Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

Interview with Caroline Lathan-Stiefel

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel on her artistic upbringing and education, her career and outlook as an artist, and how Philadelphia inspired her exhibition “Greenhouse Mix.” (Excerpts from an interview with I On the Arts)

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel: Greenhouse Mix is on view at the Philadelphia Art Alliance March 20 – April 27.

Artistic Upbringing and Education:

CLS: I grew up in Atlanta, GA (born in 1967). My mother was a docent at the High Museum when I was little and so we visited there often. I remember seeing a visiting Calder show when I was probably around 6 or 7 that included his circus and that made a big impact on me. I went home and tried to make my own circus figures.

Nellie Mae Rowe. "At Night Things Come To Me" 1980

Nellie Mae Rowe. “At Night Things Come To Me” 1980

My mother began collecting southern folk art in the 70’s and 80’s, including several pieces by the artist Nellie Mae Rowe. Her work remains very important to me. In high school, I was very much influenced by the art environments of outsider artists like Howard Finster. I visited his Paradise Garden in Summerville, GA several times. On one visit, when I was a senior in high school, I knocked on his door and he let me into his studio. He was working on one of his paintings wearing a vest covered in pennies. He told me I could make a drawing on one of his ceiling tiles and so I stood on a chair and added my drawing to all of the other ones that covered his ceiling.

After high school, I was a Visual Arts major at Brown University. There, I studied painting, with professor Wendy Edwards. I always used a lot of collage elements in my work and my paintings in my senior year were more like large assemblages or sculptural paintings. I incorporated fabric into the work too. After college, I began to make bas-relief paintings with paper mache and paint. The work was figurative with abstraction creeping in.

Eventually I got married to musician and composer Van Stiefel, and we moved to Princeton, NJ so he could get his PhD. While we were there I began a low-residency MFA at the Maine College of Art, which I completed in 2001. During the first year of grad school, I worked with artist Mira Schor. Mira visited my studio in Princeton several times to give me crits and we visited many galleries and museums in NY together to look at art. Her strong, honest critiques were integral to the development of my work at this point. She advised me to break away from figuration and to delve deeper into the world of abstraction and to let the materials be what they are.

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, “Untitled” 2010 Collage on paper

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, “Untitled” 2010 Collage on paper

During the second year of my MFA program, the artist Jeanne Silverthorne was my advisor. I had started to make a series of marker drawings on notebook paper that were like doodles of systems and was also experimenting with sculptural pieces with fabric. Jeanne suggested that I transform my drawings into three-dimensional sculptures. I then made a small model that combined several of the drawings and proceeded to make a monumental version of the model with fabric, yarn, and pipe cleaners in my Princeton studio. I had also seen an amazing photo of Gaudi’s model for the Sagrada Familia. Because his cathedral was so organic in form, Gaudi created an upside-down stress model that was suspended from the ceiling with strings and weighted with little pouches of buckshot. This image gave me the idea to hang my work from the ceiling with yarn and string and weight it to the floor with fishing weights and to think about lightness and gravity in my work.


Other Early Influences and Formative Experiences:

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel "Glint" 2014

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel “Bracken Ablaze” 2014

CLS: My father took our family on many hikes throughout Georgia and the mountains of North Carolina when I was a kid. I loved the feeling of being surrounded by woods. Sometimes he found hikes in outdated books, and we had to literally bushwack our way through the trail. This was a bit scary, but I also secretly liked it. My interest in plants and botany has definitely become stronger as I have gotten older. Living near Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square is a plus and I have also gained insight into plants and gardening from my mother-in-law, artist Rosemary Stiefel and from my fellow Upland art teacher and artist, Terry Anderson, both of whom have exceedingly green thumbs. I have gone from killing plants within a week to actually being able to keep them alive for a year and have started seasonal gardening with my husband and kids. In terms of using real plants and leaves in my work, I remember seeing artists do this when I was at Brown when the Harrisons, pioneers of the eco-art movement, visited the department. My friend, curator, Sue Spaid curated a show and wrote a book called Green Acres, which has been influential to me.

