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

photo 4 (6)

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.

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