On this week’s episode of Art on the Air, I spoke with Stephanie Howard about her exhibition Southern Arcana at Laney Contemporary. The show recounts an alternative history where a fierce tribe of women fights against the “powerful and horribly hate-filled southern, mask-wearing male organizations of the past.”
“On both sides of my family there were a lot of storytellers,” Howard recalled, “My grandpa especially was a preacher and told amazing stories. And when he retired his ministry turned into a ministry of art.”
Although untrained, her grandfather created a way to reach his flock through a creative use of crafting.
“He did collage, and then would paint on top of those collages, and put sermons on those,’ said Howard, “And his intent was to pass them out to people and minister on a one on one with these pieces of art. And he did them compulsively.”
As a child, however, she didn’t even think of what her grandfather was doing as art because “growing up in the rural south, art is this fancy, fine art stuff, and that’s the direction I wanted to go in, to be ‘one of those.’
But upon graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design fully trained in “fancy, fine art,” Howard found herself looking for direction.
“I had this crisis of like, okay, I know how to do all of this stuff, what am I going to say?” She recounted, “And that’s when I really got to revisit and look at all of the stuff I had grown up with in a whole new way. And it just sort of flooded through me. And I was like, ‘this is who I am.’”
Southern heritage, however, comes with its “complications,” a fact that Howard is keenly aware of.
“I love the south, and everything I do is about the south, south, south.” She said, “But talking about that, you have to understand that there’s this horrible history associated with that. I was surrounded with all of that in the rural south.”
Fortunately, the area’s troubled history and its stubbornly resilient racism and sexism weren’t the only ideas Howard was exposed to. Her upbringing assured her of that.
“[My] family is full of very strong-willed women and men who support very strong-willed women,” she told me.
The strength of these familial influences is evident in the “historically catalogued” tribe in Southern Arcana. And Howard wishes that she could somehow change the past to where there are more folks like the ones she grew up with.
“In reality, you can’t,” she admitted, “But you want to so bad. You want to create something that just puts the fear of god in these other [hate groups]. And these women, in my mind, do that. They’re terrifying.”
And that’s the essence of both Howard as an artist, and her current exhibition.
“I think it’s just looking back through history and me trying to resolve or make sense of the fact that I love the south so much…and trying to make sense of the horribleness of it,” she summarized, “And I think that’s where this creation came from. It’s just like, well, I can’t go back and change it. I can create a different thing.”
Southern Arcana is on-view at Laney Contemporary at 1810 Mills B Lane Boulevard in Savannah through January 11th, 2020.
Listen to our entire conversation embedded here, which includes an additional interview with outgoing Telfair Museums Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rachel Reese!
Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org. Next week’s artist in conversation will be Kelly Boehmer, with special guest co-host Becca Cook.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.