In general, I am interested in using materials from my daily life in my work. I began to use the pipe cleaners because I was using them in my role as an art teacher and I save my shopping bags so I can incorporate them into the sculptures. Plants are now part of my daily life as well.


Career and Outlook as an Artist:

Carolin Lathan-Stiefel, "Holdfast" 2012

Carolin Lathan-Stiefel, “Holdfast” 2012

…being an artist is…an ongoing process with many challenges and the striving to meet those challenges. I find that the moment I finally finish putting up a show, I might feel good about it for a moment, or even a few weeks, but then I am already on to the next project and facing new challenges. I really enjoy labor-intensive work and have to work everyday, even if it is only for a couple of hours after a day of teaching. I suppose being able to work everyday on my art, while also being a teacher and a mom to two children, makes me feel a sense of pride, but I know most people do the same kind of balancing act these days… I would like viewers to not only have a visual experience, but also an immersive one—one in which they would feel physically affected by the work because of the way it surrounds them. I also encourage viewers to look through different sections of the work to see new and unexpected views of the different layers. I hope they will be surprised by what they see.


On Philadelphia’s role in inspiring Greenhouse Mix

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Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, “Green-house II” 2013

CLS: A few years ago I took a field trip with students from my school to Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia. I had never been there before, but I had heard the name Bartram because my father had taken our family on hikes on the Bartram Trail when I was a child. I didn’t realize then, but the trail was named for William, John Bartram’s son. In addition to the gardens and strange proximity of the idyllic property to large oil storage tanks across the river, I was struck by the architecture–a very unusual-looking stone house and a smaller greenhouse that included a carved relief of plant forms. I enjoyed studying different plant forms and researching Bartram’s role as America’s first botanist.

I would like to thank the staff of the PAA, especially Melissa Caldwell and Mat Tomezsko, for their help with this show, and the Coby Foundation for their aid in funding the show.


To read the full interview by guest blogger Deborah Anne Krieger, click here.

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel: Greenhouse Mix is on view at the Philadelphia Art Alliance March 20 – April 27.

An interview with Sam Cusumano, by guest blogger Deborah Krieger

Guest blogger Deborah Krieger interviewed Samuel Cusumano, whose interactive electronic projects will be on view at the PAA from March 20th through April 27th, about his current exhibition, practice, and fascination with sound and systems. Deborah blogs about the Philadelphia art scene and beyond at I On the Arts. Deborah Krieger is a Swarthmore College Art History student and emerging art writer and curator.

I On the Arts: Can you describe your projects, in general and for the PAA show?

Samuel Cusumano: I am an Engineer for the Arts.

Electricity for Progress is my direct action educational interactive electronics initiative through which I work with media artists, youth organizations, producers, and curators to build interactive electronic installations. I focus on the theme “understand how your tools work.” I believe that through examination and analysis, we can understand the simple and complex electronic devices surrounding us every day. I work with consumer electronics, children’s toys, electronic musical effects, and analog synthesizers, both to repair and to modify the devices in order to produce a wide array of sounds, rhythms, and textures…

At the PAA I will be showing four primary exhibitions:

The first will be Biodata Sonification, where I present two tropical plants fitted with custom electronics, which produce a changing stream of music based on fluctuating galvanic conductance across each plant’s leaf. Along with the plants, a theremin will be featured, which is a musical instrument that is played by moving your hand near an antenna. Without touching the antenna, the theremin functions by radio field interactions and is presented along with the tropical plants that also react to human presence.


The second exhibit will be Modification, where a variety of modified children’s toys and musical instruments will be presented both on display and for interaction. Guests will be invited to play with and explore the devices and will be encouraged to play together and create novel compositions. On display will be Barbie Karaoke machines, the Speak and Spell, Casio SK-1 and SK-5, and an array of custom circuits.


The third exhibit is a presentation of the Apple Interface, where guests are invited to sit at a table, don headphones, and touch two apples, which will produce a series of musical notes in reaction to the user’s grip. This exciting interface is augmented with subwoofer seats from SubPac and beautiful soundscapes from Data Garden.


