Portland couple Lauren Fensterstock and Aaron T Stephan, both sculptors who tend to work on long-term projects. Photo by Aaron T Stephan

If you viewed them side by side, you’d be hard pressed to find similarities between the sculptures of Lauren Fensterstock and Aaron T Stephan. But while the Portland-based couple may have strikingly different artistic practices and styles, they overlap in their broader conceptual themes. Fensterstock’s darkly dramatic, mixed-media works primarily explore humanity’s relationship to, and manipulation of, the natural landscape through gardens. Stephan’s playful public commissions and sculptures often act as wry commentaries on the manmade worlds of art, architecture and mundane objects.

Although both work on a large scale, Fensterstock and Stephan, both 45, have kept their own footprint small, to better weather the financial uncertainties of their occupation. With projects that take years to plan and execute, the impact of the pandemic on their current commissions may not be known for some time. Working so far into the future, however, keeps them thinking ahead amid the stasis of a shutdown, the act of art-making also one of optimism.

Q: You’re both currently involved in rather big projects. Lauren, you were invited to exhibit at the Renwick Galleries of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Tell me a little about that.

LF: The Renwick Invitational is a biannual exhibition to which four artists are invited. It’s a thematic exhibition called “Forces of Nature.” The show looks at artists who investigate nature and use nature as a metaphor. I was given a beautiful gallery to show in, and the Smithsonian commissioned me to make a new monumental work specifically for that space.

A detail of “Comet Study,” by Lauren Fensterstock, 61 x 22 x 10, cut glass mosaic, glass, obsidian, onyx, czech crystals, hematite, 2019. Photo by Luc Demers/courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery

Q: Can you tell me about the piece, and how it fits into your body of work?

LF: For many years I’ve been working with ideas of the landscape and large-scale installation about the landscape. Over the past year, I’ve become more interested in events in the landscape, moving away from just an ontology of a site to what happens in the site – specifically weather and metaphors around weather. This installation features a 35-foot-long comet busting through the gallery, breaking through a rainstorm of glass and cut-crystal clouds raining down onto the ground. I think it’s going to be a really fun installation.

Q: I know the show was supposed to open in July, but has been postponed several months.

LF: Yeah, the show will now open in the fall. But it’s such a long-term project, and it’s up for a very long time, so any delays in scheduling are minor compared to everything that’s gone into the project. As someone who makes incredibly intricate, incredibly time-consuming things, I’m always happy to have more time.

Q: Aaron, what are you working on right now?

ATS: I have a bunch of long-term public-art projects. The piece I most immediately am working on is for a bus station in El Paso, but I’m also working on a piece for a roundabout in Des Moines, and a piece for a train station in Boston. I tend to stagger a lot of things at once.

I’m also curating a show at Able Baker Contemporary that was supposed to open the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, but was delayed until September. It’s the first show I’ve curated in 15 years, and it’s been fun trying to pull that together as well. It’s three artists I’m really interested in: Jenny Brillhart, who’s in Blue Hill; Kim Faler, in North Adams, Massachusetts; and Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, in Brooklyn. Each deals with themes that I find a kinship with and I find them really inspiring. I think it’ll be a little different from what we’re used to seeing in Portland. The title of the show is “The Taste of a Cinder Block is not a Cinder Block or an Ordinary Kind of Magic.” Is that awkward enough?

Q: Since many of your sculptures are public-art projects, how has your work been affected by the shutdown and the budget crises that cities and states are now facing?

ATS: All my projects involve such massive bureaucracy that, honestly, nobody’s figured anything out yet. I’m moving ahead, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some got canceled. I think it’s in the nature of what both of us work on: It’s so long-term that you just put your head down and work. So far nothing’s gotten canceled, though I have one big project that I’m working on for Tampa Airport that I’m concerned about. All these projects are at least two- or three-year projects, so it’s hard to tell how it will play out.

“Paths Rising (concept sketch),” by Aaron T Stephan, 16 x 35 x 35 ft., maple, projected install 2021 at Tampa International Airport. Courtesy of Aaron T Stephan

Q: Has this situation affected how you’re making art?

