“A Little Piece of Heaven” an interview with Christine Sloan Stoddard by Zeny May Recidoro

Heaven is a Photograph by Salvadoran-American artist and author, Christine Sloan Stoddard, speaks of a self emerging and unraveling with every photograph and poem. This book locates itself beyond the contrived and natural, imagined and real, and is considered by its author a work of parafiction*. Sloan Stoddard’s ultimate success is in making the reader experience the fiction in her poems as fact. The reader has been brought into a time and space that is believable and palpable even if aspects of it do not exist in her lived experience as a woman, artist, and poet. Not that every life written in literary works must have a morsel of the truth. After all, the most fabulous and interesting tales and vivid artworks, like the ones found in Heaven is a Photograph, are those that toe the line between the immediate and the magical.

Zeny May Recidoro (ZMR): How did the book itself come about? 

Christine Sloan Stoddard (CSS): I had been working on various photo sets for several months and started to notice connections emerge through them. Around that time, I was asked to develop a larger project for one of my MFA classes. So I began writing the poems, which had been living inside of me for a while. Then I curated photos from the existing sets and made new ones if I saw “gaps.” I went through multiple rounds of photo-poem pairings as I received feedback from my professor, classmates, and eventually my CLASH Books editor. I also considered new photo sets I was developing as the book progressed.

The birth of this book is pretty indicative of my process: I am always writing and I am always making. Projects may come together relatively quickly, but they’re often sourced from practices that have gone on for months or even years. I maintain a colossal archive of work that goes back about a decade now, and I draw from it regularly.

ZMR: What struck me about your book of poetry, Heaven is a Photograph, is how the photographs and poetry function in a way that there is a conversation. Not only between you, the poet-photographer, and me, the reader-writer, but between image and text, as well as the persons referred to in each poem. I always thought of taking pictures as a way of speaking to a person or place without having to actually speak—that there’s shyness but also a level of being outgoing. Just to have that confidence to photograph a complete stranger when you’re trying to not get noticed. It’s a different story, though, if it was a portrait photo, of course. 

CSS: Without a doubt, it’s more terrifying for me to photograph myself than it is to photograph others because I am confronting myself. Even if I am wearing costumes or projecting a persona, I’m still using myself as a medium. I am the paint, I am the clay—but am the highest quality on the market? Maybe I should’ve bought a different brand or made something new from scratch. The imposter syndrome is real, yet shying away from the question of “Am I worthy?” will only lead to regret. Of course, I have value. I need to remind myself of that. Noticing myself and forcing myself to observe and analyze myself requires many introverted skills, whereas creating with myself and exhibiting these creations requires extroversion. The tension between shyness and outgoingness still exists as it would in photographing a stranger.

ZMR: Were the objects in the photos set-up or found? In some of them, you were present—was this in a single location, or did you go around an area?

CSS: I made the objects featured in the photos, though I admit it’s hard to tell because they’re all scattered, aesthetically speaking. But they all existed in the same world and that world was my apartment building rooftop in Brooklyn. The objects came from my street-combing escapades and artist residencies that left me with extra supplies. I also tend to hold onto broken things if I think I can use them in art later.

I’ve worked with found objects for as long as I can remember, dating back to childhood. My parents exposed me to folk and contemporary art at a young age. I will never forget these two Haitian sculptures my father brought home from one of his work trips as a war photographer. One was a bird cage made out of découpage newspaper and magazines; another was a papier-mâché city bus with a rainbow of passengers. He bought them off of an artist selling them on the street. My father went to the School of Visual Arts in the 1970s, so he has a strong interest in contemporary art and passed that love on to me. Because of him, it’s hard to recall a time before I knew the name Louise Nevelson. We lived in the Washington, D.C. area and I have this distinct memory of my father and me standing in front of a Nevelson sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We were entranced. By high school, I’d fallen under the spell of original Romare Bearden collages and Joseph Cornell boxes. To this day, the American Visionary Art Museum remains one of my favorite haunts. My mother, also a great art lover, is from El Salvador, and taught my siblings and me about reuse when we were little because she comes from a place of great need. So the appreciation for art coupled with the value of resourcefulness made found objects a natural fit for me.

Sometimes I build things solely to photograph—as you will see in Heaven is a Photograph—and other times I build found object sculptures and installations for long-term display. Two perfect examples of the latter are my pieces for the Queens Botanical Garden and Annmarie Sculpture Garden. At QBG, I built a sprawling outdoor installation. At Annmarie, I made an 11-piece sculpture series. Both rely heavily on the use of found objects, though the end result in both cases is figurative, not abstract.

ZMR: You’ve given hints of how you became a photographer and an artist—I would love to hear more detail about it, the story of your pursuits, and early works. 

CSS: Heaven is a Photograph is a work of parafiction and therefore not strictly autobiographical. A fair amount, though inspired by my life, was largely imagined. I gave myself permission to stretch and pull my story, put it in the oven, and bake up something new. Most of my poetry is closer to fiction than any other form (sometimes playwriting, though that isn’t the case with this collection.) Like my protagonist, I did go to art school, but I also studied the liberal arts. I started out at Grinnell College before transferring to VCUarts. I earned degrees in Film, English/Creative Writing, and Product Innovation and minored in Spanish, French, and European Studies. Somehow I was lucky enough to gain exposure in everything from dramaturgy to business proposals. In 2019, I earned my MFA in Digital & Interdisciplinary Art Practice from The City College of New York-CUNY. My coursework was my project and thesis-driven, so I concentrated on photo/video and sculpture. But there was a ton of writing involved for everything, both creative and scholarly. I even got to take a Spanish Department class on the feminist literature of post-civil war Spain and write my first Spanish-language academic paper in years. All that being said, I don’t think you need a degree or any type of formal study to be an artist. I am grateful for my parents’ support in undergrad and the many scholarships that enabled me to study abroad, take unpaid internships for credit, and eventually earn my MFA debt-free. I don’t regret my education for a moment. Would I still be an artist without it? Absolutely. I’ve been making up stories, images, objects, and performances since childhood and never grew out of it. Some parts of my practice have been put on pause from time to time, but I never let them die. My art nourishes me.