The fourth exhibit will be Room of Sounds. Samples, performances, demonstrations, explorations, and archives will be played back for listeners and guests…At times beautiful and melodic, and at times harsh and gritty, guests are invited to listen and find their own patterns in the noise.

IOtA: Has sound always been your medium?

SC: I have acted as a sound engineer and recording artist for the past 15 years, providing a modest PA setup to local psychfolk [sic] and traveling artists in cozy bookstores and churches. Musically, I have produced a powerful album Sequence of Prophets with Niagara Falls, which features circuit bent SK5 keyboard as a variety of waves, winds, washes, hot leads, and deep bass. I have performed regionally as Electricity for Progress, where I present and explain different modified devices and perform a, sometimes noisy, demonstration (with commentary). I also work with the media organization Data Garden, where we work with Biodata Sonification systems, presenting artists and biologists with streaming data from plants. Our MIDI Sprout project places electrodes onto the leaves of plants and graphs changes in galvanic conductance across the surface of the leaf as MIDI notes that can be played on a computer or synthesizer.

IOtA: What is the most satisfying part of your practice?

SC: It has been amazing working with plants and presenting my Biodata Sonification systems to the public. Through powerful daytime outdoor exhibitions, we have been able to show, explain, and entertain hundreds of passers-by through sounds and questions.

IOtA: What is the most frustrating part of your practice?

SC: In the Biodata installations, people often walk up to the plants with the desire to touch them. This always frustrates me, as the most amazing aspect of the Biodata installation lies in the way that plants and humans interact without touching. For patient guests who linger and listen as others come and go, some of the subtle dynamics of the sonification process can be heard, and the listener can begin to decode some of the complex information presented.

IOtA: What is your artistic background? What about your musical and scientific background?

SC: When I was a child, I always wanted to understand how machines and systems worked. I would build and dismantle anything that I could take a screwdriver to. I began working with simple electronics and computers, which became a huge asset for repairing and rescuing aging machines. From working with musicians, I began repairing guitar effects and old analog synthesizers. I was introduced to circuit bending and modifying toys and small keyboards, which opened my mind to a whole array of modular synthesizer and DIY electronics organizations.

My devices begin with opportunity and inspiration. Conversation and crazy ideas can sometimes lead to amazing systems. For example, earlier last year I worked with Little Baby’s Ice Cream on a device that allows users to play music while they eat an ice cream cone. Music for Ice Cream presented a duet where friends eating ice cream cones fitted with my interactive “cone-troller” could produce generative music.

IOtA: What do you hope people will take away from your craft?

SC: My goal is to inspire creative questioning. By presenting modified, noisy devices to the public, I create an atmosphere of free play and allow users to explore and interact with the modified devices and with each other. I love discussing my devices and machines with guests, understanding their perceptions, and discussing questions.

“…giving form to the ineffable: ” An Interview with William Daley, by guest blogger Deborah Krieger

Guest blogger Deborah Krieger interviewed William Daley, whose ceramics will be on view at the PAA from January 23rd through March 9th, about his career and his take on art, philosophy, and life. Deborah blogs about the Philadelphia art scene and beyond at I On the Arts. Enjoy excerpts from her interview with Daley below and check out Deborah’s blog for the full piece. Deborah Krieger is a Swarthmore College Art History student and emerging art writer and curator. 

I On the Arts: For my first question: can you talk about how “14 for 7”, your upcoming show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, came about?

Bill Daley: Well, my children just made a book for me, William Daley: Ceramic Artist, and we presented the book in Chicago at a book signing and so on, but after the book was about to be hatched, we contacted the Art Alliance. I had a show there in ’68 and was in group shows before that, and they offered to show some work at the Art Alliance and have a book signing.  So that was sort of the core for the beginning of it…with seven decades of work, we picked two pots for each decade and came up with “14 for 7”.

IOtA: So, going back a little bit: What is your artistic background and your training? What was that like?

