Advocate for yourself and your art. Find out what you need to make the kind of art you envision and go after it. You probably won’t be able to secure all of the resources you want all at once, but there’s no shame in taking things step by step. Steppingstones bring you closer to your destination. And if you do have an opportunity where someone else is footing the bill and able to meet all or most of your requirements, take that opportunity seriously. Since I was the inaugural artist at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan, I had to communicate my needs to staff who had never supported an artist before. I learned that you can never assume that people understand your needs! People can try to anticipate your needs and have great intentions, but you still have to advocate for yourself.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Sloan Stoddard, a Salvadoran-American artist, writer, and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She founded Quail Bell Press & Productions, including Quail Bell Magazine and The Badass Lady-Folk podcast. Her latest book is Hello, New York: The Living And Dead, with her first-ever audio book Naomi & the Reckoning out now and her films Bottled, Butterflies, and Drunken History available on Amazon Prime Video.
Thank you so much for joining us. What is the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?
Not too long after I moved to New York City, I worked for a man whose alias was Chase Backer. He actually has used a total of 22 aliases, last I checked! I was the editor-in-chief for his luxury magazines, 25A and Metropolitan. I quit after a month when it became very clear he was not going to pay me, at least not regularly, let alone the agreed upon salary. I filed a small claims lawsuit, which brought about another nightmare. The court could not reach him and my friend unsuccessfully attempted to deliver him the court summons. According to New York State law, I could not deliver the summons to him directly. There’s much more to the story, but the bottom line is that the whole awful experience proved to be my wake-up call: I needed to do work I believed in, not just for a paycheck, and I needed to trust my own creativity and expertise. I am a writer, an artist, and a filmmaker, no question. I had to give my art and my stories my all.
I immediately returned to Quail Bell Magazine, the arts & culture literary magazine I founded in college, and got to work. I started producing my own original creative work under Quail Bell Press & Productions again and booking shows. Less than a year after making this pivot, I served as the artist-in-residence at Annmarie Sculpture Garden, a Smithsonian affiliate in Maryland; had manuscripts accepted for my books Water for the Cactus Woman, Belladonna Magic, and Desert Fox by the Sea; had my films shown at the Queens Museum and beyond; and enrolled in an MFA program with funding. Though committing to my art was terrifying, I could not be happier that I made that choice.
My MFA program gave me the time and space to explore my new media, studio art, and literary projects without a financial burden. I produced everything from murals to e-books to films to ceramic sculptures and more. Plus, I gained invaluable insight into New York City’s contemporary art, literary publishing, digital design, and film festival scenes. While many MFA programs do not teach you about grants, commissions, accounting for artists, or other forms of professional development, mine did. So shout-out to The City College of New York for that! Now I am the proud owner of Quail Bell Press & Productions, an LLC registered in New York State. I produce original art, film, literary, and other creative projects through my company as the director and chief artist/writer. While it can be incredibly difficult to monetize your creative work, I’m starting to find success.
Really what it came down to was this: Was I willing to fight for my vision? When conflict arose, I found out that I was.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Strangers have referred to me as Quail Bell, as if that’s my name! Once at an art opening, a little old man came up to me and said, “Quail Bell — what a beautiful name. How did your parents decide to name you that?” He was 100% serious, too. While it’s true that we are inseparable, I am not Quail Bell and Quail Bell is not me. I’m still Christine! And Quail Bell Press & Productions came out of Christine.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I won’t mention all of them because here are some secrets that must be kept for now. That’s part of the magic! But I can reveal that I just released my first-ever audiobook, Naomi & The Reckoning. It features the voice work of actress Donna Morales and music by Deniz Zeynep, both of whom I’ve collaborated with on film, theatre, and literary projects before. The audiobook is available for direct download from QuailBell.com. It’s is based on my print book by the same name, a novelette about a young woman who struggles with body acceptance and her strict Catholic upbringing early on in her marriage. I not only wrote the book but created the cover image and an interior image, as well.Directing the audiobook really helped me bring my vision to life and now I’m using the same audio for an animated film version. Other recent samples of my scripted audio work include Nessie (Soundscape Theater — I did the visual art for this, too!), Friend Request (The Merry Beggars), and Thirty Pounds in Three Months (The Ice Colony).
