My encounter with Cynthia Stanchak was a long time coming. We’d had some near misses with emails and friends recommending that we connect. Finally, in October 2013, we sat together in the 38|39 gallery space, which was filled with a collection of her paintings, both new and old.
Cynthia’s painting process was formatively developed around a collaboration with freelance photographer, Bill Daniels, on his farm property in Iowa. Their relationship was one of easy attraction. Their process naturally flowed from Cynthia’s artistic vision, balanced with Bill’s photographic know-how, and the physical inspiration at their fingertips. (Namely, a panoply of rusted metal tools and scraps.)
On one particular visit, Cynthia and Bill began an impromptu photo excavation around the farm. The resulting images inspired a three-day production frenzy where Bill produced dozens of prints for Cynthia from his basement darkroom. Their collaboration resulted in a graphic index of rustic and architectural forms that Cynthia would then infuse with a dreamscape she had seen, just once, in color. She does not recall ever dreaming in color before or after her 1971, singular, vivid encounter.
Her dream was such that it permanently embedded images in her mind, which she would draw upon in her painting, to this day. Specifically, Cynthia began painting on the surface of the photographs and the result was that, “[they] had come up with a new form of art that neither of [them] had ever seen before.”
The compositions that Cynthia picked out of their contact sheets were clearly influenced by her background in design, and training in architecture, with a love of mid-century furnishings, (not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus movement, Dutch de stijl, Le Corbusier, and Herman Miller.) Cynthia observed that, “They were all in [the photographs]!” She continued, “For me it was about combining my love and passion for paint and texture and color with my background in design and affinity for studying the kind of artists and designers I shared [above].”
Going back, even further to Cynthia’s childhood in a small suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, she had an exceptional experience when it came to nurturing her creativity. Educated in an old schoolhouse where the art room was a veritable free for all. With the building slated for demolition after her middle school class graduated, a little paint on the floor was celebrated. Cynthia’s teacher, Mr. Peterson, knew how to nurture a passion for creativity in his students. It was a warm and friendly space, with no restrictions, where she would stay for long hours after school, experimenting, until her mother called her home.
Cynthia’s art making continued, with unusual successes. In 7th grade she was already given her first solo exhibit! She recalls, “not only was I allowed the privilege of standing back and seeing my work displayed in a public space, but a couple of pieces sold. So, for me, it was a huge boost and confirmation to keep on going with it. so, I had really good luck early on.”
But creating and exhibiting wasn’t the only source of her confidence. A great debt is owed to her Aunt, Emily Perriot Nicholas, who was affectionately known as “Aunt Puddy”. Cynthia describes her as a great source of inspiration, “She was such a strong woman, way back in the day. She was very creative in her own personal style and the way that she did things, when it wasn’t at all popular to be that way as a woman.” Cynthia’s relationship with her aunt taught her to be confident in her own creativity, “She always allowed me to express myself around her.” But it wasn’t just the work of Aunt Puddy, all of the women in her family had the unusual privilege at that time to attend college, and they went on to teach others.
Having begun creating work at such a young age, Cynthia has done something that many can not claim. She has sustained her practice throughout her adult life, and continued that process from the 1970s and 80s, and her work has managed to stand the passage of time. Though she is continuing to develop and layer the work, her form remains in tact. She has recently revisited an archive of five negative books, and is mixing digital, analog, and painting into her new work.
She expressed great pleasure in reviewing the archives as a visual resource to mix old and new, infusing what was nearly dormant with new life. What makes her most recent work particularly interesting is the introduction of the human figure. Regarding this new work, Cynthia is, “excited to explore that, and I see the next couple of years exclusively having figures in it. I’ve shot quite a bit of that already.”
Cynthia’s practice of making art has invigorated her own life, and has regularly been affirmed by collectors and friends. The most distinctive image that I am left with, after our conversation, is the impact that a middle school teacher, an aunt, or a friend with a complimentary skill can have on the life of a person. I’m reminded of the words of Nicole Baker Flugham, who observes that marginalization can happen to women and girls in any geography, and in all socioeconomic strata; but that the community has a role in supporting the talents of young people, and therefore can provide the self-esteem and exposure to inspire, and thereby fulfill, what each of us are meant for.
If you happen to be in the Pittsburgh area, tomorrow:
Cynthia Stanchak will be speaking!
At an International Interior Design Association event
Hosted by Architectural Clay Products
1025 Beaver Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA
Dec 11 5-8pm