BD: Well, I went to art school as a G.I. after World War II at the Massachusetts School of Art. Now it’s the Massachusetts College of Art. And from there I went to Columbia Teachers’ College and got my Master’s in Art Education. And then from that I began teaching. My first job was in Iowa, in Cedar Falls; my second job was in New Paltz, New York—part of SUNY; and my third job was at the Philadelphia College of Art [PCA], which at that time was called the Museum School of Art. It later became the University of the Arts. Most of my tenure was at the Philadelphia College of Art [for] thirty-something-plus years. I taught one year at the University of New Mexico as a guest professor, and I also taught at …SUNY Fredonia from PCA, and went back to PCA at that time in ’63, and continued there until my retirement in 1990…

IOtA: That’s quite a range of experiences!

BD:  (laughing) Well, I kept always moving.  One time I quit in protest because they thought we were all Communists!  Because [they] thought modern art was subversive… but anyway, the rest of the times I changed because I needed a change, or there was a better opportunity.

IOtA: Where did you quit from, if I may ask?

BD: Well, they didn’t actually accuse us. It was in Ulster County, New York, which is a very conservative county, and they just were not used to having contemporary artists in the art department at New Paltz. So they were really pretty upset by it, and we were a bunch of radicals. They fired—they relieved—two-thirds of the faculty of their positions and two of us resisted and quit. And we didn’t get any support from the college at large so I began my career at the Museum School of Art. I got a job there, and it was really a great boon that I had quit, ’cause the Philadelphia experience has been at the core of my experience since, and that’s been great. And it’s still great, because this is my second show at the Art Alliance.  In ’68 I had the first show by the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen, of which I was a member, and they gave me the first show that they gave an earnest, worthy worker, I guess, to exhibit.  And so I had a show there in ’68…


IOtA:  Let’s see… so, how did you choose your medium?

BD: Well, when I started out I wanted to be a painter. And I was pretty successful as a veteran, a novitiate painter, and I had work in the Institute of Contemporary Art, which had just begun in Boston. Anyway, I took a ceramic class and I [had] liked clay when I was in high school, but I was so taken with this new teacher and I was smitten by the medium, and I just knew that that was it, although I was pretty bad at it. So that’s how I chose it—it chose me!…That’s how I got started with being seduced by mud. It’s a great medium. It’s the most primal, metamorphic material because it changes from rock, to dust, to mud, to something you can form, and then [it] dries out and you bake it or you fire it, and it turns back into stone. So it moves a whole cycle of what material can become. It’s a marvelous material. It’s also very seductive to use—it just feels great and slippery and all of it. It’s great stuff. I recommend it…

IOtA:  How have your relationship with art and your journey as an artist changed over the course of your career?

BD: Well, when I first began, I was a little child—I knew I was going to be an artist in kindergarten, which sounds bizarre to say. But my father was a house-painter, and my mother let us paint with spinach juice and beet juice on brown paper bags, my sister and I, and she’d hang them up on the clothesline in the kitchen. And my father would come home and look at ’em and tell us how wonderful we were. So when I got to kindergarten and… all the way through school, art was my total focus. And then when I went in the army, I had a chance to have experiences that convinced me that that was what I should be doing with my life. So anyway, by the time I was at art school, when I went through high school, which had a marvelous art department… we went to the museums, all the museums in New York City, regularly on the school bus. And I did all kinds of airbrush work and painting and block-printing, the whole works, as a high school student. So I was hooked early. And then I went to art school…my interest has been of such long duration that my changes have been mostly going as kind of a spiral. It’s not a circle where you repeat and go around and around, it’s as you graduate…there’s a marvelous educator named Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, [who] talks about education for the left hand, the other way of knowing, the intuitive way.  There’s a great book by a guy named Benedetto Croce called Aesthetics that says that intuition is the highest form of knowledge, not information or conceptual [didacticism]. So I’ve really been prone to be persuaded by people who feel that the unknown is still largely unknown, and we can find it by working material, and my material is clay. 

So I guess that’s some part of the core that keeps me revved up, that I’m always finding the boundary of finding out things…they’re are moving to me, and they’re moving to other people because they’ve sought my work out over time and wanted to have it in their lives. So art’s not complete until it completes a cycle. You have the maker, and the made, the object or thing, the offering, and then you have the audience. You have persons you are communicating with. So the artist is in community—the idea of the romantic artist in the attic…is a romantic misunderstanding. Artists are really [some] of the persons in the community that get some of the signals about what’s important, just as early as the scientists and philosophers and so on.  And I’m not saying artists as in always physical artists; I think poets and singers and instrumentalists…the whole thing is all the same. Different form, but totally about giving form to the ineffable. It sounds pompous as can be, but I find it very compelling.

