Invest in yourself. If you’re poor or were raised by family that came from poverty, spending money can be a tremendous source of guilt. I was raised to be frugal and resourceful, so I know this guilt firsthand. But it’s true that you have to spend some money to make money — and there are ways to do it wisely. Don’t be a spendthrift, but don’t be so tight-fisted that you completely cut yourself off from opportunities. For me, moving to New York City involved financial risk. Yet there is no way I could be where I am now without having moved here.
As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Christine Sloan Stoddard.
Christine Sloan Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American writer and artist creating books, films, murals, and more. She founded Quail Bell Magazine, the Badass Lady-Folk, and Quail Bell Press & Productions. She recently completed her first feature film, Sirena’s Gallery, after directing several shorts, such as Bottled, Virtual Caress, Butterflies, Drunken History, and Brooklyn Burial. Her books include Heaven is a Photograph, Hello, New York: The Living And Dead, Naomi & The Reckoning, Desert Fox by the Sea, Belladonna Magic, and Water for the Cactus Woman, among others. The Table Work Press book Two Plays contains her cover art and her nationally award-winning play, “Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares.” Previously, she was the first-ever artist-in-residence at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan and served as an inaugural AnkhLave Arts Alliance artist fellow at the Queens Botanical Garden. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, Portland Review, Bustle, and beyond.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Well, there was a lot of kudzu and honeysuckle, pupusas and peepers. I grew up to a Salvadoran mother and New Yorker father with two siblings in Arlington, VA. We spent a lot of time enjoying art of all kinds while also appreciating nature. Because I was the first in my family born in the Washington, D.C. area, I never felt like a “real” Washingtonian. I feel like I really came of age in Richmond, VA, where I studied at VCU and was active in the arts. I immersed myself in my studies and creative pursuits. While at VCU, I founded Quail Bell Press & Productions, which I continue to run today. The mini hustle and bustle of that little city was perfect preparation for life in Brooklyn, NY, where I live now. I remain tethered to my home state of Virginia, as well as nearby Washington, D.C. and Maryland, no matter what. There’s an emotional pull as much as a pragmatic one. That my first feature film, Sirena’s Gallery, was shot on location in Virginia, with just a bit of cell phone footage from El Salvador and Brooklyn to supplement, feels natural. Splitting my time between New York City and the DMV has reminded me that your soul really can be in two places at once.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
It certainly wasn’t just one thing! But, okay, I’ll share one story. I wrote a lot of short fiction and made short films and videos in college that I posted online, often on QuailBellMagazine.com, the arts and culture magazine I founded. That practice alone led to so many magical opportunities. Other VCU students or even students from other colleges would reach out to me out of the blue. (Professionals did, too, but that’s another story.) One such student was Bryce Spivey, who was studying in the VCU School of Mass Communications at the time. He sent me a Facebook message. Purely professional, nothing flirty. We didn’t have classes together, but he had seen my online content. He had gotten an opportunity to direct and shoot a short documentary for the local PBS station; would I write the script? Heck, yeah! And I’m so glad I did. Bryce was a pleasure to work with, I got a great credit, and I still use that piece in my portfolio. Today Bryce is an award-winning filmmaker and still photographer. I’ve had my own successes as a writer, artist, and film/theatre-maker. Talented, hard-working people tend to attract one another! That was one of many early experiences that taught me to notice those who take initiative and want to collaborate. Being a good judge of character is an essential skill, especially in creative industries!
