Guest photographer shares art techniques and life lessons with UND students
For some artists, the definition of success may be when their artwork has become popular enough to generate significant commercial sales over the Internet.
Cindy Steiler, a guest artist on AND in October, had it all and gave it up with no regrets.
“It was a blessing because I treated everything I did as a commodity,” she explained. “I kept track of how much the materials cost and how much time it took. It took me a while to break with that mindset, but once I did, it changed my life.”
During a public talk at the Hughes Fine Arts Center in October, Steiler displayed examples of her photography and other artwork and shared a personal account of her journey.
“I never intended to be an artist,” she says. “I studied theatre, stage and costume design at school.”
Teaching emerging artists from UND
Steiler, a Detroit native now residing in Gainesville, Fla., spent much of October at the AND as part of 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 on campus, demonstrating to students her photographic techniques, including wet plate negatives and tintype photos used in the 19th century. Although she also does digital photography, she prefers to work in monochrome rather than color.
“It’s partly because of the technology, but also because I can’t control the palette of the world,” she noted. “Color is really frustrating for me. We can do a nice street scene and there’s a person in a neon pink shirt screwing up the whole shot. So for me I think black and white.”
She considers her photography style to be archival.
“I want to document the wonderful people I meet because I don’t want to forget them,” added Steiler. “I 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 now travels the world in search of people who make products in remote places, whose stories she photographs before they and their craft disappear. One example she gave is of a woman in Portugal who raises sheep to make blankets.
“These particular crafts aren’t dying, but the way these people make them is dying,” explained Steiler. “These are the last ones. It is not sustainable to live in a tiny village and only sell to the neighbors.”
During her time in North Dakota she learned about the harvesting, transportation and processing of sugar beets and photographed them as part of her UND art project. It will also include downtown Grand Forks and the students and campus of UND.
“I didn’t know there was sugar beet before I came here,” says Steiler. “So I got a tremendous education that I wouldn’t have gotten if I never came here, and there are interesting stories here too.”
Steiler began her career as a set designer, often painting large murals as backdrops for plays and other productions. She also designed and sewed costumes. When events in her life made it difficult to continue down this path, she took jobs at engineering firms building scale models of wind energy projects and then 3D models of orthopedic implants.
“But then it got really boring and I started doing these crazy little embroideries for myself,” she said.
A friend suggested that Steiler sell them on Etsy, a global online marketplace dedicated to makers of handmade, vintage, and one-of-a-kind gifts.
“It was in the early days of Etsy, when I didn’t even know what it was,” she said. “So I uploaded some to Etsy and they sold like crazy.”
This led to invitations to shows in Philadelphia and New York. Her embroideries evolved into small dioramas made from photos, fabrics, and other 19th-century materials.
Celebrities bought Seiler’s work for their collections, some gave them away to their friends. Etsy sponsored Seiler and sponsored workshops she ran. She also wrote a chapter on embroidery for a book.
But Seiler came to the realization that she created her artworks because people wanted to buy them.
“I know it sounds like a silly thing to complain about, but it just didn’t feel right,” she explained. “I never started creating to sell; I started creating because I was depressed. Returning to the creative world was my lifeline.
“I closed my Etsy shop because I was fed up,” she continued. “I just stopped. I still show my work, but I no longer sell it.”
Find a new direction
On the positive side, it allowed Steiler to find out what she really wanted to do and provided the means to do it.
“I started looking for community engagement projects, and that’s when I started traveling a lot,” Steiler said. “I started doing larger pieces and installation pieces. This brought the circle back to the theatre. It creates an environment, unlike small pieces that can be sold.”
The difference is that she doesn’t follow a director’s or producer’s vision, but works on works that she envisions.
An example is a 25 foot by 25 foot woven fabric stretching up the walls of a room. In Portugal she did an exhibition in an old olive oil factory, reflecting her penchant for showing her work in non-traditional settings. She was in Palestine working on a project during the COVID pandemic that allowed her to spend Christmas in an almost deserted Bethlehem and photograph a famous church in Jerusalem while there were no tourists.
“It was really good for me,” said Steiler. “It has given me a new perspective on the world and enriched my relationships. I think it made me a more generous person and I’m really glad about that.”
Her advice to UND art students?
“My suggestion is to travel,” said Steiler. “Visit a place without a tour group.
“There’s so much division and so much hate and racism and all this junk,” she continued. “But when you leave your neighborhood and visit others, you’ll find that we’re all more the same than different. Travel is good for you; it changed my life.”
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