IOtA: This last question that I’m going to ask is what I always conclude interviews with.  What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?

BD: That’s a good question! Well, what I would like them to do is to experience it, and I know that sounds corny, but I would like them to touch it. I would like them to respond to its form by… I’ll call it caressing it or searching it out with their eyes closed. I’d like them to understand that it’s about the inside of the inside of things, and it’s about the outside of the outside of things. In other words, I’d like them to use what they feel and touch and see and sense to imagine things that call up experience in their own being that permit them to tune it on it. So I do a lot of different things with different textures and different roughness, I [do] bumps and holes.   I’m interested about open spaces, I’m interested in intimate, closed spaces, I’m interested in transitions from wonderful—like you were sliding down a hill in a sled or down a canyon or into a whirl, into a helix…I think of it almost as psychic physicality that I would like people to have about it. And as they wonder about it, they can wonder if it’s a palace or a temple…or a monument. I give them all names and that’s a little kind of clue to what they might be about.  Right now, I’m making cisterns. A cistern is a vessel that holds some substance for either ritual or for preserving life. That’s either water, or holy water, or rain, or wine… so I’m making cisterns that are for libations and for…symbolic conservation. You can put them in your yard, or you can fill them with things for a party. And I’m having a great time doing it. But I’ve made hanging planters and baptismal fonts and many different kinds of vessels or containers for evoking feelings about being a human being… and my pots about body parts. I’m not a literal artist…I make objects that are about feelings. And I see feelings as touch, and I see it as touching your mind, and I see it as touching your whole spirit, about experience you’ve had to the present when you come to this object…

CAVECAST 011: Sampling and Cultural Re-appropriation

by Mat Tomezsko

CollegeNight_WebPageOpen Arts Philly presents a College Night CAVECAST. A limited number of free tickets for college students are available on their website.

On Wednesday, November 20 at 9:00pm DJ Apt One will discuss sampling and cultural re-appropriation in dance and electronic music, something he knows a thing or two about. In 2011 he produced a collection of beats for DJs called “T&A Breaks 3: Moombahton Loops and Samples.” One of his breakbeats was used by DJ Baauer for “The Harlem Shake,” which swept youtube and nightclubs earlier this year.

As a producer, DJ Apt One makes mixes by delving into various recordings and isolating parts of the tracks to be used in new and interesting ways. Essentially a sound collage, a new composition is woven using pieces taken from outside sources. Despite being made entirely of existing material, the mix transforms the elements into an original track. Sometimes a recognizable reference, sometimes highly obscure, there are many different ways to sample and appropriate music, achieving many different effects. Come to CAVECAST 011 on November 20th to learn more about this process.

Subscribe on iTunes, stream from SoundCloud, or listen live!

Also, check us out in the November issue of Philadelphia Magazine, in which CAVECAST earned the distinction of being “worth doing after dark”.

Mat Tomezsko is the Programs and Events Coordinator at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. 

More Exhibitions of Contemporary Chinese Art in Philadelphia

By Joanna Grim and Christine Tang

If The Way of Chopsticks has piqued your interest in contemporary Chinese art, check out these exhibitions currently on view at The Asian Arts Initiative and the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery (located in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design’s URBN Annex at Drexel University).


