Recently, I spent the afternoon with one of my favorite humans on the planet, the talented artist Rachel Styer, in her studio talking about the therapeutic quality to making art, levitation, and falling in love. Rachel and I recorded our conversation, and despite the quality not being awesome thanks to the hum of the AC and my shoddy equipment, we wanted to share parts of that conversation.
Rachel started out as a writer before realizing that visual art, and specifically photography, better expressed her thoughts and ideas. In this audio clip, Rachel explains why she found writing to be limiting:
Her love of writing led her to start a blog, and that led to taking pictures for the blog and buying her first camera, the Canon AE-1, and learning how to process and print black-and-white film at the Harvey Milk Recreation Center in San Francisco. Here Rachel describes printing at the Center’s darkroom amongst other beginning photographers and her shift into working with color:
Around the time she made the shift to digital color images, Rachel met her now husband Dave Richard (who is also a super talented artist) and began shooting s series of staged self-portraits with Dave out in nature on their weekend day trips around California. “The Weekenders” feels like a grimy tattered paperback copy of Pablo Neruda’s love poems that you’d find at a garage sale. The photographs are beautifully composed and the sometimes blurry focus and lens flare act as a metaphor for the blinding drunkness of falling in love. In this audio clip, Rachel and I discuss “The Weekenders,” photographing long-term relationships, and how grad school can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to our own engagement with our work:
Rachel and I both started grad school in 2009 at SVA’s Photography, Video, & Related Media MFA program. A year into the experience, Rachel was diagnosed with lymphoma and spent the last two years of her three years in that program going through cancer treatment and recovery while also working on her thesis body of work, appropriately titled “Treatment.” For anyone who has been through the physical and emotional trauma of cancer or the obviously far less intense but still stressful rigors of a masters program, the fact that Rachel did both at the same time is an impressive feat in and of itself. The fact that Rachel made this beautifully inventive project that not only comments on her own treatment, but that also helped her heal and come to terms with this experience, thereby becoming its own form of treatment, is why she is one of my favorite artists around. In this clip, we discuss the theme of flight and levitation in “Treatment”:
“Treatment” explores the paradoxical relationship between the physical body and the self through self-portraits in nature, photographic records of organic sculptures that represent both the body and a state of mind, as well as light-exposed damaged negatives that resemble blood cells seen through a microscope. There’s a performative and physical element to the work that Styer has describes as her attempt to visually represent the biological battle raging through her body and her emotional state during that time:
Now in good health and cancer-free, Rachel’s art process really helped her put that experience into perspective. While talking about the crumpled film images and pantyhose-as-muscle fiber sculpture images, Rachel talks about her anger post-treatment and sympathizes with Martin Short’s character from the movie “Innerspace“:
Rachel and Dave were recent artists-in-residence at C-Scape where they lived in a shack on the beach and made art. During that time, Rachel began making artist books, including a handmade book documenting her treatment with a page to represent each day. Similarly, her latest work continues her exploration of the physical nature of photographic film. Through a camera-less process, she crumpled and damages negative film and exposes it to light to see what results. As a finalist in CCNY’s Darkroom Residency, she was given access to their darkroom facilities to continue this work. In our final clip, she offers that rare glimpse into the trials of making new work: