When Jo Stealey leans over and plunges her arms elbow deep into a tub filled with cream-colored slurry—a combination of fiber pulp and water—it seems plausible that her husband has dubbed her “Queen of Big Messes.” At MU’s Fiber Studio, located in a repurposed industrial dormitory kitchen, she greets us in a knee-length rubber apron, informing us, “I usually wear rubber farm boots, too.” Holding a frame and screen (called a mold and deckle), she reaches into the tub and sieves a rectangle of wet cotton-like fiber, shaking gently to strain out the water. A sheet of paper is born.
Dr. Stealey, Professor of Art, is a fiber artist known worldwide for both her work and workshops. Her art has been featured in exhibitions around the United States as well as abroad in places like Spain and China; currently her work is on display at the PS Gallery in Columbia, Missouri. Her robust teaching schedule includes undergraduate and graduate courses along with workshops across the United States and Europe.
Dr. Stealey says she has always enjoyed the process of “making.” While growing up on a Missouri farm, she learned traditionally domestic art forms like tailoring and needlecraft; her parents also took her to museums in nearby St. Louis. Her vocation came early. She says, “I can remember a moment when I was between 10 and 11 years old when I was sitting on the floor making some kind of Christmas ornament and realizing that I wanted to spend my life making art...I didn’t know how that would happen, or if that was realistic, but I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
This early vision carried her through undergraduate work at MU, where her first ceramics class shaped her direction. “That’s when I realized I was a 3-dimensional kind of person,” she states, “that I think 3-dimensionally.” Additional courses introduced her to new materials. After a basketmaking workshop and, later, a papermaking workshop, something gelled. “I realized that everything I loved about weaving and everything I loved about clay could be combined,” she said, and using basketry and papermaking techniques, she began fashioning sculptural vessels. The material guides her direction. “I really believe that you are in dialogue with the process, the materials, and the techniques,” she says.
Paper is her favorite material for that dialogue. “I think there is a sense that paper is a very ephemeral material, that it’s a very fugitive material—it has no strength, it’s not long lasting—yet there is a strength and a long-term presence that most people don’t even think about.” She uses paper to create three-dimensional pieces that are imposing. In a piece created with her blacksmith husband as a 9/11 memorial, she covered two steel armatures with a beaten flax mixture. The substance shrank as it dried, applying enough pressure to torque the metal. This unintended consequence became a powerful metaphor for the aftermath of the terrorist attacks as well as testament to the physical strength of paper as a medium.
A more common association of paper is with books. Dr. Stealey plays with the form, expanding how a book can contain information from two-dimensional words. “To me, a sculptural book is not necessarily just a functional object,” like a codex. Instead, her books unfold and reveal nooks where an object might wait to be discovered and handled. As she completes a sculptural book, “there will be these little secrets that will be revealed to tell you more and more about the idea in this particular book.“
Dr. Stealey works on multiple projects at a time; during a slump in one series, she shifts to another. “It all just kind of ebbs and flows in and out in what’s turning out to be a lifetime of work,” she tells us. “A single piece that seems extraneous to my body of work over time becomes a full body of work onto itself.” Her current show at the PS Gallery in Columbia features a series of vibrantly-hued paper teapots that began in the 1980s.
Teaching provides her with additional motivation and inspiration. The varied contexts of her teaching—from semester-long courses at MU to shorter intensive workshops at places like the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts—mean that her student body is equally varied, but her mode of operation is the same. Instead of perceiving teaching as a one-way street, she considers it to be an experience in mutual influence. “What I discovered early on in my teaching is my students inspire me as much as I hope to inspire them. And I think they give me far more than I am able to give them.”
Dr. Stealey’s work includes another way of fostering fiber art. As board member for the National Basketry Organization, she is working on a project filming interviews on the basketmaking traditions of two Cherokee families in North Carolina. The project will culminate in a 30-minute documentary entitled “On the Border” to be premiered at a Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts conference in October 2013.
Back at the MU fiber studio, Dr. Stealey demonstrates, from beginning to end, the process in creating a sheet of paper. In demonstrating techniques of painting with pigmented pulp, she jokes about how it’s difficult to make great art while at the same time explaining the techniques. Her narration flows naturally from years of instruction as well as infectious excitement about the material. She shows us how to pigment pulp. “It’s really magic to see what happens,” she promises us, and sure enough, the tiniest bit of pigment, maybe a bit bigger than an eraser head, transforms the cream mush to a vibrant, electric yellow. Dr. Stealey shows us how big messes beget great art.