We had the good fortune of connecting with Stephanie Mercado and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Stephanie, how do you think about risk?
When I was in college one of our art professors lectured us on the difficulty of becoming an artist and said “Out of a 100 of you, 10% will continue making art when you graduate, of that 10%, 1% might have a career in the arts.” Life is a series of decisions, some of them yield positive results and others are learning experiences and opportunities for growth. I take many soft-risks. I have made some life-changing decisions that have had a positive impact on my work and have connected me with wonderful people across the globe. I have applied for exhibitions abroad and artist residencies for which I have received some awards and many rejections. Rejection is part of the experience. Other risks have included working a job with a swing shift from 5 pm – 2 am so that I could make art from 8 am – 4 pm. I printed and painted in my bedroom before I had a proper studio space, sniffing ink, and squeezing between my etching press and my bed to prove my commitment to the work. I have traveled international distances to exhibit my artwork and see the artwork of artists I love on a shoestring budget, with 18-hour itineraries, overnight trains, many transfers, and narrow timelines. In 2017 I was offered a solo show in Houston and my work was crated and ready to go, when hurricane Harvey struck and all shipping and freight came to a halt. I managed to find a shipping company to fulfill the shipment on a Thursday and the show opened two days later on Saturday. I had committed my work to the gallery and I was not about to leave them without a show. The skies cleared up and many Houstonians attended and were relieved to have something to do. Whenever I dedicate time to creating a body of work, I am making choices and decisions. Should I finish the painting or finish printing the edition of linocuts? Should I update my website or apply for the grant opportunity I saw a month ago. It is a risk to apply for an opportunity when time is limited and energy comes and goes with caffeinated rushes and crashes. Lately, I have been interested in expanding my skill set and have been studying digital media, such as motion graphics, animation, and web development. One of my classes taught me how to embed virtual experiences on webpages using my iPhone and my mind is wrapping itself around the varied ways I can create new and engaging content and how I can work with other artists to create immersive experiences. This new skill set has been useful at a time when many in-person events have been canceled and exhibition and programming have shifted to virtual platforms. Learning new skills is also a commitment and an investment of time and energy, but it is invigorating and inspiring to connect with working creatives and talented students. My job experience has also greatly impacted my life. For example, I used to manage an art gallery with a large roster of artists. As a gallery director, print shop manager and artist assistant I learned about the various paths artists take to be successful creatives, and that the definition of success is a spectrum. As an artist, working in the art world is risky. It can be difficult and discouraging. I found that some people believe real artists do not have day jobs and real artists make a living off of their artwork. It is also challenging when an employer rejects all of your ideas, because being an artist can also have negative connotations and cause one to have low expectations of you. There are common beliefs about artists like – artists are flakey or don’t really want to work. The artists, creatives, and cultural workers I know are incredibly hard-working people with a passion and commitment to producing high-quality work, as it is a reflection of themselves and their craft. Being an artist is like being an alchemist and a magician, by turning earth and light into ethereal experiences, documenting moments in time, inspiring change in others, and trying to turn earthly elements into gold. The path is not linear, and it is risky, but well worth the effort.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am a multidisciplinary artist. I am a painter and printmaker currently dabbling in digital media. I grew up in a fabric store and taught myself to sew when I was six years old, so I have also used fabric in previous bodies of work. I believe textiles influenced my love of pattern, color and texture. My work is primarily focused on women. The most recent body of work merges printmaking with collage and explores the psychology of labor and the proverbial American Dream. The imagery is constructed from relief prints with iconography derived from pop culture, folklore, historical paintings, household items, flora, fauna and any items that are relevant to my experience. I am most proud of my recent body of work, a series of vessels and bouquets titled “Flourish”. They are symbolic of overcoming the limitations of class and gender roles – to grow and flower into being. The arts are transformative and this body of work captures a state of mind. As a child, I was surrounded by seamstresses, tailors, carpenters and artisans. My grandfather was a self-taught upholsterer and managed to build a business from scratch and support a family of 12 with his talent. He had an upholstery business where I saw him masterfully restore the interiors of classic cars, freehandedly draw sewing patterns, craft high-quality leatherwork and make his grandchildren one-of-a-kind backpacks and messenger bags with our initials and big bold hearts. I did not have access to art classes as a child, but my exposure to my mom’s fabric store and my grandfather’s business taught me to produce the highest quality craftwork and taught me to have a strong work ethic. I was intuitively creative but did not begin to learn how to make art until I was in high school and decided to pursue it in college. I have always known that I want to be a maker and a do-er. In that sense, my experience has been linear. It has not been linear in the sense that there are no definitive milestones or directions for an artist to take, the way other professions have built-in benchmarks and markers of success. I learned about the variation within the arts on the job as a gallery director, by working with many emerging, mid-career, and established artists. I would read their CVs and look up the residencies, grants, and awards they had obtained. I would hear about their special projects, their collaborations with museums, and public art opportunities. I learned the process of preparing for a show, budgeting for a show, and the importance of keeping an archive or inventory system. Working in a gallery taught me about the business side of the arts, which was not addressed when I was in school. Every free moment and weekend I have to myself is an art-making and learning marathon. The most challenging aspect of being an artist is preventing burnout. On the days that I feel tired and hesitant to throw myself into my work, I watch documentaries on other artists and listen to art and design podcasts. It helps remind me that I have a mission and that mission is to make work.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The first place I would show my friend is my grandmother’s garden. My grandmother passed away earlier this year and spent 30 years working on building a garden that is full of roses, succulents, cacti, ferns, and trees with a touch of improvised installation art. She was a collector and would find knick-knacks, toys, and pieces of string and tie them up in unexpected places. My grandmother’s garden has become a subject of a new series of paintings and a sanctuary for me. After the visit to the garden, we would go for a walk in Griffith Park’s Ferndell Trail because the quarantine has made me want to immerse myself in nature. I love the tropical plants, the sycamore trees, and the frog and turtle filled creek that runs along the fern trail. It is a lovely place for a walk and the plants provide plenty of shade. There are bridges covered in moss and it smells of wet soil. In non-pandemic times I would invite my friend to galleries and museums to look at some art, or to a movie. I would also invite them to dinner at one of my favorite steak houses. Damon’s steak house in Glendale is a charming Polynesian restaurant that has been around since 1937. The food is delicious, the servers are friendly and they have a tiki bar where one can order the stiffest Mai Thai’s known to mankind. During the pandemic, I have ordered takeout from Damon’s and enjoyed it at home, while watching Pen15 – a hilarious television series created by two comedians who play themselves as middle-school kids in the year 2000. It is a delightful throwback.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Shout out to all of the women in the arts sector who are often doing emotional labor on top of the manual labor workload. We are the strategists working preemptively to make sure everyone’s needs are met and people feel like they are a part of a community. I would like to acknowledge the hard work and commitment of all of the women I have worked with in the past through the gallery sector, artist assistants, curators, writers, and interior designers. When I worked at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, I met some inspiring women who were passionate about their work and invested their time, energy, and souls into their work and roles as leaders in the arts. Shout out to all of the artists who identify as women who have struggled to find a platform for their work and are underrepresented in the arts – and the women who are working behind the scenes to change this.