Visiting photographer shares art techniques, life lessons with UND students
To some artists, having their artwork become popular enough to generate substantial commercial sales over the internet might represent the definition of success.
Cindy Steiler, a visiting artist at UND during October, had all that and gave it up with no regrets.
“It was a blessing because I was looking at everything I was doing as merchandise,” she explained. “I was carefully tracking how much the materials cost and how much time was involved. It took me a while to break that way of thinking, but when I did, it changed my life.”
During a public lecture at the Hughes Fine Arts Center in October, Steiler showed examples of her photography and other artwork while sharing a personal account of her journey.
“I never had any intention of being an artist,” she said. “I studied theater, set and costume design in school.”
Teaching UND’s aspiring artists
Steiler, a Detroit native who now lives in Gainesville, Fla., spent much of October at UND under the Visiting Artist & Scholar Program. She came at the invitation of Suzanne Gonsalez-Smith, a professor in the Department of Art & Design who teaches drawing and photography.
Steiler worked on two art projects while on campus and demonstrated her photography techniques to students, which include wet-plate negatives and tintype photos used during the 1800s. Although she also does digital photography, she prefers to work in monochrome, not color.
“It’s partly technology, but also because I can’t control the palette of the world,” she noted. “Color for me is really frustrating. We can do a beautiful street scene and there’s one person in a neon pink shirt who just blows the whole shot. So, for me, I think black and white.”
She considers her photography style archival.
“It makes me want to document the wonderful people I meet because I don’t want to forget them,” Steiler added. “I get to see these amazing places and I don’t want to forget them.”
World memories archived
Rather than creating art as part of a business venture, Steiler today travels the world in search of individuals who make products in out-of-the-way places, whose stories she records photographically before they and their craft disappear. One example she shared is a woman in Portugal who raises sheep to make blankets.
“These particular crafts aren’t dying, but the way these folks do them is dying,” Steiler explained. “These are the last. It’s not sustainable to live in a tiny village and just sell to your neighbors.”
During her time in North Dakota, she learned about the harvesting, transporting and processing of sugar beets, photographed as part of her UND art project. It also will include downtown Grand Forks and UND’s students and campus.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing as a sugar beet before I came here,” Steiler related. “So I got a huge education I wouldn’t have gotten if I had never come here, and there are interesting stories here, too.”
Steiler began her career as a designer of theatrical sets, which often involved painting large murals as backdrops for plays and other productions. She also created and sewed costumes. When events in her life made it difficult to continue on that path, she took jobs with engineering firms where she built scale models of wind energy projects and then 3D models of orthopedic implants.
“But then it got really boring, and I started making these crazy little embroideries for myself,” she said.
A friend suggested that Steiler try selling them on Etsy, a global online marketplace aimed at makers of handmade, vintage and unique gifts.
“This was in the early days of Etsy when I didn’t even know what it was,” she said. “So I put some up on Etsy, and they sold like crazy.”
That led to invitations to do shows in Philadelphia and New York. Her embroideries evolved into small dioramas made from photos, fabric and other materials from the 1800s.
Celebrities bought Steiler’s work for their collections, some giving it to their friends as gifts. Etsy promoted Steiler and sponsored workshops she taught. She also wrote a chapter on embroidery for a book.
But Steiler came to the realization that she was creating her artwork because people wanted to buy it.
“I know that sounds like a silly thing to complain about, but it didn’t feel right,” she explained. “I never started creating for the purpose of selling; I started creating because I was depressed. Getting back into the creative world was my lifeline.
“I shut down my Etsy store because I was sick of that,” she continued. “I just stopped. I still show my work, but I’m no longer selling it.”
Finding a new direction
The positive aspect was that it enabled Steiler to discover what she really wanted to do and provided the means to do it.
“I started looking for projects in community engagement, and that’s when I started traveling a lot,” Steiler said. “I started doing bigger pieces and installation pieces. This brought me full circle back to theater. It’s creating an environment as opposed to little pieces to sell.”
The difference is that instead of creating a director’s or producer’s vision, she’s engaging in works she envisions.
One example is a 25-by-25-foot woven fabric that extends up the walls of a room. In Portugal, she did a show in an old olive oil factory, reflecting her preference for displaying her work in nontraditional settings. She was in Palestine working on a project during the COVID pandemic, which enabled her to spend Christmas in a nearly deserted Bethlehem and photograph a famous church in Jerusalem while it was devoid of tourists.
“It’s been really good for me,” Steiler said. “It’s given me a new way of looking at the world, and it’s made my relationships richer. I think it’s made me a more generous person, and I’m really glad for it.”
Her advice to UND art students?
“My suggestion is to travel,” Steiler said. “Go see a place without a tour group.
“There so much divisiveness and so much hatred, racism and all this garbage,” she continued. “But if you get out of your neighborhood and go see others, you’ll realize we are all more the same than we are different. Travel is good for you; it’s changed my life.”
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