Hua Hua Zhang: A solo exhibition of new works by Hua Hua Zhang, master puppet theater artist and sculptor is on view at The Asian Arts Initiative now through January 24th, 2013. The show presents sculptures and other works, including masks and shadow puppets, by the Bejing-born, classically trained puppeteer and celebrated performer Hua Hua Zhang. At the opening reception held on Friday, November 1, at the Asian Arts Initiative, Hua Hua explained how she views her work as crossing the boundaries between sculpture and performance. On display, the potential for movement and story emanate from what Hua Hua calls her “living sculptures.” Removed from their podiums and expertly manipulated by Hua Hua or one of the talented members of her Philadelphia-based performance company, Visual Expressions, the puppet-sculptures indeed come to life. A  short performance given during the opening reception began with the draping fabric dress of a puppet suspended from the ceiling, and enclosing another puppet reclining beneath it, beginning to sway in a breeze generated by a large hand fan. The gentle movements of the fabric woke the sleeping puppet who nonetheless remained within a kind of dream-state. As if experiencing a heightened sense of a mind-body split, the puppets head slowly separated from its body, leaving the body to perform a moving dance of self-discovery. This short performance demonstrated how Hua Hua’s work combines traditional Chinese stories and imagery, including an emphasis on dreams, with more modern, perhaps Western, themes and styles (for example, one puppet, a rhinoceros, was made out of plastic tarps, in place of another more traditional material) in an effort to explore the conflicted emotions, the pain but also the rewards, of leaving one culture and becoming part of another. Click here for more information on The Asian Arts Initiative and Hua Hua’s exhibition. 

Audiences are welcomed to join the Philadelphia Art Alliance for another opportunity to see Hua Hua’s work come to life. In conjunction with the Way of Chopsticks exhibition, on view through December 29th, Hua Hua and Visual Expressions will perform an original piece of shadow puppet theatre, Adventure of the Stone Monkey, at the PAA at 5pm on December 7th. All ages are encouraged to attend. Click here for more information and to register! 

And don’t forget to join us this Saturday, November 16th, from 10-11:30am for a The Way of Calligraphy, an introductory calligraphy workshop for children and adults ages 7 and older taught by Hua Hua Zhang at the PAA. Learn about calligraphy and make your own works to take home and see the Way of Chopsticks exhibition. Click here for more information and to register. We hope to see you there! 

P1070030The Start of a Long Journey: The Collection of Excellent Alumni Works from China Central Academy of Fine Arts, runs through November 22nd at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery. The show features sixty works of art, including paintings, sculptures, and video, from 24 young alumni of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), China’s foremost Fine Arts Academy.

Much of the work on view in this exhibition aims to analyze and evaluate the previous era of Chinese art, which, according to Alex McKechnie of Drexel University, was influenced “by the intellectual trends during the Cold War period as well as traditional Chinese wisdom.” However, these emerging artists do more than evaluate the previous era of Chinese art. Through their work, they also examine issues and conflicts of life in China today and the feelings these issues and conflicts elicit. In this way, The Start of a Long Journey relates to The Way of Chopsticks, which also explores and comments on contemporary Chinese society, though through the more personal perspective of the experiences of artists Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen.

Three notable pieces include “The Elephant Series,” “How Are You,” and “The Growth of Emptiness.” “The Elephant Series” by Zhang Yifan examines the deliberately ignored dangers born from modernization in present-day China. Although modernization in China may prove beneficial, one cannot ignore the explicit risks taken. For example, a recent building collapse was found to be a result of a faulty foundation, and air pollution in Beijing has worried environmentalists for years. Zhang explains that the light and crisp presentation of all-too-common scenes in China today contribute to the illusion of superficial peace and harmony that masks the unaddressed but present dangers.


The vibrantly colored canvas of Du Pengjiao’s “How Are You” perfectly captures how the rise of social media and technology creates intricate webs of connection and relationships. Another work, Sun Mou’s “The Growth of Emptiness,” seems to grow out of a blank canvas. From a distance, the image resembles a nerve cell, a neuron, a minuscule yet vital part of the body. Delicate, lightly colored lines gracefully span the canvas, creating an illusion of emptiness and hollowness. Upon closer inspection, these lines reveal themselves to be stems of vegetation or thin branches of trees that are, also, vital to the Earth. The parallels between the neuron and tree branches as well as the “simplicity of nature,” in Sun Mou’s words, influence the viewer to question the life all around us and to not look at the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The Start of a Long Journey presents these and other brilliant works by talented emerging artists. Dr. Joseph Gregory, Chair of the Department of Art & Art History, hopes that this cultural exchange will facilitate greater understanding between China and the United States.

Read more here, here, and here.


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