See Stealey’s work in WTP Vol. VII #6
Inside the Studio offers a behind-the-scenes peek into the work environments of WTP artists, as well as insight into their creative process within these resonate spaces.
By Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
Fiber artist Jo Stealey is thrilled to enter a new phase in her life. On September 1, she’ll retire from the University of Missouri as director of the university’s School of Visual Studies. This fall, she’ll be able to devote more of her day to her art instead of only early mornings or evenings. “I am very excited to have the opportunity to explore where the work can go when more time is devoted to working in the studio,” said Stealey. “Up until now, I have maintained a two- to four-hour daily practice scheduled around my position at MU.”
She’s looking forward to working in her recently renovated studio, an outbuilding on her rural property outside Columbia, Missouri. The building, near her home where she also works, needed to be more functional for papermaking, which requires a wet area. She’s putting back together the studio, incorporating ideas from leading a two-week workshop at Penland School of Craft in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. “The new paper studio at Penland is a dream come true,” she said. “I am taking home several ideas from their design.”
From her studio, Stealey looks out over 1,400 acres of conservation land known as Three Creeks, a pond, and garden. There she does most of her work, though in her house, she hand stitches and sews. She’s inspired both by nature and her home. “All my work has been conceptually driven, based on inspiration from my lifelong love of nature,” she said. “As the work has evolved, more and more of the materials used have been gathered by me and then processed to be utilized in the work.”
At home and in her studio building, she is surrounded by artwork in various stages of completion. She can see works in progress whether she’s consciously focusing on them or just glimpsing them out of the corner of her eye. She often works on several pieces simultaneously—and having them all displayed helps her. “The work is constantly on my mind—searching for inventive resolutions to the works in process. Whether they are from the same series or a different series, there is a dialogue among all ongoing pieces.”
Every week, a studio assistant works with Stealey for eight to ten hours. The assistant, often a current or former student, helps to make paper, cast it, and then to stitch it, speeding up the completion of projects. For much of her career, Stealey has depended on assistants. “They very much become a team member,” she said. “The conversations we have about the creative process, working on ideas, and providing feedback to one another are mutually beneficial.”
Though Stealey was originally trained as a ceramicist and weaver, she became interested in basketry and papermaking in the 1980s after taking workshops. She discovered she could incorporate what she loved about weaving and ceramic into a single body of work. “Paper has many of the qualities of clay, while basketry is simply off-loom weaving,” she said. “This began a journey to develop a series of sculptural baskets, which became the hallmark of my work for a number of years.”
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