Local Artist, and 2019 Annual Juried Show first place prize winner, Theresa Wells Stifel, was scheduled to have her solo show in our gallery during the month of May. However, with the spread of COVID-19, her show, like so many others, was cancelled. Theresa has had to adapt and change, releasing her May show online and, we are excited to announce, she is currently creating a new body of work to be shown at Arts on Main this September.
We reached out to Theresa to get some background on her recently released online show, get a glimpse of her process, and her incredible studio space!
AoM: How did the concept for this body of work come about? Was there one particular thing that sparked the idea or did it just unfold painting by painting?
TWS: My current show, that was slated to be at Arts on Main in May of 2020, is titled “Nerida”. Nerida is a name derived from the Nereids, or sea nymphs, that were referenced in Greek mythology. I have always been a beach lover, having lived in California and Bermuda when I was young. Even as I lived in Northern Virginia our family’s happy place was at the beach, usually the Delaware shore. When we moved to Gloucester County, a couple of years ago, we were mesmerized by the water views everywhere. Not surprisingly, I have been painting more of the blues I see out my window every day! The women in this show are inspired mostly by photos I have seen or have been shared with me. As you can tell, from their not- terribly-modern-attire, vintage style is always an inspiration to me.
AoM: Your work involves a lot of layering and the combining of a variety of media. Can you tell us a little bit about your process and how it developed?
TWS: I revere the craftsmanship, intricacy, and beauty of bygone fabric, vintage fashion and notions. I used to do a lot of sewing so I would haunt flea markets and thrift stores for damaged old goods that I could refashion into something.
Being able to integrate them into my work, so they take a new function as art (rather than end up in a land-fill), makes me happy. It became a challenge to use every little, tiny scrap so I began incorporating waste and vintage ephemera papers, into my paintings and not just my collage or sewing work.
AoM: Can you give us an idea of what the process might look like?
TWS: Usually I lay down a background of color, then add ephemera. If I am doing figural work I then block in the figure and decide how abstract or detailed the person will be. I say “decide” but truly, I make it up as I go along depending on how each overlay looks and feels to me. I then add other layers to balance the composition or fix perceived mistakes. Sometimes this takes more than a few rounds of painting other times the composition can be fairly sparse. The last step can be added ephemera, stitching or vintage finds. An average painting has 5 to 12 layers. Because of the drying time I tend to work on more than one piece at a time. I then varnish and wire my piece for hanging.
AoM: Tell us about your space…
TWS: My space is a drywalled double car garage with beautiful windows and an exterior door. I am so lucky to have high ceilings to stack my supplies high, a heater for the winter time, concrete floors to sling paint on with abandon and beautiful light to work in. The light comes in handy for photographing my work for social media and our web store. There is no comfy chair to sit in, no computer or tv to distract me. It is a space dedicated to creating.
AoM: Do you ever get the equivalent of “writer’s block” for artists? If so, how do you push through it?
TWS: I don’t know if it is good or bad but I NEVER have “artist block”. I have a million ideas in my head, a million thoughts and plans to pursue. I will say, I occasionally have “artist reluctance” when I am working on a piece and it is in the “ugly middle” and I will just walk away from it. Sometimes for days. Sometimes this will happen with a commission when I have a preconceived idea of exactly what I want, what I need for the piece to be; so of course, that is when you tighten up and lose it. I have been known to scrape faces off of portraits and start completely over multiple times. Other times I will finish something for the sake of calling it finished and then I am haunted and dissatisfied. One of the most liberating things I have learned is that I am the only one who decides when a piece is done. There is great freedom to take an “ok” painting and completely obliterating it with a new layer of paint. Ironically, I just won a prize here at Arts on Main with a painting that had two “failed” paintings under the one you see! The juror commented on its ‘depth”. A great lesson was learned with that one.
AoM: Have you always been creative? Did you grow up in a creative family?
TWS: I grew up in what I would call a handy, creative family. Anything we needed or wanted we could pretty much figure out how to make it. Fashion, jewelry, accessories, furniture, home décor, so of course art. We could figure out how to make it.
AoM: How did that kind of creative, DIY spirit influence you and your work/path in life?
TWS: Growing up in a Do-It-Yourself kind of family, art didn’t enter into my career plans at all. Being creative was never seen as an end goal, more as a means to an end to create what you wanted for yourself or a gift.
AoM: So, did you end up pursuing art in college?
TWS: School was always business focused, money was not to be “wasted” on fun or creative endeavors. That would have seemed “frivolous” in my family. My business development background and creativity combined when I opened a 3,000 square foot vintage retail shop and art gallery with artist studios on the upper floors. There, I encountered working artists, art teachers, and amateurs that were compelled to create. The wonderful variety of habits, skills and practices that I encountered with my “crew” really opened my eyes that one could be creative for a career.
AoM: How has your creative journey changed over the years?
TWS: My artistic journey has been seemingly dependent on time and attention. The thread of creativity is always there, it manifests in different ways at different times. I like to switch up media, techniques, formats and applications. There is a tension between wanting to acquire a certain level of skill versus feeling like if I do too much of one thing, work starts to feel stale and less joyful. It was hard to give up my retail business as I thrived with the bustle of community but being able to concentrate on just my practice has helped my work grow exponentially. It feels good.
AoM: How has being in quarantine affected your work and business?
TWS: I am blessed that my family both near and far are healthy. Physically I am in my Gloucester “bubble”. My daily routine is the same as it was before. The quarantine obliterated events that had been in the works for a year. Some will be rescheduled, some are just gone. I choose to concentrate not on lost revenue but the opportunity that time brings. Time to get things online to try to sell them there. Time to work on commissions. Time to support creative friends and their endeavors if only from afar. My nature is to concentrate on the positive. I must confess though to be concerned about the future. I love the community of art. Sharing with friends, going to events, visiting galleries, festivals and museums. With pneumonia scarred lungs I am in the high risk category. How will I participate in the events I love? Will those events come back? Time will tell.
AoM: What is the best thing you’ve done for your artistic career?
TWS: The best thing I have done for my artistic career is just holding my breath and trying. So enter the show, introduce yourself, write the blog post, reach out to people, go to the museum, and just do the work. I used to worry whether everyone, anyone would like my work. I have finally done enough work that I realize I only need one person to like it and take it home. So do what you love and then find the people that love it too.
AoM: Where would you like for the next steps in your artistic career to take you?
TWS: I would love to do more commissioned work. I would love to be part of a larger creative community here in Gloucester. But the best next steps lead to the studio!
You can find out more about Theresa and her beautiful work by visiting her website TheresaWellsStifel.com or StifelAndCapra.com. You can also find her on Instagram via @theresawellsstifel and Facebook