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Every day brings a new adventure! I’ve been blessed to have varied experiences as an artist and storyteller, where no two days are really the same. Monotony isn’t welcomed in my life. But one story I will share is responding to a 2019 Craigslist ad for a play at the Broadway Comedy Club. That alone probably doesn’t seem real given the prevalence of fetish ads on CL. But I swear it was! Now imagine my surprise when I discovered that gig was not only legit but also the brainchild of horror cult legend Beverly Bonner. Beverly starred in Basket Case, a 1980s B movie directed by Frank Henenlotter, and she was also the writer, director, and star of Donna & Darilyn’s Pitbull Lounge. This was the comedy play I performed in at the Broadway Comedy Club until New York City’s March 2020 shutdown. Beverly was such a delight, which can’t be said for everyone in show biz. Unfortunately, she was one of many people who passed away in 2020. In October 2020, a month before she died, I actually watched all of her films in quarantine. I’d done it as a way to celebrate Halloween and get to know her work better, but the timing was poignant.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was auditioning for a commercial that would’ve paid a lot of money, money that would’ve made my life easier for a while. It was specifically for the Hispanic/Latino market. The casting team loved my performance but they didn’t love my hair. At the time, it was dyed a dark golden blonde. My headshots indicated that I had my natural hair color, a dark ashy brown. That was my first mistake: not telling them before the audition that was my hair color was different and getting a friend to take a quick snapshot. At the audition, the casting director praised me but complained that my hair “wasn’t working.” She actually asked me to go to the bathroom and get it wet. I’m embarrassed to say that I did just that. A production assistant helped me in the sink. Of course, I looked ridiculous. My hair was still dark golden blonde, a shade or two darker at best, and now dripping wet. I looked like a drowned rat. My humiliation probably showed and I didn’t book the gig. I learned to stand up much better for myself after that and also point out that Hispanics and Latinos are a diverse group of people. We span skin, hair, and eye colors, as well as height and physique.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just completed my first feature film Sirena’s Gallery! Here’s the official synopsis:
Sirena’s Gallery follows a Salvadoran-American woman’s struggle as an art gallery owner during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently widowed by a husband who died by suicide, Sirena must quickly adapt to self-isolation, grief-induced visions, and the virtual world of e-commerce.
I’m so excited to screen Sirena’s Gallery before a small group at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, VA on Aug. 27, 2021. You can buy a ticket on Eventbrite, but do it fast because tickets are extremely limited.
I shot Sirena’s Gallery while a space grant resident at 1708 Gallery in Richmond and was so grateful to have the time and studio when I had no other dedicated place to create. One of the things that kept me going through this past year and a half of so much loss and chaos was this film. Having a project that you care about and believe in can really ground you — I speak from experience!
The official website for the film is https://sirenasgallery.weebly.com. Find out about future screenings and other news there.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Being an artist is hard, but you owe it to yourself to try. You can still be practical while taking chances. In fact, that’s one of my biggest beliefs: You must plan. Figure out what you want to do, short-term and long-term, and research what’s necessary to achieve those goals. If you’re pragmatic, you will make to-do lists and spreadsheets and not only consider qualitative but quantitative measures.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
1. Because the real world is diverse.
2. Because art should reflect life in reality as much as in the imagination, including possibilities.
3. Because there’s more than one story to tell and stories have power.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Care and do it holistically. Care about the work you’re doing and the people you work with. It’s best for your mental and spiritual health and always reflects in the final product. Last summer, I had a Zoom reading of my playCyber Cinderella. I made the decision to delay the Zoom event and instead pre-record it with my cast at a later date. The original virtual event was scheduled for the height of the George Floyd protests. With a BIPOC cast and everyone located in New York City or Philadelphia, where the protests were massive and people were on edge, it didn’t feel right to do a comedy play. Cast members thanked me for prioritizing their own comfort and anxiety, and I’m so grateful I did.
2. Art isn’t a popularity contest. Sometimes you will gain a lot of positive attention and support for your creative works. Other times you won’t. Some projects never find a major audience, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable or important. My first poetry and photography book, Water for the Cactus Woman, was recognized by places that, at the time, mattered a lot to me: Ms. Magazine, The Poetry Foundation, a scholarship committee at The City College of New York-CUNY, etc. (Since then, The Poetry Foundation has greatly disappointed me by openly backing a known pedophile.) I even had an art exhibition related to the book at the now-defunct Valet Gallery in Richmond, VA. Yet the book never sold a ton of copies or found a colossal readership. The book still matters to me and many of those who did read it told me the same.