As a photographer and filmmaker, my father has encouraged me in many ways. In hindsight, any discouragement has stemmed from the parental instinct to protect one’s children and ensure their well-being. The artist’s life is not an easy one, and he never pretended otherwise. Sometimes I took that bluntness personally. For the first few years out of college, I worked in journalism because it seemed like the most “useful” (i.e., financially sustainable) application of my creative skills. But deep down, even when I knew I was telling stories that needed to be told, I was dissatisfied. I wasn’t always convinced that I was the one who should be telling those stories, at least not according to standard journalism conventions. One of those conventions is the pretense of “objectivity.” Pure objectivity is impossible; there’s always bias. And even if I could be an objective saint, I value my voice and vision as a woman too much to sacrifice it. I take the opportunity to express myself quite as a woman, as well as the sense of obligation I feel as the daughter of an immigrant. My mother comes from a place where women’s voices are still silenced. El Salvador has high rates of femicide and teen marriage and pregnancy. Girls have limited access to education and abortion is illegal under all circumstances. Misogyny is ingrained at every level. To honor my mother and to pay tribute to the generations of female ancestors (on both sides of my family) who were silenced, I have chosen to speak up. It’s a lot easier to be “objective” when you live in a society that privileges your voice simply by virtue of your birth. Because that was not the case for me, I will be even more stubborn about being heard. That is the main role of the artist: to conceive a vision and communicate it.

Though I’m still interested in nonfiction storytelling, a full-time career in journalism does not appeal to me. I am much happier telling stories on my own terms. Sometimes these stories take the form of poetry and photography collections like this one (my others are Belladonna Magic and Water for the Cactus Woman). Other times they take the form of short story collections, like Desert Fox by the Sea, or novelettes, like my also recently released title Naomi & The Reckoning. But not every story of mine becomes a book. Some are paintings, like the ones in this artist feature by Third Estate Art, some are films like my short Bottled, some are plays like Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares. Then there are conceptual projects, sculptures and, of course, photographs. Plus, there are always the new hybrid imaginings I’m conjuring, including community and collaborative work I do for Quail Bell Magazine, my art and literary publication.

ZMR: I always have this idea that the place you’re situated in affects the kind of art you produce. Is there a sharp distinction depending on where you take a photograph or write something? 

CSS: One of my film professors used to say that location is a character and I share that view. Places do hold their own backstories, conflicts, and arcs. My apartment definitely influenced the making of this book. My rooftop was a little piece of heaven. It was covered in silver paint, so it gave all of its subjects an ethereal glow. I retreated there for many art projects. Though we had roof access, most of our other neighbors never seemed to use it. I only have two recollections of encountering a neighbor up there and it was the same one both times. Because of this, the roof did feel like my private studio. I had space to spread out and could paint without worrying about fumes or making a mess. Or sometimes I went up there simply for the view. Looking toward Downtown Brooklyn and seeing the Manhattan skyline filled me with a sense of wonder and possibility. I loved taking photos up on that rooftop; it was so sheltered, so secretive, so spontaneous and informal. I hope that some aspect of my practice always maintains those qualities, though it can be hard to be so precious as one’s career advances. More and more people want to peer inside. As for location’s affect on my photography versus my writing, I can’t really say but I don’t see those practices as separate. For me, they are concurrent. One informs the other.

ZMR: In the poetry, too, is a pronounced expression of your relationship with photography via the men in your life (or who have been a presence at some point), and being a woman photographer rather than the one being photographed or rather, you have, to me it seems, the call of when and where to be photographed. Through your work, I also think about women’s fondness for the image (beautiful or gripping pictures, objects, landscapes, and religious icons) and being the image (our own beauty and taking pictures of ourselves). There is a delicious liberation in that kind of frame. 

CSS: I do find delicious liberation in both making and being the image. Self-portraiture is highly appealing for that reason, but also because it provides the opportunity for self-reflection, as well as identity formation and projection. In real life, I have experience acting and modeling (for my own and others’ projects), so I do bring a performative element to my visual work. I’m attracted to images that are active. It’s important for me, especially as a woman, to make work that isn’t passive. I don’t need everything I make to be big, but if it’s small, it better be mighty.

___________

*Defined as “art that presents fiction as fact… a practice of fabulation and figment” by art historian and Harvard professor Carrie Lambert-Beatty. To add, Lambert-Beatty, in her 2009 essay Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility writes, “But, like a paramedic as opposed to a medical doctor, a parafiction is related to but not quite a member of the category of fiction as established in literary and dramatic art. It remains a bit outside. It does not perform its procedures in the hygienic clinics of literature, but has one foot in the field of the real. Unlike historical fiction’s fact-based but imagined worlds, in parafiction real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived.” (p. 4)

You can purchase Heaven is a Photograph from CLASH Books here.

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