckloads of their stuff back. I didn’t invite anyone over. I had a very limited social life. I moved as soon as I could. I didn’t talk to my close friends about what it was like. I didn’t have people over for holidays or anything. I even tried not to be there for holidays.
In 2013 in the spring, my mother had this bicycle accident. It was very abrupt. She had severe brain damage. They thought she was going to die. The family all had to go out there. She was in a coma for a while. It was a very slow process of pulling out all the different tubes and slowly making progress. Now she’s in a coma, now she’s paralyzed, now she’s talking again, now she can eat solid foods. It was a very difficult time. My family all really stepped up to the plate. My sibling and I started making more trips to Colorado to support my dad.
That experience just brought everything up for me—where it’s like, I have to face this in a very real way. Facing the possible mortality of my mom, my parents getting older, you just never know—eventually one day we are all going to die. I started sharing my mom’s accident with my friends and that had me sharing more about my family. I started to get more comfortable talking about it. The reactions were more like, “Wow this is an amazing story. This tells me so much about why you are the way you are.”
At that point I didn’t feel very motivated or connected to it to the kind of work I had been making artistically. I thought it would be the perfect time to try something different. I could also use it as an emotional process to come to terms with everything, to work on my relationship with my mom and my family and myself. The building out there—my parents moved into the closest town after we left for college—was just sitting there empty. Empty of people, not empty of stuff. The time was now to deal with this physically and emotionally, to see what it would lead to artistically. I quit my job. I let go of my apartment. I went out there in August of 2014 and didn’t have a return flight. It’s been two summers of me going out there. Cleaning, sorting, making work, being alone, journaling, meditating. I split my time between being in the schoolhouse and at my parent’s house in town. I’ll spend a few days in the schoolhouse and then drive into town and shower and use the internet and take care of my mom—make sure my dad gets a break for a while—before I’ll go back out.
What does the schoolhouse look like now after two summers?
I’ve made an impact. When I first got there in 2014, I spent at least a week just cleaning. Clearing space so I could walk around and even have a space to create art in, even have a space to live in. I mean the kitchen was a disaster. There were dishes everywhere, there was stuff everywhere. When you first walk in the hallways, there’s boxes everywhere. I’ve been able to transform the space and physically clear it. It’s nice. My mom’s room was full of stuff and now I’m using it like a studio. I have wall space. I have workspace. In the entrance way I’ve put up these big columns that I found. I’ve been able to decorate with art or things that I find that I want to hang up. There’s still like, a lot. There are still a lot of areas that are completely untouched. There are whole rooms where I haven’t even opened up one box.
Is this a project you’ll continue? Will you keep going back to the schoolhouse?
I’ve gotten so much from doing this. Even talking to you about it right now—two years ago I wasn’t really talking about it, or if I was it was so uncomfortable. Just the sense of ease and freedom has been so worth it.
That sounds awesome.
It’s been incredible. Coming back to New York, I’m doing shows. Here is my work. I’m proud. I want to share this with people.
What was the strangest thing that you found?
I found quite a few envelopes of old haircuts, different haircuts she labels. Like my brother’s first haircut, I literally found an envelope labeled “Brian’s first haircut” with the date on it. So a lot of bags of hair. I think the pill capsules are strange. I found these jars of emptied out pill capsules. I think they were supplements she would empty out to absorb faster in a juice, and then kept the dirty empty gel capsules in jars in multiple parts of the house. Not even all together, jars in one room and then another jar in another room.
That’s really good.
Then I found all these empty Altoid tins, bags of them, and then more boxes of them tucked away elsewhere.
How is your mom doing right now?
It’s hard to answer. The accident was just over two years ago. She made a lot of progress in those two years, considering that she was paralyzed and in a coma. At this point she can walk, but she doesn’t walk much. She’s in a wheelchair most of the time. She needs 24-hour care. She confabulates, so she confuses memories with reality with something she sees. She’ll think it’s the 1980s in California. She’ll think she’s eight-years-old again. She’ll get confused about who people are. She’ll repeat conversations. “Oh I like what you’ve done with your hair! When did you do that?” It’s like, “Mom, I told you yesterday.” A lot of paranoia, mood swings—it’s hard to say how she is. She’s definitely never going to be the same. There’s irreparable damage. I mean they had to remove part of her skull for a long time to allow for the brain swelling. It’s kind of fascinating; they put it in her torso.
Oh so it would stay alive?
I try to be open to the possibility that she could improve more, but at this point it’s kind of plateaued. She won’t make more progress than she has already. A big part of this is accepting the reality. It’s been amazing to go through her things. I get this whole other view of her when she was young and vital and curious.
What was something you found of hers that showed you a different side of her?Pictures of her and my dad before they had kids, books on Eastern philosophy, different art postcards. It was also really wonderful to find that she held on to a lot of cards written by people in the family or cards that she herself had written. Love notes, really, between people in my family. It was really amazing to read cards that my dad had written her, that she wrote my dad. I found artwork that we had done growing up as kids that she had held on to, or written little notes on it like, “Keep it up, this is so amazing! I can’t wait to see what’s next.” I find those things and I feel very much in touch with that love.
How have your dad and your siblings reacted to this work?
They are very supportive. I could not ask for a better reaction from them, especially given all the articles coming out. It’s very personal. I’m so thankful. My sister has helped me with press releases. My brother has helped me take down a show. He flew out to New York to see that show. My dad helps me take out supplies to the building and has given me positive feedback. I think that they are just happy to see that I’m working on this and making progress artistically and emotionally. For my dad too, it’s like, I’ve been cleaning up the building. Every time I come back into town I have bags of trash to throw away—slowly making a dent in the stuff that will have to be dealt with eventually.
Your parents were also visual artists?
Yeah, they met in art school.
Some of the materials you used were your mother’s materials?
I found a bunch of different art supplies. Some of the fabric dye. Different paints, brushes. The charcoal. Fabric my mother sewed. All that fabric was there, everything. A lot of construction supplies too—my dad’s very handy.
All the papers from this piece and the triptych are from my mom’s room. There are literally boxes of papers, just all kinds of random stuff.
Can you think of any examples?
Like how to skin a rabbit, with a diagram.
Looks like a lot of stuff printed from online.
Yeah, a lot of online articles on Y2K or financial planning stuff or recipes. She used to be a Teamster so a lot of boxes of scripts from the TV shows she used to work on. Papers from my high school.
Watching the way your mom has held on to things, has that affected your relationship to objects or holding on or letting go to things?
It’s been helpful to be like, “Okay, I can let this go now.” I can hold on to the memory and let this object go. If there’s a mess around, I like to clean it up. I prefer to have more zen, open, feng shui spaces.
Do you see the way in which you are interacting with these materials changing?I’m more clear in terms of my message and how to use the materials aesthetically to get into that message. Honestly it’s been a huge break from my other artistic process. I was trained in oil painting, so it’s kind of like playtime. I’ve allowed myself complete exploration. I can work on multiple pieces at the same time. If I get frustrated with one thing I’ll find something else. It’s kind of like every day I see what’s inspiring to me. I really like working with the paper and I really like working with fabric. I’ve been leaning more towards making more abstract pieces.
What is your message?
There’s a few of them. The biggest message I want to portray is the power of shifting your perspective: showing how transformative it is to go into darkness with an intent to bring light to it. It’s also about trying to find the love in whatever it is that you are going through. I want to show that there’s some kind of value in that. You can get something out of it. It can be an opportunity.