Ceramic sculptures and quilt by Rachael Sterner at her show, Many Mothers, at Glass Rice.
I tend to forget how I am introduced to the work of artists, because I usually find out about an artists/their work and then it's after some time that I have a more personal connection with them and think about them more. But with Rachael Sterner and her work, I was introduced to her quilt work through our previous interviewed artist, Laura Rokas. Laura and Rachael went to SFAI together. Laura was in the MFA program and Rachael was there for her BFA, and they would work side by side in the studios and became friends, supporters, and fans of each other's work.
Rachael Sterner received her BFA from SFAI in Spring 2016. And about a year after she was beginning to organize for her solo show at Glass Rice gallery in the Design district of San Francisco.
Rachael's work with quilts is visually graphic, incorporating screen printing, creating untraditional patterns via printing, and personal. Rachael's imagery in her quilts include text and figures that she associates with her past, growing up, and other nostalgic pieces of her personal narrative.
Her show at Glass Rice, titled Many Mothers, opened on March 24. On the day Rachael de-installed the show, on April 10th, I met Rachael at Glass Rice to see the show one more time and talk about her work and process behind the show.
Read the full interview and see more photos below.
SFACC: One of the quilts in your show, titled - The Slayer, was a piece for Laura Rokas. You both went to SFAI and met each other there. How did you both become friends, and what are some of the things you've done together with your works - you both trade sometimes? It also seems that both your works have influenced in each other's in a few ways.
Rachael Sterner: Yes, sweet Laura! I met Laura at school while I was working on my BFA, and she was working on her MFA. I saw her every now and then around campus, mostly in the ceramic studios, so I think we both just shyly started saying hi to each other and talking. I thought she was just the *c00l3st* girl in school so I was like oh man I want to be her friend!!!! Then one day, in the ceramic studio she was like hey Rachael, I made something for you! Laura made me this amazing little ceramic disembodied braid. At the time, her and I were both using hair and braid narratives and motifs in our work, without really knowing each other. She just gifted me this ceramic piece and I was so happy haha I went home and made her a mini wall hanging quilt in return. She also just gifted me with this sweet embroidered patch of a black widow spider, which means so much to me. So she’s got something in return coming her way soon.
Detail of quilt by Rachael Sterner at Glass Rice gallery.SFACC: Fairly recent you've become interested in comix and character narratives. How does the comix medium make an entry into your work - whats the connection you've realized in how you make your quilts? Did you study comix at SFAI?
RS: Yes, drawing comics for me has been the medium that I never knew I needed to use. I have always enjoyed working narratively, I have so much to say and I love telling stories, so one would think that drawing comics would be an obvious place to begin, but I didn't start making comics until my last year of school. I took a class with Caitlin Mitchell Dayton who is the comic overlord at SFAI. She has so much knowledge and helped me so much develop my voice. She rules. Making comics has done so much for me. For my quilt making its given me a base to my practice, almost all of my textile pieces begin as drawings.
SFACC: You have several methods for creating your quilts, can you break that down a bit, because you use screen printing, machine sewing, and hand sewing. When do you use each of those processes in your quilts?
RS: I majored in printmaking, so I would say that has been my main form of image making for a while. Most of the large images or text on my quilts are printed, either with a woodblock, or by screen printing. I’ve never enjoyed painting, preferred drawing so printing is the best way for me to get my images onto textiles without having to paint it directly on. Screen printing is definitely faster than carving woodblocks, so I tend to use that if I need to get the image out of my head faster than sitting down, drawing and carving an entire block. For the sewing, it all just depends on what I’m trying to show. At points I might want to draw attention to something without putting ink on it, so I’ll hand stitch the quilting. Machine stitching I've noticed is so streamlined, it sort of disappears within the pieces. Hand stitching is so beautiful, and so bold, for me it has to be used at just the right times.
SFACC: There is a lot of text on your quilts. What is your writing process like and what subjects and themes do you write about for your work?
