When I met Sue Palmer Stone at the PhotoNola portfolio reviews last December, the first thing she said to me was “This is my last review of the festival, and I don’t know if my work is a good fit for you.” She was right about one thing – it was my last review – but her series Embodiment turned to be the most gripping, thoughtful, resolved work I had the opportunity to see.
Embodiment: Salvaging A Self is Stone’s ongoing response to being diagnosed with a mysterious autoimmune condition that threatens her mobility. Rather than making literal, documentary photographs of her experience, she pairs self-portraits with sculptural objects – both found and fabricated in her studio – as metaphors for her feeling of disorientation from her body. Pins, glue, tape, and other materials hold her sculptures together while muted self-portraits depict her 5'10" subtly slouching frame. These simple pairings capture the emotional weight of trying to hold herself up.
I spoke with Stone to learn more about her process, ideas, and how she’s doing.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Sue Palmer Stone
Jon Feinstein: While the meaning behind the title “Embodiment” is immediately easy to understand, I’m interested in your use of the subtitle "salvaging a self."
Sue Palmer Stone: At one level, I salvage discarded items from sites I visit, sometimes just by photographing them, and sometimes by actually collecting them for later artistic use. Salvaging a self has to do with rescuing and reclaiming myself—physically and mentally—in the midst of a very tumultuous and painful time period after being diagnosed with a potentially debilitating condition that could leave me paralyzed. In a broader sense, it’s about middle age and the search for a new kind of "utility" after life has had its way with us.
Feinstein: You often photograph in gritty urban spaces, but the images are clean, structured, with a heightened sense of control. Given that the work is about your struggle with a perplexing and frightening autoimmune condition, I read this as being a lot about grabbing control, creating structure, order and power amidst a feeling of powerlessness. Would you agree?
Stone: You nailed it. These kinds of environments (backside of a strip mall, alleyways, construction sites, abandoned lots) have always pulled me in photographically. I think it has to do with their honesty, as opposed to the ultra-curated and manicured spaces we encounter more often, both residential and commercial. But, yes, ironically, while grappling and tussling with the physical materials, and scary concepts, I find solace here. I experience a kind of serenity in discovering, composing, and even posing for the self-portraits, and, for sure, in creating order and peace amidst grime, decay and uncertainty.
Feinstein: Tell me about your selection of materials, found structures etc. How specifically tied are the materials/ implied meanings to your struggle with the autoimmune condition?
Stone: Found, made, or a little of both, subjects are usually tall and narrow, like me in stature, and all show signs of wear and tear that’s real or created. They reflect my body and the deterioration I fear, and the decline inherent in aging.
Feinstein: What's your process look like?
Stone: Driving and walking around, I look for objects to photograph or to collect and take to different sites or back to my studio. So I end up with the found structures in place, and some that I work with sculpturally in the studio. Occasionally, I’ll “tweak” an object, adding a touch of color, or moving/removing something within the scene. Studio sculptures are made with scraps I find out and about. (It’s not beneath me to scavenge from the floor of Home Depot or to dumpster dive.) Similarly, most of the stuff I’m interacting with in the self-portraits is scavenged.
Feinstein: How has this work helped you process your pain/condition/ has making this work helped you figure out things about yourself?
Stone: The physical aspect of the process required a lot of walking, lifting, hauling, and manipulating things with my hands, more so than in any past work. I think I was proving to myself that I could still do all those things. But it has also been frightening wondering if and when I would lose this capacity. So I felt an urgency about this project, even though I didn’t know where it was going for a long while.
Feinstein: Your use of color is cool and muted but also feels very intentioned. A jab of yellow, a vertical pop of blue over a green background, etc. Can you talk a bit about this/ how important is this to you?
Stone: The cool and muted backgrounds and settings were deliberate—there’s nothing warm and sunny about the threat of paralysis. I never wanted the scenes to be too “pretty,” but, rather, kind of utilitarian and cool. Plus, I didn’t want too much light and shadow to distract from the forms. Pops of color are always a painterly tool for me, meant to move the eye and hopefully add a small element of surprise, and sometimes even humor. Oh! Back to your question about how this work has helped me process my condition: It reminded me to try to keep a sense of humor, and that that part of me could never be taken away.
Feinstein: Your self-portraits seem to visually mimic, or be in visual conversation with the structures of the found sculptures. Or maybe vice-versa. Would you agree/ can you discuss?
Stone: This is one of my favorite aspects of this project. I was carrying on this “conversation” subconsciously at the beginning of the process, but it came to the surface pretty quickly. All the images are of aging structures losing some of their utility and structural integrity, held together by efforts to mend, tape, pin, glue, and prop them up. (It bears noting that I had to get new titanium hips—replacement parts—in my early 40s.) With the exception of the common vertical form, I didn’t deliberately set out to create sculptural objects that would resemble the self-portraits, or vice-versa. These connections were made in my editing process.
Feinstein: You've incorporated sculpture into your work in the past -- is your approach or means of looking/ making different with this work? Does the project's backstory make you think about your process/ practice differently?
Stone: There’s definitely a similarity to past works in the way I perceive and frame objects, and in the way that I sometimes have a hand in “modeling,” adding or removing material. The major difference is in the addition of the studio creations, partially due to the discomfort I felt walking around a lot outside. With the added knowledge and fear about my condition since previous projects, my process here involved much more emotion and, ironically, a lot less thinking.
Feinstein: I'm borrowing this question from an interview I read recently with Matthew Leifheit, and I know it doesn't exactly relate to your work/process, but given the nature of this project: how are you feeling?
Stone: A couple years after diagnosis, I’m still mobile with only a small decline, and I’m more hopeful about my ability to reclaim, reinvent myself as need be. Turns out the work itself has been metaphor. Art making is unpredictable. I've learned it’s about tolerating uncertainty, actually embracing and using it.
See more of Sue Palmer Stone’s work HERE.