Another exciting project is the Badass Lady-Folk podcast, a reboot of my old Radio Free Brooklyn show. The podcast focuses on conversations with socially engaged women and non-binary femmes. One of my recent guests was fellow artist Cecilia André, who’s in a group show with me at the Queens Botanical Garden. We’re both AnkhLave Arts Alliance garden fellows, along with four other visual artists: Asano Agarie Gomez, Natali Bravo-Barbee, Kayo Shido, and Mariana T. Vilas Boas. Our current show is actually our second at the garden and will be up through April 4, 2021; both exhibitions were curated by Dario Mohr. You can listen to the Badass Lady-Folk podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, Quail Bell Magazine, and elsewhere.
While all of this (and more!) is going on, I’m juggling client work for Quail Bell Press & Productions. I’m thrilled to have multiple video, design, and mural commissions on the books. Much of this work I can’t quite share yet, but you can see examples of my recent murals here and follow progress on current commissions on my Instagram.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve interacted with my share of celebrities and other notable people. They’ve been as varied as George Lopez to Laura Bush to Santigold and others! But I’m more interested in those outside of the limelight. A lot of people — and their stories — get overlooked. That includes the elderly. One of the most interesting people I’ve met was an elderly patron of mine:
This patron bought a piece called “Klimt Kitty” at a local animal shelter. The piece was about 48”x36” and featured a cat and flowers assembled from small objects, largely buttons and beads, with tissue, crepe paper, and nail polish. The colors were reminiscent of a Gustave Klimt painting. “Klimt Kitty” was part of a benefit show in collaboration with the art gallery I belonged to then. Because the shelter handled sales, I never met the patron or had any contact with her. I just received my check in the mail and figured that was that. But apparently this patron desperately wanted to meet me. I couldn’t make out her first voicemail and would’ve ignored it as a spam call, except that the gallery informed me she was trying to get in touch. So I called her and left a voicemail, apparently just as she had left the country for vacation. When she returned, she kept calling and calling, yet I somehow kept missing her. After months of playing phone tag, we finally arranged to meet. My husband and I went to her condo in Alexandria, Virginia one evening and talked about art. How could we not? Sure, I was an artist and she certainly wanted to learn all about me and how I made my art, but this patron was clearly an aficionado of visual culture in general. Her walls were totally covered, salon-style — carefully curated and pristine. She had amassed paintings and drawings of all sizes, plus sculptures, handicrafts, and miscellaneous one-of-a-kind objects. My piece was at the center of her collection, just over her sofa, so you saw it as soon as you entered the condo. She told me she had rearranged all sorts of things to make room for it. I’ll never forget that an ancient sword was mounted just below “Klimt Kitty.” Somehow, the placement just worked. The patron was a lovely person who had lived a full life as a military wife and later as a recreational traveler. She had dedicated decades to seeing and collecting art.
This encounter probably deserves more context. The Washington, D.C. area is not known for its living artists. While they exist, many of them are ‘Sunday painter’ types with day jobs in the federal government or fields that serve the government. It’s not an area that seriously fosters and promotes new art. The area is more culturally conservative, with the population preferring dead artists lauded at the Smithsonian museums or, once in a while, household names with international status (so, not local ones.) The small group of local artists that do make a living from their art tend to be regional painters and sculptors who focus on familiar scenes: the Potomac River, Washington monuments. Judging from this patron’s home and collection, she was upper-middle-class but not shockingly wealthy. As someone who grew up in the area, I knew plenty of others from her economic bracket did not share the same enthusiasm for contemporary, or even folk, art from living artists. Cost wasn’t really the issue; this was, and remains, a demographic with disposable income. For those who did collect, paintings depicting regional hunting scenes or George Washington were the norm. So for this patron to buy a new work as gaudy and imaginative as mine — from a living artist, someone young and unestablished from the area — wow. That took courage and confidence. She was a woman who knew her mind and didn’t care if others approved of her taste. As she had said, she had been all around the world and seen all kinds of art. Washingtonian tastes be damned!