RS: Honestly… I’ll just be on the bus, or at work, or just anywhere and be thinking of something and I’ll jot a note down on my phone. Then, later I’ll take it to paper, rewrite it a couple times, to bring it into reality, out of my head, and out of the digital scape. Once I write something down in my notebook a couple times, it has
a chance of actually making it to a finished piece. I love to write about my childhood. I am such a sappy nostalgic person, its embarrassing. Also, I feel like theres nothing I know more, than what I’ve already experienced first hand, so I just like to share that.
White text on white fabric, detail of quilt by Rachael Sterner.
SFACC: Most of the text you print is done in white ink on white fabric, which makes it difficult to read, why do you make that choice?
Rachael retelling the story of what the text on her quilt says. It's a story about her childhood, when she broke a ceramic house ware and cut her leg.
RS: Everything I write is so personal. Sometimes it can be wildly emotional and probably at times totally unreadable to the viewer. But I have to write it! I just have to say it, while I’m doing it though, its almost as if I'm talking and wishing I wasn't saying these things. So I print with white ink on white fabric to quiet things down, sort of like a whisper. I intentionally make it difficult to read so the viewer doesn't fully catch everything I’ve said, but I still get the satisfaction of making work about something and sharing it.
SFACC: In this work, you have the repeating bunny image, where does that bunny image come from? How does that imagery interact and connect with what appears in the text?
RS: I just really think bunnies are so cool. It’s honestly just simple as that. Maybe I just think bunnies are cute, and I love using animals in my work as a break from using portraits, or the figure. Lil bunnies… they're so little and soft and cutie, and I think with this really intense and loaded text I use, its a nice comic relief, change of pace, and something to let your eye go through as your mind sorts through the text.
SFACC: I'm so drawn to the quilt of your sister and her sister. You mentioned that one of your mentors gave you a bunch of wood block printing books, how did that time looking through those books influence your work and this piece? What were some of the
reactions you got from people who saw this piece when you were making it?
SFACC: Thank you, yeah, I really loved making that piece. It took me a long time. My mentor, Asuka Ohsawa was working with me and giving me a ton of art books to look at and read. She is so amazing like that, you’ll say you're interested in one thing and she’s got five different resources for you to look at. And I was looking at a bunch of Japanese woodblock prints from another mentor, Art Hazelwood. I was really inspired by the ukiyo-e prints and how many artists from that time period were able to flatten everything in the image. The spaces, figures, patterns were very 2-dimensional and I really liked that. After I printed it and quilted it I got a lot of really positive feedback in my critiques which I was really happy about and proud of. But there is always one person that doesn't get it and jumps to conclusions and assumes the worst. Haha I was in critique and a fellow student in my class kinda went off the rails and projected onto it their own weird bigotry and self-loathing and made a huge fuss and actually made me cry!! Because I’m a huge cry baby I’m so sensitive. But thankfully the rest of my class spoke up and had my back.
SFACC: In your show you included your baby quilt, that your mom, your grandma, and great grandma made for you. Can you talk about why you decided to show this quilt and some of your other thoughts about quilts and craft as fine art?
RS: Yeah, that quilt is so special to me. I wanted to put it in my show because first of all it’s amazing, so well done. The craftsmanship and care they all put into it is a level I hope I can reach one day. Also, I wanted to pay respects to all the quilt makers that came before me. The women in my family that made that quilt, did that craft their whole life and it was just so natural, they were made for family to be used and to be loved daily. They never thought their quilts would be in a gallery or viewed as fine art. I love craft so much, my work is so heavily based in craft and technical skills. And sometimes I just don't even think about the ~*”fine art world”*~, and what falls within the lines of fine art and what falls out, I just make whatever I want.
Wall text Rachael wrote next to her childhood quilt.
This quilt was was hand made by my mother, her mother, and her grandmother, and given to me as a baby. I am showing this quilt to pay respects to the women in my family who have created before me. Without them, and every other quilt-maker throughout history, I would not have had this chance to display my work here today. I feel honored that I am able to show my own quilts as fine art. Thank you to all the women in my life that have guided me, taught me, and loved me as one of their own. This show is dedicated to you, Many Mothers.
SFACC: When I took a closer look at your ceramic piece, Weave Me Alone, it kind of blew me away, because I didn't get a good look at it the first time. How did you make this piece and create the texture on it? Again, this goes back to how your work and Laura's relate for me.
