What Color is the Sky in Sam Stubblefield’s World?

Bend Design | 09.08.17

Sam Stubblefield creates art and “situations” where sight intersects with sound, where architecture meets interactive space. From digital installations to immersive full-sensory experiences, art critics of decades past may have described his work as “avant-garde.” Today, we seem to lack the adequate vocabulary to describe his work – you simply need to experience it for yourself. As a speaker for Bend Design in 2015, Sam challenged and inspired the audience. This year you get a glimpse into Sam’s world when Stubblefield returns to Bend Design, showcasing his recent work from the Venice Biennale, at the Bend Design Hub (located at the Liberty Theater).

As an interesting side note, Stubblefield also invites the public into the Art vs. Not Art discussion, by issuing stickers upon request to anyone who wants to participate – inviting “votes” on anything visual and public.

Jenny Green champions the arts and sponsors the occasional “pop-up gallery” in the Pacific Northwest. Recent exhibitions showcase works by contemporary West Coast painters and sculptors and multi-media artists, including Sam Stubblefield. She also supports Bend Design.

Jenny had an opportunity to catch up with Sam recently in Seattle. From views on collaboration to eclipse-viewing innovation, what follows is a snippet of what she learned:

JG: Can you describe your creative process that goes into a piece of work? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

SS: Being a bit anti-process and respectfully anti-disciplinary is very important to me. Expertise, craft, and practice are key for making work that is articulate enough to resonate with people. But it is too common in art for the craft to come first. Novel discovery tends to happen when craft is set aside during ideation, I think.

Inspiration is overwhelming. If you look just one tier below the surface of anything there is a lifetime of creative fodder. It is a fun challenge to look at a random object and really pull it apart – the object’s purpose, how it came to be, scale, materiality, color, the role of gravity, the role of light, etc., etc. I recently tried this with my friend, Mark Zirpel, an amazing artist and educator. We elected a random mailbox as our muse. In 20 seconds we made three or four observations, any of which would be worthwhile artistic endeavors. I don’t think that anyone has the capacity to come close to thoroughly exploring anything that we know of, so those tiers of depth are endless. The complication comes in choosing a path. Natural and human-made systems have been areas of focus for the past few years.

JG: Was sound always a component to your work? What media is your “first passion” and how did the other media you work in layer into that up to this point?

SS: I grew up listening to amazing music. My parents made a point of exposing my brothers and I to a spectrum from The Beatles “White Album” to Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” My first album was “Little Creatures” by Talking Heads, a gift from my uncle. This music was permission to find the edges of what music and sound is. As a kid, I translated that permission to everything. These musicians were all uninhibited inventors, so what couldn’t we do? Using music as a way to fill a home full of this type of mentality was insanely impactful. It is one of the things that I am most grateful for.

The exposure to music probably pushed me to be in a band for a number of years. It was the first artform that I shared publicly.

This background gave me the confidence and technical ability to incorporate or augment my work with sound, and maybe even nudge the definition of music, or at least try.

JG: Would you say that your work is influenced by larger global issues/events, and if so, how?

SS: I try to avoid having too strong a point-of-view on popular topics. The cosmos doesn’t care what someone Tweeted, time doesn’t mind that we’re ruining the earth, distance has no opinion on vehicular deaths per year. I like opening up those conversations, but only to hopefully elevate the dialog. We’re the only animal that knows what a Tweet is, I think. How important can it be? I try to push people one tier above where they would otherwise be, no matter where they are at. Myself included.

JG: How do you view the relationship to your materials? For instance, in your piece bell, switchglass, laser, pool, does that combination of objects mean something to you and how does that inform the result of the work?

SS: I try to think of everything as a medium. Boats, robotics, people, whale vocalization, plants, bungee cord, the internet – they are all things that I like working with. I tend to bucket materials in two ways. First, as an exploration to see if there is artistic value in that material. This is an opportunity for the material to lead the work a little. Sometimes materials direct the topic of interest. Second, once I find a material that might convey an idea, I figure out how to deploy it to make a connection. Some of the exploratory work makes it to the public. I don’t mind it. Sometimes people like to get in on the exploration. It’s a less directed, but more open conversation.

JG: What is the process for building these pieces? How do you work with others to install work, and what are challenges/advantages to working with others during installation?

SS: The process for the exploratory work starts with crazy note taking. I always write down interesting notions, points of view, materials, movements in society, celestial phenomena, etc. I typically sketch or diagram a sculpture, installation, or situation that might connect two or more of these interesting things. After that, I get the right parts together (materials that I think will convey an idea or represent the notion). Then I’ll act out a possible relationship between the topics of interest using those materials. It could be online dating, cities, and human evolution, represented by 1000 photos of everyday people, projected onto buildings throughout a city. Not a terrible idea, but I’m thinking the topic is a little boring.

One of the challenges with working with others is the dilution of a vision. I typically decide on the onset if this is a project that is open to manipulation, or if I need to convey a specific idea. You don’t want to decide mid-project. That said, I am almost always flexible. Especially in the exploratory phase, I am constantly looking for feedback from all sorts of places.

JG: In what ways do you collaborate with others on work? Are those you collaborate with artists or from other disciplines?

SS: I don’t have a bias for or against collaborators being artists. I love working with people outside of my abilities. A good example is my work with Joshua Borsman, an exceptional technologist. He was able to solve many technical challenges in my vision but has also dramatically opened me up to new areas of interest that ignite new areas of exploration. It is amazing when people can bring technical knowledge, but also spar on curious topics.

JG: What current projects are you working on?

SS: I’m currently working on several masterplan frameworks that use public art as a means of navigating a city. This is happening in Boston, Hong Kong, Bangalore, and Seattle. The masterplan work is a means to an end. I will be creating work for these projects, but can also open these cities up for other artists that have an interest in making better neighborhoods.

In the studio, my explorations have been leaning toward physics and technology experiments. For the recent eclipse, I made a viewing apparatus that allowed a huge group of people to view the eclipse through latex balloons, which turn out be excellent filters for eclipse viewing. They hung on bungee cords to accommodate people of different heights, which was a fun design feature. It was a 90-minute project, something that is a really nice contrast with the larger, slower projects.