The patron and I didn’t keep in touch, not for lack of wanting but really because of the pace my life was moving. The following month, we suffered a family tragedy, which we were still recovering from when my wedding day arrived. Then I had a huge work project to wrap up at the same time I was preparing for my honeymoon. Shortly thereafter, as planned, I resigned from my job and we moved to New York City. It was a whirlwind! But I did wonder about this patron from time to time, especially after a photo of “Klimt Kitty” was published in the University of Miami’s literary magazine. When I was in grad school three years after meeting the patron, I discovered that my piece “Klimt Kitty” was purchased at an auction. That made me wonder what happened to the patron; I knew she adored the work and would’ve been surprised if she had sold it. Unfortunately, a quick Google search led to her obituary. She died on July 9th, the same day that my dear uncle died that summer, which also happens to be my mother’s birthday. Too much of a coincidence, eh?
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
Truly everywhere. Every lived experience, including conversations I’ve had or overheard and details I’ve observed in passing. Family history, personal travels, social interactions, and things I’ve read or watched all contribute. My creative work is a potpourri of influences. I have a Salvadoran mother and a New Yorker father; I was raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.; educated in Iowa, Virginia, and New York City; and have worked, studied, traveled, and created everywhere from Peru to Pittsburgh. How could I not be a hodgepodge of so much?
One project that exemplifies the range of my influences is a conceptual art work called “Working Women: Unseen Labor in The Library of Congress.” You can view it here. It won my university’s top prize in the Arts & Humanities for graduate research projects. Here’s my artist statement:
Maria Popova, founder of the popular blog Brain Pickings, writes that naming someone “confers dignity upon life and gives meaning to existence.” So what does it say that the Library of Congress features thousands of unnamed women in its photo archives? Without names, these archival women lack basic human dignity, ostensibly because they were not considered important enough to have their names recorded. Many of them are working women — plantation slaves, housewives, telephone operators, factory workers, etc. These women are unidentified in image captions far more often than their male counterparts. That means that their labor (and its importance) also goes uncredited. These women appear to have little value other than being generic female placeholders in the annals of American history.
For this project, I have sourced images of unidentified working women from the Library of Congress online archives and created a new online archive (libraryofcongresswomen.weebly.com). My website mimics the style and format of online library archives. I present two sets of images as digital photos with captions. One set shows the women with their original Library of Congress captions, in which they are unnamed. The second set shows the women with my re-imagined captions. These new captions use fictitious names and elaboration on the women’s stories. Though the captions are fictitious (due to the library’s original information gaps), I root them in historical issues and situations prevalent at the time the photos were taken. As such, my reimagined captions highlight women’s unseen labor and professional challenges. Examples include the unfair division of domestic tasks between husband and wife in traditional households to lower pay for women in the workplace. I have designed the archive so that I can keep adding to it and eventually name the full collection of unnamed Library of Congress women.
 Popova, Maria. “How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence.” Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/23/robin-wall-kimmerer-gathering-moss-naming/
 The full scope of my research on this topic is available here: http://awomanspowerandplace.weebly.com/
 The Library of Congress is an agency of the legislative branch of the U.S. government and the country’s official library.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try! My parents literally met because of the civil war in El Salvador, so even though I wasn’t raised Catholic, I’ve had some vague notion of liberation theology my whole life. I’m an AmeriCorps alumna and much of my creative work since college has dealt with social justice in one way or another in large part because of that experience. As an undergraduate, I won a national emerging artist grant from the Puffin Foundation, which recognizes art projects that deal with social justice. The mission of Quail Bell Magazine definitely deals with justice and goodness; you can read it here. Most of my artist residencies have dealt with community-building in some way. Since 2019, I’ve been the artist-in-residence at HeartShare Human Services of New York, where I use art to inspire and encourage agency and expression from adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
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. You don’t need permission to become an artist. If you wait for someone else’s permission, you will never do it. Other people might encourage you — if you are lucky — but you cannot depend on others dreaming for you or being your cheerleader. You’re the only one who can really make your art career happen. Find the confidence and resources to do what you want to do. Let go of your fear, relish the process, and create. You could spend your whole life waiting for the perfect time only to realize it will never come to you — you have to go after it. The story in my book Heaven Is a Photograph is very much about an art student who says, “I need to do what I want,” and her struggle to arrive at that point.