RS: Making the ceramic piece was so much fun! I’m very new to ceramics, so I was able to play around and really explore within the medium. It was super simple actually I just got a piece of canvas and rolled the clay out onto it in those little strips. So I would roll the clay out, cut it and flip to over so you could see the canvas fabric texture on the front and made a little weaving out of it! I was
working next to Laura making it, and it just happened so naturally, we weren't even talking about it, but I think she taught me through osmosis how to do that because of her secret ceramic trick! All her pieces look as though they are made out of cardboard, because she uses a similar method of making texture within clay. I’m so happy with that piece.
SFACC: For me, it's interesting to learn more about your personal narrative and family history, because it comes into your work in unexpected ways for the viewer. Where did you grow up and what was the community like there?
RS: I grew up in a small town called Jane, Missouri. It’s just a short drive from the Oklahoma and Arkansas state lines. The town really was one long road off the highway, there was a gas station, a school that held K-12th grade, a cemetery, a church, and a river spot to swim at. Most days before I was in school I would stay
at my grandmas house in Southwest City, MO. She was really sweet, and strong, and sort of crazy. She would buy wild horses and train them and “break” them and then resell them I suppose? I’m not completely sure because I was so young, but I always remember there being at least ten horses on her property, most of
which should not be ridden or even gone near. But she was great, incredibly strong, skilled, and had a connection to the earth that I try to carry with me always.
SFACC: Why were there gummy dino candies in your show?
RS: Haha for my show flyer I used this iPhone pic I took while printing the CMYK prints in my “Defensive” piece. I printed the image on clear acetate, threw it out of my way on the white table behind me, and then later as I was taking a break eating Haribo dino dummies (that I had stocks up on at the corner store because I
knew it was going to be a late night) I just arranged them on top of the printed piece of acetate and it looked really cool, so I took like 50 million pics. Also, in my work, I'm constantly thinking about childhood, being a kid, nostalgia, so I threw in some candy for everyone just for fun (◕‿◕✿)
Rachael Sterner at Glass Rice gallery.
SFACC: You skate a lot, does anything from that come into your work in some ways?
RS: Yeah! I love skating so much. I’m not sure if it does directly, but i think skating definitely helps me not take myself so seriously and to allow myself to experiment and fail. Like for skating I’m constantly learning and trying new stuff and falling on my ass a lot!!!!!! I try and take that spirit into my work and keep things light and new and exciting.
SFACC: Can you talk about the bats, what are those about?
RS: That piece was so weird for me, haha. I don't really paint that much so it was a big challenge. I’m glad I made it though. I was really just thinking about middle school and high school days. The days of school bullies and rumors being spread. School was really shitty for me, I was having family problems all the time and had the ugly shoes and didn't talk much. So kids were mean, and now it’s
kind of made me very unapologetically me “Unabashedly Erratic”. Like, yeah, my family is a mess, “Yeah I Am Fuckin’ Crazy” you would be too, “Spread the Word” as in keep spreading rumors, nothing matters (◕‿◕✿)
SFACC: What's next for you? What's on your horizon?
Rachael Sterner at her solo show, Many Mothers at Glass Rice in April, 2017.
RS: Next up, I’m moving to Portland, Oregon. I’m so excited for a new change. I’ve moved around a lot my whole life, so it just feels like its time for me to go and try something new. And San Francisco is too expensive right now. I love the Bay so much, it has a very special place in my heart and I hope I can move back one day! Not to sound like a cornball, but for now I’m gonna move to the Pacific North West and make stuff and draw, and be in the trees, and walk my dog, and make stuff with my boyfriend who is also an artist, and eat really yummy food, and pay way less in rent, and sew, and quilt, and draw, and weave, and paint, and skate, and eat dino dummies 4evr.
Although we met with Rachael for this interview when her show was coming down, we are excited about her work and hope you are too.
Thank you Rachael for taking the time to talk with us!
Thank you Glass Rice for opening your gallery to us.
To stay updated on Rachael's work, please visit her website and follow her on Instagram @RDSVS.