3. Invest in yourself. If you’re poor or were raised by family that came from poverty, spending money can be a tremendous source of guilt. I was raised to be frugal and resourceful, so I know this guilt firsthand. But it’s true that you have to spend some money to make money — and there are ways to do it wisely. Don’t be a spendthrift, but don’t be so tight-fisted that you completely cut yourself off from opportunities. For me, moving to New York City involved financial risk. Yet there is no way I could be where I am now without having moved here.
4. Maintain connections. Be kind and be a team player. People will remember you and keep you in mind for future opportunities. Maybe that future isn’t the very near future, but your future self will thank you. Case in point: I was recently commissioned to work on a script for a Washington, D.C. theatre company based upon work I did in a writer’s residency nearly five years ago!
5. Rejection doesn’t mean the end. Use rejection as motivation to keep trying. I’ve been rejected so many times, but I’ve also won so many times. As an undergrad, I applied to a call at the campus art gallery and didn’t get it. But the summer I finished my MFA, that same gallery — The Anderson — invited me to be an artist-in-residence. I had 24/7 access to studio space. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt that was possible and yet it happened.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As much as possible, take on projects that you love, not ones that simply pay your bills. Work with colleagues who respect you and have your trust. Truly know your limits and believe that little voice inside your head that’s warning you to take a break. And when you rest, do it right! You must fully recharge your batteries from time to time. I believe prioritizing emails is one of the most powerful things we can do in our era. You have the power to set your own boundaries; not every message needs an immediate reply. In fact, it’s often better to sit with a response before sending it! One of the best choices I ever made was turning off notifications on my phone because emails and social media were burning me out.
You are a person of enormous 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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want people to know that art isn’t “non-essential” or a frivolous hobby. The arts are essential. The arts can empower. Arts education should be accessible to all, but even if you have no formal training, you can still make art. There’s no degree, certification, or award that makes you an artist. You’re an artist because you make art, so go ahead and make it!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. 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 certainly very thankful to my parents and favorite teachers from grade school, college, and graduate school. But I’ve also have friends and collaborators who’ve helped me along the way. Their support has been invaluable, too. One such friend is John Cappello. Most recently, he cut the trailer for my film Sirena’s Gallery. (You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmjhjT_6oj4). I asked him on a whim and he agreed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s no substitute for hard work. In graduate school, I had a classmate who repeatedly didn’t do the assignments or didn’t take them seriously. He made fun of me and spread rumors about me out of jealousy. He somehow was awarded a travel grant, as I had been a semester earlier, but ended up not using it. I did and that research trip changed my life. Three years later, my writing, film work, and visual art work are still growing because of what I gleaned. I prepared so well for that trip, took such diligent notes and documentation. My thesis project and exhibition hugely benefitted. This classmate did none of that and ended up dropping out of the program. I finished my MFA debt-free and was awarded an additional scholarship upon graduation. Every step of the way I worked hard and made sacrifices to prioritize my creative work and studies. I don’t regret a moment of it, not least of all because it’s paying off!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Miranda July! Like her, I am a writer, filmmaker, and artist. She started in DIY spaces and has since produced major projects with foundational and commercial support. I’d love to find out more about her journey and get some advice.
How can our readers follow you online?
• Creative World: WorldOfChristineStoddard.com
• Writing & Visual Storytelling Client Portfolio: WordsmithChristine.com
• Visual Art Client Portfolio: ChristineStoddard.com
• Arts & Literary Magazine: QuailBellMagazine.com
• Press & Production Company Portfolio: QuailBell.com
• LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/christinestoddard
• Facebook: www.facebook.com/artistchristinestoddard
• IG: @christine_sloan_stoddard
• Twitter @csloanstoddard
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!