Christine Sloan Stoddard of Quail Bell Press & Productions: The Power of Flexibility; How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic
Revel in what’s big and bold. When you accomplish big, it’s important to celebrate. I love to photograph and acknowledge the completion of each and every mural and do something special for myself, no matter how small.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Sloan Stoddard.
Christine Sloan Stoddard is a writer, artist, and filmmaker who founded Quail Bell Press & Productions, including Quail Bell Magazine. Her latest books are Heaven is a Photograph (CLASH Books), Hello, New York — The Living And Dead (AlienBuddha Press), and Two Plays: True Believer and Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares (Table Work Press). Her film, Bottled, which premiered at the New York Long Island Film Festival, is now available on Amazon Prime Video and her film, Brooklyn Burial, is now making the film festival circuit.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up the oldest of three children to a New Yorker father and Salvadoran mother in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I spent a lot of time in the Virginia countryside and Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay region and regularly visited family in the New York City and Miami areas. Creative from a young age, I was a total little nerd and had won several national awards in art and literature by high school. My parents encouraged me by taking me to the nearby Smithsonian museums and the public library (where I even met the boy who, a decade later, became my husband!). I reference my upbringing in my non-fiction history book, Hispanic and Latino Heritage in Virginia (The History Press) and the poetry anthology, Written in Arlington, edited by Katherine E. Young, among other publications. When you’re a writer and artist, your childhood backstory shows up in your work in some form, whether you beckon it or not.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I am a part of all that I have met” by Alfred Lord Tennyson has certainly stuck with me. I really do try to take away something from every experience and to think of myself as a sum of all these parts of my life. This kind of acknowledgement and reflection gives me a sense of appreciation, as well as inspiration for my art and day-to-day existence. It helps gives me more empathy for others, too. Understanding different perspectives allowed me to write my book Belladonna Magic: Spells in the Form of Poetry & Photography, for example, which features various female narrators and photographs with a range of female subjects I know in real life. More recently, while writing and directing my short film Brooklyn Burial. Cammy, the character I play, is a young woman recovering from a broken engagement and a world apart from my real-life personality! So, yes, to go back to Tennyson, we should not forget all the bits and pieces that make us who we are. They bind us to other people — so many ghosts and ancestors — and there’s power in that. There’s power in seeing that our personal experiences are universal ones, all part of the human condition.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There are many books and films that touched me in childhood and adolescence; my family is big on reading and watching movies. Again, see previous little nerd comment. But one book I have to mention is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I first read in middle school. It made an impact on me because of its strong female protagonist, exploration of family trauma, and beautiful prose. The main character, Francie, forged her own path, despite what was expected of her as a girl and despite the shame and hardships associated with her family history. From a young age, I was made aware of gender inequities and looked for feminist heroes. Coming from a family of three children raised as daughters (one sibling has since come out as nonbinary in adulthood), I am grateful that my parents instilled a sense of girl power in me from a young age. I was made keenly aware of the opportunities I had as an American girl, too, because my mother’s native country suffers from a noticeable gender gap. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also obviously takes place in Brooklyn, which has captured my heart. I’m really happy to live here. I’ve never lived anywhere with so much opportunity and so many motivated creative individuals excited about making art.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I am an artist and writer who makes books, films, performances, and visual art. I’ve been doing this work in one form or another since high school and full-time since graduating from college. After winning several grants, like the national emerging artist grant from the Puffin Foundation, as an undergrad, it was hard for me to want to do anything else. The arts proved too tempting. My books include Heaven is a Photograph, Desert Fox by the Sea, Naomi & The Reckoning, Water for the Cactus Woman, and others. My work has been published or mentioned in Ms. Magazine, Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, New York Latin Culture Magazine, Bushwick Daily, Bustle, Marie Claire, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. I was the first-ever artist-in-residence at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan and have completed residencies with Brooklyn Public Library, Annmarie Sculpture Garden, Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, and beyond. I’ve shown my films and visual art at multiple venues, e.g., the Poe Museum, the New York City Poetry Festival, the Queens Museum, FiveMyles Gallery, the Waveland Ground Zero Museum, etc. I’ve been named a “Top 20 In Their 20s” media visionary for founding Quail Bell Magazine (FOLIO Magazine), a “Top 40 Under 40” artist in my home state (Shenandoah Valley Art Center), and a Top 40 leader in my college city (Style Weekly). The list goes on! I’m a lucky lady who works darn hard! On June 1, 2019, I earned my MFA in interdisciplinary art practice and continued working for myself until the pandemic hit. I run Quail Bell Press & Productions, a creative studio in Brooklyn, and offer my skills in writing, visual art, video, and performance.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
Prior to New York City’s shutdown, I had a contract that allowed me to work 10 hours a week as the artist-in-residence at a nonprofit serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I taught visual art workshops, made artwork for day habilitation centers, and helped coordinate exhibitions and competitions featuring the artwork of individuals attending my workshops. While I enjoyed this work, I never thought it would lead to making large-scale murals; I never created anything larger than 48”x36” in that environment and typically worked much smaller. But when the pandemic hit, the organization asked me to design virtual art workshops for folks living in group homes. Sadly, like nursing homes, many of these group homes experienced high levels of infection and death early on in the pandemic. Many of these individuals were not allowed to leave the group homes because of COVID-19 concerns, which understandably contributed to their anxiety and frustration.