LF: In some ways yes, and in some ways no. I think we’ve both realized how much, as artists, we live in quarantine anyway. We’re both in the studio seven days a week, so I spend life alone in a room, gluing tiny things together 12 hours a day. The daily activity of my creative life has not changed, but of course, the situation surfaces a lot of existential doubt, questions about what it means to make art in this moment. Particularly, I’m working on this extremely complex sculpture that depicts a catastrophic environmental incident. I have moments when I feel like I’m manifesting evidence of the catastrophe that we’re in.

Q: Talk about being accidentally on topic.

LF: A lot of the work I’m doing now is inspired by a book made in the 1540s called “The Book of Miracles,” which looks at catastrophic weather incidents and portentous natural events over millennia when humans thought the world was ending. I’ve been studying eschatologies, different stories of the end of the world. Humans have lived through so many ends of the world already, what’s one more? It gives me faith that we can find a way through this moment.

ATS: It’s funny. I was thinking about that just this afternoon. A lot of people are talking about how artists respond to this, that it’s important to pay attention to what artists are doing. I feel there’s a certain amount of pressure in that. But Lauren and I both work on a very long-term scale. I’m working on a project right now, but I’m also brainstorming ideas for projects that are going to be executed in three years. So there’s this weird dynamic where you’re expected to respond right away, but I never would. At least from my viewpoint as an artist, my job is to slow down and pay attention and really to keep a level head and try to understand what’s happening. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to come out in an artwork right now. It gradually comes in and gets reflected and mulled over. I find that’s how I respond to these things.

Q: Also, there are media, like painting, for example, where it’s easier to create something as an immediate response a situation like the one we’re in.

“Holophusicon,” 26’ x 5’ x 23’, shells and mixed media, installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Jacksonville, 2017. Photo by Douglas J. Eng

LF: I think that’s important, and I want to support and follow and champion artists who are activists, artists who are making urgent, of-the-moment work; that’s just not my role. There also has to be someone who’s willing to do the sort of esoteric work of tracing long-term histories. Understanding how we got to this point and seeing it in context is a different job than the person who’s going to really engage the moment directly. Both of those things have to exist in a rich art world.

Q: Since both of your projects are long-term, and you also do a lot of commission work, is the shutdown affecting you financially?

LF: We don’t know yet. I don’t know what things will look like long-term. We’re both independent artists, so we’re used to sometimes riding the wave, and sometimes treading water. We’ve structured our life with very few external expenses to weather these kinds of storms because, in the career of any artist, they’re inevitable, even without what’s going on right now.

Aaron and I met when we were 23 and 24. I feel like we made this commitment to each other and to our work and that we were going to prioritize those two things and make life choices like not having children, not buying a lot of stuff, but keeping things tight and flexible so we could keep going.

ATS: Wow. You just made me feel a lot better.

LF: I like having long-term projects, too. If I’m thinking about a project for 2022, 2023, to even be conceiving that project, for me, is an act of faith that’s long-term, that also gives me the confidence that the travails of this moment are of this moment and that we will rise above them. That doesn’t mean I don’t go to my studio and cry, or have days that are really hard. But it’s thinking that this is one moment in a longer sequence, and even if it’s painful, it’s going to lead somewhere else. That gives me hope.

Q: What role can art play right now as things slowly begin to open up and people venture out of their homes and into the new normal?

ATS: I’ve been thinking less about the effects of our work and more about the venues for our work. If you need to break down viewing artwork in a socially distanced way, how do you do that? For galleries, what do you replace an opening with? I think everybody’s struggling with this.

With public art, it’s of course easy to access in a socially distanced way. But more importantly, since it’s usually paid for by the public, it has a great way of identifying a community and anchoring a place. Those components make it different from gallery work or museum work. I think that’s especially important in times like this. But also in times like this, when public art can be most effective, is when you lose a lot of funding for it. It’s a really interesting opportunity.

Stacey Kors is a longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.