Street Seens: Stephanie Costello – Choreographer of Imagined Cities
Brooklyn-based artist Stephanie Costello’s most recent drawing literally sprinted on to the page in a single week, insisting on appearing in brilliant color on her return from this summer’s Rio Olympics where she got to see Usain Bolt run. That might have sparked the exhilaration that brought her Track and Field to life on paper in a way that broke the established “rules” of her painstaking style of pen and ink drawings in black and white. Both would likely have come as a surprise to her and her followers who can see and purchase her work through the Flat-file program at Pierogi Gallery.
She describes her art as inspired by the places she has lived and traveled, citing Italo Calvino as “a special ally.” His book, Invisible Cities, sets a theme she follows, namely, walking the line between real and imagined worlds, between abstraction and representation.
“Rio2016,” pen and acrylic on paper, 16″ x 13,” 2016
A comment on her recent voyage of discovery to Rio described how she fell in love with the visual culture of Rio, and how her time there moved her to try to capture the emotion of triumph and the delicacy of loss in her two most recent works. The friend she accompanied to the city lost his chance to compete in the 100-meter sprint due to a hamstring injury. She captures the complex experience in these words, “I think all cities are visual representations of that dichotomy (between opportunity and deterioration) in the urban environment. The Olympics in Rio were somehow the epitome of everything I’ve been trying to choreograph in my work.”
By contrast to Track and Field, her City Palace, evolved over a period of two months, as she spent 30 hours per week for a total of 200 hours. That work began its life in the Indian town of Udaipur in the Rajasthan region some ten hours from Mumbai. Like much of her work it began with walking the streets sketching and photographing impressions of what she saw as a tiered “Wedding Cake City” with its lake creating the after image of a floating city. But then “Steph” is nothing if not surprising. The story of why that is so is one I learned in a conversation last week that took me to a nearby “urban village” accessed by telephone and the internet and an artist as open to discovery as she is structured in her drawings.
What our conversations suggested is that Stephanie’s artwork cannot, in fact, should not, be seen as separate from the rich tapestry of her whole life adventure.
Drawing in Istanbul, Turkey, 2013
Sensing a fascination with urban subjects, I asked Steph if she considered herself an urban artist. Her answer was as textured and intriguing as her drawings. “I’m not sure if I would describe myself as an ‘urban artist’ I certainly draw much inspiration from the urban environment, but the ‘urban’ label can be tricky. I do not make street art, but I am inspired by the streets, if that makes sense.”
She went on to describe how her love affair with her adopted neighborhood continues to evolve. It moves from an apparent passion to enter into the place where she lives on levels as varied as the places and the people she invites into her life as they invite her into theirs. No artist as island for Stephanie!
“The fact that I am a part-time bartender at a neighborhood spot in Brooklyn, and have managed to create a network of friends and neighbors, has given me opportunities to teach, to create murals, and to commission works of art.” She has done murals for a few Brooklyn restaurants and bars, and last summer, a large project in Las Vegas for a friend (the NBA player and former Brooklyn Net, Alan Anderson).
“If its Magic,” 2015, pen on paper 22″ x 30″
Inspired by the people of her neighborhood of friends, she has created album cover art, custom t-shirts, and painted storefront signage as parts of her portfolio. Her website of side projects includes an intricately crafted drawing of a rhinoceros. Her “well of course” description of the image she created to capture the symbol a Haitian-born doctor chose for his practice includes his hope that the iconic drawing would speak of strength and vitality and incorporate Caribbean and South American favelas. The central symbol of a ring is at the heart of the work she created to celebrate the wedding of two friends in Chicago. A work that I saw as symbolic of her crossing from Manhattan’s lower east side to her current urban village, features a stylized Manhattan Bridge. Its name, If it’s Magic, is from a track in the Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life.
It is evident that gift and giver are fully interwoven in her work with Bed-Stuy middle school students in an after-school art program. She learned of it from Bed Stuy friends she met as bartender in the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill/Bed Stuy “urban village” in which she has put down the roots from which her creativity grows. One of the students Steph came most to admire is the one who showed her the other side of her own highly disciplined and structured approach to doing art. What her student taught her was the lyrical approach that gets to a creative breakthrough by seeming always to question whether G to A to D might be even more interesting than a standard A to B to C approach. She might borrow the lyrics from Anna in The King and I and say, “As a teacher I’ve been learning….”
And what of the role her other avocation, bartending in one of her neighborhood’s magnet locations? I asked if her art is enriched by what some see as the bartender’s access to the revelations associated with psychotherapy? She mulled that over and concurred that her patrons reward her with unexpected insights. She illustrated with a story about how John Ruskin learned of the beauty of the green grass of the English countryside simply by savoring/letting it into his senses of sight and touch. That might match with the bartender’s non-judgmental listening that tends to turn up fresh and honest insights.
And so, every day, the choreography continues!
Opening photo: “Track and Field,” pen, acrylic, and cut paper on paper. 22″ x 16,” 2016
All photos courtesy of Stephanie Costello