“Sweet and intimate, but sort of creepy”: talking to artist Cara Stewart
Cara Stewart is the only person I’ve ever met whose ideal weekend involves an extended appearance at the local RadioShack. She is also the only person I know who buys crummy old radios and computer hardware at the local Goodwill, then happily returns home to spend hours sitting at her desk, rewiring and programming these new tools to do strange and amusing things just for the hell of it. A New York City native currently residing in Austin, Texas (most of the time), Cara is an illustrator, art director, and sculptor with a talent for making art that defamiliarizes and delights.
I have never considered myself a journalist, but in the spirit of journalistic integrity it seems important to mention that Cara is also a dear friend of mine — the sort of friend I lived with for a year, who once built a sculpture out of all my possessions and left it on top of my bed for me to discover at 2 AM. But the funny thing about having artist friends is that you know certain things about them — that they work inconvenient hours and are often covered in sawdust or paint or otherwise unidentifiable goop, that they are prone to dragging rusted stationary bikes into the house without explanation, that they may or may not cover the entire kitchen with corn-syrup-based fake blood — but rarely do you get a chance to sit down and talk seriously about their work. Needless to say, I wholly recommend this activity.
When we speak over the phone, it’s the bitter middle of November; I am sitting under three blankets in Brooklyn, and Cara generously only reminds me twice how sunny and warm it is in Austin. Just as we start getting into things, our conversation is interrupted by a doorbell. Cara puts the phone down and trots down the hall to answer the door; when she returns, she sounds bemused but elated: “Someone just brought me a chicken sandwich!” she says. “I’m very pleased.”
This is what I have always imagined life in Austin to be – make some art, make some money, hang out and have friends bring you sandwiches – but, like anywhere, the hustle is very real. Cara has just finished shooting a music video for Gary Clarke Junior, a Texas-based blues musician, on which she was the production designer. “We were given one day of preparation for a single-day day shoot, “ she says. “I just tried to survive.”
Since moving to Austin, Cara has rolled with the punches in this way, occasionally relocating to wherever work takes her. In 2009, she lived temporarily at Appendix Gallery in Portland, Oregon; a year later, she picked up and moved to the Louisiana bayou for several months, where she lived and worked on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is surreal and dreamlike, horrifying and beautiful all at once; Hurricane Katrina is the unnamed but thrumming pulse of the film.
“Everything featured on that movie, everywhere the characters lived, we built that,” Cara says. “But some of the background stuff – when they’re boating along and you see a lot of sunken houses? – that stuff is just there. Parts of that movie are very, very real.”
When I try to get into this further, it’s to Cara’s credit that she seems reluctant to elaborate. I imagine it takes a certain type of strength to get comfortable working in a body of water that contains people’s homes and possessions, so I don’t press. I do, however, ask what it was like to create a set built, quite literally, on water.
“When we were building the main character’s house – the sunken version – we were standing in chest-high water every day,” she says. “There were funny things about that. There was an alligator who liked to come and look at us. We’d see his eyes approach every once in a while, every few days. Just checking out what was going on in the neighborhood.” She also tells me about another local Bayou fish called the garfish, which is the sort of thing one should never plug into Google Image Search without a fair warning. (“Teeth in every direction. There is truly no reason to ever scoff at the idea of sea monsters.”)
Back in Austin, Cara’s work is slightly smaller-scale but no less complex. She is currently focused on illustration and mixed-media painting; her work has been featured in Austin restaurants, taking the shape of large-format murals. A recent series is a darkly comic collection of paintings that show toy cars at moments of heavy impact; another playfully morbid set is described as “a cheerful investigation of astroid impacts, natural disasters and the end of the world.”
For the last few years, she’s also had an interest in using tools and everyday objects as they’re intended to be used, but to new and surprising effects. A recent series of instruments made from a cauliflower, a typewriter, and a broom perfectly illustrate this spirit.
“I’ve always been wary of picking up an instrument because it’s not familiar to me,” she says. “It means going into a space where I’m no longer good at something. And I think that stops a lot of people from interacting with music and art. Maybe all interactive installations suffer from that a little. It’s scary to go up to artwork and handle it, and have people watch you as do this. But if you give someone something familiar, they feel comfortable – they’re starting with a simple framework.”
Cara’s 2009 installation at Appendix, “Geofront: Play,” actively engaged these challenges. Contact microphones were wired to a system that created a repeating delay, and placed strategically inside of a number of brooms. Visitors were encouraged to pick up the brooms and sweep them across the room, which Cara had filled with different textures: patches of grass, scrap metal, logs, fluorescent light covers, and plaster casts of the ground outside the gallery.
“Actions are built into objects,” she says, “but there’s something very rewarding about getting your hands on something that’s simple to use but works in improbable ways. It’s fun to control it, and to play around with what changes things, what weird new ways you can use it.”
The broom installation originated in an experimental music class that Cara took as an undergraduate. She built a sound brush, a lint-brush-esque tool intended to be rubbed over bodies to generate sounds. “I made a guy in my class wear different textures, and then we had to stand up in front of everyone while I brushed him all over,” she says. “It wasn’t hard to convince him -- he had a million funny wool sweaters to put on, and a beard and long hair. There were a lot of scratchy sounds.” She laughs. “It was the most performance-arty thing I’ve ever done.”
In 2009, Cara and friends Claire Staples and Elizabeth McClellan designed a prototype of a community garden, mixing Cara’s affinity for electronics with the trio’s collective interest in performance art. Small microphones were attached to gardening tools, which produced a range of sounds as they were used. “The idea was to mic tools so that people could do two things at once: you’d be exploring your environment with the sound tools in a strange and new way,” says Cara.
“The part we were most interested in was getting people together to play music,” she says, “and taking all of the scary performance and practice elements out of the mix. We wanted to let people mess around with sounds in a way that leveled the playing field. Nobody would have any previous experience with these instruments, and everyone could use them.”
Making interactive art is a certain kind of problem-solving; one can easily see-saw from delight to discomfort. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, Cara built a series of machines that were interactive but also welcoming and delightful to passive viewers. “One of the things I originally had in mind was the intimate relationship people have with inanimate objects in their environments,” she explains. One design that never saw daylight was an armchair that, if sat upon for long enough, produced a little mechanical tongue that licked the back of the lounger’s neck. “I wanted it to do something that was sweet and intimate,” she says, “but sort of creepy.”
Originally written for Tumblr‘s Storyboard, which sadly folded a few months before Cara’s profile was slated to run.