2. If you don’t prioritize your art, nobody else will. Many artists get sucked into the stresses and drama of their day jobs and personal relationships that bring little value to their lives. Journalism and advertising are common fields for artists to find day jobs as graphic designers, copywriters, and photographers, but they’re also competitive fields that emphasize production under tight deadlines and a lot of pressure. This kind of work often drains practitioners and doesn’t leave them much energy to create after hours. There’s not often a lot of individual creative vision in these fields, either. No matter what your day job is, you need to carve out time for your art. If you keep at it, with a lot of strategy and some luck, perhaps your art is something you can eventually pursue full-time (if that’s what you want.) I have become so much better at sussing out time-sucks and, on a related note, haters, saboteurs, and moochers. Petty people are not worth your time. Protect your time because you can never get it back. My short film Brooklyn Burial deals with not letting others having power over you.
3. Take pride in what you create. Creating is a process and all of us should value that process. Your journey is unique to you and really shouldn’t be compared to anyone else’s. Instead, focus on your own vision and progress as you chart your path. I am so happy that I have become much better at evaluating criticism. I have a much stronger sense of which critiques are relevant to my creative practice and which I can disregard. I champion my creations because I know that in order to achieve my personal definition of success, I need to be the biggest believer in my work. My short film Bottled is one that I wrote, directed, and starred in. (My only other collaborator was the composer, Deniz Zeynep.) I’d been told that such a project couldn’t be pulled off well because of all the technical limitations. Yet now Bottled is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, premiered at the New York Long Island Film Festival (where it was nominated for “Best ‘Short’ Short”), and has been curated into several other festivals and arts initiatives. When I completed the project, I was proud of it and knew it was worth sharing with the world.
4. Advocate for yourself and your art. Find out what you need to make the kind of art you envision and go after it. You probably won’t be able to secure all of the resources you want all at once, but there’s no shame in taking things step by step. Steppingstones bring you closer to your destination. And if you do have an opportunity where someone else is footing the bill and able to meet all or most of your requirements, take that opportunity seriously. Since I was the inaugural artist at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan, I had to communicate my needs to staff who had never supported an artist before. I learned that you can never assume that people understand your needs! People can try to anticipate your needs and have great intentions, but you still have to advocate for yourself.
5. Promote what you create. One of the uncomfortable truths is it doesn’t matter how brilliant and engaging your work is if there’s no audience. You need to find your audience and connect with them. Not every piece or project you create will necessarily have the same audience. There’s no problem with that; it’s a lack of awareness and effort for your audience that is a problem. Hone in on the right audience for each project and shift as necessary. Figure out what kind of marketing and promotion will allow you to reach that audience. I have two books that were released the same month, December 2020, and am adjusting my promotion plan as I go. Two Plays: True Believer And Mi Abuela Queen of Nightmares (Table Work Press) is a book of two plays, as the book implies, one by Justice Hehir and one by me. Justice and I won TWP’s national playwriting competition at the beginning of 2020, but never got to have our plays presented to an audience because of the pandemic. Now we have our plays on the page instead. The other book is Hello, New York: The Living And Dead (Alien Buddha Press), a photography collection of New York City photos I edited during the pandemic. Most of the pictures were actually taken in 2018 and 2019, but I didn’t finalize the images until the COVID-19 era, when I was unable to safely visit most of the locations featured. With as many challenges as there are to promoting new works now, I’m ready to take them on.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have always believed in universal healthcare and the pandemic has only reinforced that belief. All of us need safe, stable, and sanitary communities with accurate and well-distributed public health information. We need access to health facilities that are organized and efficient as well as empathetic, inclusive, and culturally sensitive. We need healthcare workers who are knowledgeable and thorough. We need a system of support for all of these things, including the cost of our care. This shouldn’t just fall on doctors and nurses or even activists. It should fall on all of us. Even artists have a place in the healthcare ecosystem (and I have experience with such roles.) Being sick and unable to pay shouldn’t be a reason to die when our society has the treatment, technology, and resources to prevent that fate. We can’t really progress as a society without this basic security in place for everyone.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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 just might see this.
Cindy Sherman! I love her approach to art-making and representation. I admire her work and would be thrilled to learn more about her practice and honestly anything else she’s willing to share.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I’m on Instagram at @christine_sloan_stoddard and my public Facebook page is Facebook.com/artistchristinestoddard. You can (and should!) also follow Quail Bell Magazine. The Facebook page is Facebook.com/quailbellmagazine and the Instagram handle is @quailbellmag. The Facebook page for Quail Bell Press & Productions is Facebook.com/quailbell.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me!