Jill of All Trades: Stephanie Barber

Image from: baltimoresun.com

       A Jill of all trades, but a master of all, Stephanie Barber manages to weave her way through the arts of filmmaking, poetry, and music, intersecting and disjoining the three in her contemplative pieces. Similar to her artistic interests, her pieces are not monolithic in style visually or thematically, although she states that they are basic at their core, being works of either “sorrow, the everyday, or [something] funny.”[1]

What is monolithic, however, is her devotion to her art: “maybe I feel like it is ‘the good work’.  I am a religious fanatic without a religion . . . artwork is spiritual charity. Both internally and externally.”[2]

Her devotion and the intersecting of styles in her work create personal pieces, that although not about herself per se, reflect the intensity of her interaction with them. She is emphatically a lyrical filmmaker. Her development of interplay between the written (or spoken) word and the image is a specialty of her craft, and where she develops the interplay best, her pieces really shine. Barber has a special skill in utilizing her filmmaking and writing skills in creating a mood in her pieces, whether they are serious or more jovial.

And although a major part of her work is text-based, combining her skills as a writer and filmmaker, her curiosity and interest in photography also plays an enormous role in her work.

She has developed a keen sense of creating a story around a found image, which is something that has failed to be a focus in discussion of her work in other blogs, but is nevertheless astonishing in its quality. In “Dwarfs the Sea” especially, she manages to create entire lives around the men she delineates as crewmembers of a ship despite not knowing anything about the men that are subjects of the photos. She even creates a relationship between two of the sailors, their photos displayed side-by-side:


Image from: artslant.com

      These men were very close companions . . . certainly all meals and breaks were spent together. They seemed never to run out of things to talk about. They made each other laugh and their faces were lovely to watch when they were in conversation though it was evident they took delight in just sitting together and not speaking as well. Their friendship was unprecedented and seemed almost like a miracle in the large expansive seas and oceans.

To me, the men don’t appear that they would be friends at all from their appearances, but this is the magic of Barber’s writing; it almost seems that she chose this difficult pair in particular as a challenge, or maybe as a believable unlikely pair, and her writing creates the imagery beyond the images that are literally presented to the audience. Other times, her description somehow matches exactly how I would imagine the subject of the photo to be, and she is very talented in this respect as well. She mentioned that at one point she had several suitcases full of found photos that she eventually had to force herself to get rid of, which speaks to her fascination with found images as well as her experience with handling and contemplating them.

Barber is also fascinated with the connection of photos to memory. How is our memory shaped by photography, she asks. Why is it that we remember events better or solely upon the fact that they were photographed? Barber grapples with some interesting theoretical questions regarding photography and memory that are a highlight of some of her pieces.

Barber combines these elements of filmmaking, photography, and poetry well, and has even created her own music for some of her pieces. Perhaps because Barber is so interested in so many things, she says the world is too “watery,”[1] and that she has to create structure for herself. She did this most evidently with her recent project at the BMA, jhana and the rats of james olds or 31 days/31 videos, where she would create new videos every day at a studio in the BMA’s gallery, displaying a video from the previous day while she worked. What Barber had to say about her project gives a brief glimpse into her body of work as a whole:

      I am thinking about the emphasis given to product over production, or display over creation. The piece is a video screening and an installation and a performance–a spiritual obeisance, an athletic braggadocio, a consideration of marxist theories of production (with the assembly line so lovingly lit). It is a funny game for me to play, an exercise in concentration, discipline and focus, an extension of my everyday. It is a greedy desire to squeeze a massive amount of work out of myself; a dare; a show I would like to see myself. It is like the back story before the story, an inversion of the way we usually experience art work. A moving from the inside out. I was thinking how the interiors of museums are really only able to share what is almost the exterior of a piece of art work and though this colliding of the interior and exterior is fuzzya step towards the interior of any art piece might be the making of that piece. I’m interested in the tedious and repetitive qualities of meditation and art work, the difference and similarities in these two practices. The practice and work of these practices the dispelling of the so-seductive myth of artist as creating through a vague and florid explosion of inspirationor perhaps interested in romanticizing the effort and challenging technical, logistical, practical elements of creation. The tedious as IT. Or one of the ITs. Like all pieces of art, this project is accordion in its intentions, shrinking and expanding upon use.[3]

If you aren’t familiar with her work, check out her site at http://www.stephaniebarber.com/ to learn more.

[1] Artist Talk with Stephanie Barber, Johns Hopkins University, 3/28/12

[2] http://thehumanpyramid.blogspot.com/2010/10/stephanie-barber-eternal-


[3] http://www.stephaniebarber.com/#!__jhana



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