My paintings caught the eye of one of the non-profit’s higher-ups and she asked if I wanted to paint murals in the organization’s group homes. Before I knew it, I was commissioned to paint 10 murals in a newly renovated group home. This was as much about beautifying a space as it was cheering up the future residents, who were supposed to move in around the time of New York City’s shutdown. As the pandemic wore on, the move-in date kept getting postponed and the residents were getting restless. Like most of us, they were upset about putting their lives on hold. Though the move-in date is still uncertain, I’ve been told the residents were very happy with the photos they saw of their murals. I’ve since officially added murals to my roster of services through Quail Bell Press & Productions and started painting more murals elsewhere.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
For me, that moment came when I realized how even though my mother and other Salvadorans of her generation had no idea when El Salvador’s civil war would end, they kept on living. I think it would serve many American millennials well to ask their grandparents about living with the day-to-day uncertainties of World War II. Or if you’re the child of an immigrant, draw from stories of whatever war or other conditions caused your family to flee to the United States. The “Aha moment” pushed me to be inventive within current constraints as I focused on the present — because we just don’t know how much longer current constraints will remain current. Throughout all of this, I’ve been writing, painting, and filmmaking, but I realized that I had to push my books, prints, and other merchandise as much as I could, and apply for grants, competitions, and other opportunities that are possible now. Though I wasn’t expecting such a rewarding client project as the mural commission, I lunged at the opportunity because it’s something I can do that makes me feel happy and useful now. Focusing too much on the far future, which remains so uncertain, would only make me miserable. Of course I still do think of the future, but I try to reign in those wandering, anxious thoughts and concentrate on the present and near-future.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Since completing that first commission, I’ve started a second large commission at another group home and have other commissions in the works. I hope I can do murals in many more group homes, as well as other locations. This pivot has opened up so many possibilities I had never considered. You can find photo prints of my murals on Society6 and Redbubble, where the designs are also available on gifts like T-shirts, coffee mugs, and more. I’m also working on a photo book for the first mural commission, which you will be able to buy through my site at www.worldofchristinestoddard.com. Every day is a new day to grow Quail Bell Press & Productions and I’m thrilled that murals are a part of this journey.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m grateful for my friend Shawn Inglima, a professional photographer who’s got pep up the wazoo and a sense of humor to boot. She is a photojournalist by training and also photographs weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events in the Tri-State area. But over the past couple of years, she’s gained more experience documenting artwork for artists here in New York City. So when I needed someone to capture my first ten murals, I hit her up. I knew that Shawn had the technical know-how and creative sensitivity to do my work a justice. Her photos have gotten my murals quite a bit of attention. I can’t complain!
I first met Shawn about five years ago when she began dating my friend John Cappello, a fellow artist and VCUarts grad. I’ll never forget hanging out with John when he was on his way to his first date with Shawn. He showed me photos that she had taken before he even showed me photos of her. That gave me high hopes for their date and obviously I’m happy they’re together all this time later. It’s important for creative people to support one another in friendships, romantic partnerships, passion projects, and business. We need to provide each other with emotional and financial support because our society does a poor job of supporting artists in general. I don’t think the onus should be on us. It should be on the government to provide a minimum standard of living for everyone and also corporations and institutions to compensate us fairly and treat us with basic respect. But until conditions improve, we’ve got our artist friends to help us get through this life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
With all of this mural-making, I’ve started to incorporate my paintings more in my film and video work. It’s seemed more fluid than in the past, maybe because I’m so surrounded by painting now. One example is the intro music video to Everything, a concept album by the musician Johnn Davis. You’ll notice one of my watercolors in the video. It’s funny how I actually filmed that video right when I began negotiating the first mural contract and finished editing it the same week I finished the mural commission. I had let it sit a while because of other obligations and the musician’s competing schedule. All that time, painting was a part of my day-to-day schedule and percolating in my mind. In hindsight, it’s perfectly natural that painting would make its way into that video.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Here’s my YouTube video: https://youtu.be/onPkvPLYV_c
1. Spread out and take up space. It’s OK to be big and have big ideas. You can’t do big things unless you dream big and act out on those dreams.
2. Sometimes you have to make a mess. Experiment. Let loose. In any creative project, you must think differently and that process can get messy.
3. Clean as you go. Revise, revise, revise. Never let your messes get too big and unmanageable.
4. Step back and look at the whole picture. Give yourself the quiet, reflective moments you need to examine your work.
5. Revel in what’s big and bold. When you accomplish big, it’s important to celebrate. I love to photograph and acknowledge the completion of each and every mural and do something special for myself, no matter how small.
And if hadn’t guessed already, these five things definitely apply to other creative projects, too, not just murals! Go forth and be creative in a big way!
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I’ve been doing simple, relaxing things like taking baths, reading books for pure fun (not research!), watching grand, sweeping dramas and ridiculous comedies, and cooking. These are my little escapes. My husband, who has a kind and nurturing Type B personality, has encouraged me to take walks and exercise at home with him, too. Doing small but meaningful favors for our neighbors and community also puts me at ease and I’m doing what I can when I can. This includes my physical community, as well as my online one. Right now Quail Bell Magazine is working on Lunar Phoenix: An Anthology of Black Voices, a book we will be releasing this year in response to the George Floyd protests. Luckily, being creative (e.g., writing stories, painting, and editing my films and videos) puts me in a relaxed, meditative state. I’m not interested in productivity for productivity’s sake, but working on projects that excite me makes me very happy, especially during this stressful period.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
At Quail Bell Magazine, we remind our readers that their stories matter because creative expression matters. I wish to inspire more people to believe in their personal and community narratives and to embrace art-making as something anybody can (and probably should) do.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
That’s tough! Estrellita Brodsky and Patricia Phelps de Cisneros are true art collectors and I’m curious about what motivates them. Sally Mann is an incredible artist and writer and a fellow native Virginian. I would be thrilled to have lunch with any of these women.
How can our readers follow you online?
My website is www.worldofchristinestoddard.com. The website for Quail Bell Press & Productions is www.quailbell.com. I’m on Instagram at @christine_sloan_stoddard, Twitter @csloanstoddard, and Facebook @artistchristinestoddard.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!