Portraits, Vol 5: Stella Nall
PORTRAITS, VOL 5
APORTA Shop ambassador, writer, maker
In the newest issue of PORTRAITS, I had the pleasure of talking to Stella Nall, a Montana based multimedia artist and poet. Stella is a mixed race Indigenous woman and a first descendant of the Crow Tribe. Stella is a bit of a local legend in the Missoula art scene with her work being showcased at the Art Mobile of Montana, The Montana Museum of Art and Culture, and other public and private collections. Stella is also one of Missoula’s favorite baristas at Clyde Coffee. Apart from her artwork, Stella is in a band called Cry Baby, find them on Instagram @crybaby.the.band for all their updates. We commissioned a piece of original artwork from Stella earlier this year as we updated and reinvested in our Land Honoring statement here at APORTA Shop. We are head over heels in love with the art that Stella created for us and when you shop in store or online, you will receive a print of her art with every purchase.
APORTA Shop: Tell us a bit about how your art came into fruition. I know you studied Printmaking, amongst other things in college, how did you know/decide that this was the future for you?
Stella Nall: I have been drawn towards art making for my whole life, my parents are both very creative and I was exposed to all sorts of art growing up with them. The path that I took to get to where I am now is a bit long and winding, though. When I was initially considering careers and applying to colleges, I actually envisioned myself going into fashion design - which feels a little wild to think about now, but I was pretty set on it. At the time, the art which was most influential to me was regalia. My mom is a really talented beadworker and made all of our powwow outfits when I was a kid, and I have always been interested in clothing construction and design. I wanted to make sustainable clothing which incorporated some of my favorite components of contemporary and historical Indigenous fashion (beadwork, elks teeth, jingles, leather, ..!). I was also very interested in creating outdoor apparel and gear, particularly for skiing, climbing and mountain biking, with similar design nods to my culture. I felt a lot of pressure to go out of state for higher education, and applied to Pratt, Parsons and Cornell for fashion, and Colorado State University and Utah State University because of their outdoor apparel design programs. The scholarships that I received for these places were not enough to enable me to go without accruing a frightening amount of debt, so I kind of froze for a bit and didn’t know what to do.
The summer after high school passed and I had pretty much decided not to go to college, when a friend of my parents who now works making ski backpacks in Bozeman mentioned that she went to the University of Montana for their costume design program, and used the design and construction knowledge from her time there to form her business. I went to Missoula with my mom later that week, and after checking out the costume department I decided to try it. I applied like two weeks before classes started but was able to enroll. Pretty quickly though I realized that the program was not for me, and I ended up being rather miserable. I developed severe anxiety and depression during this time too, and struggled to find a connection to Missoula. After my first year I decided to drop out of school, and moved to Alameda, CA. I was really lucky to land an internship with a textile startup there with some of the most inspiring and kind people I have met, and it changed the whole way that I thought about the world, especially regarding art.
They were really encouraging and included me in their conversations about their business, and treated me as an equal the whole time - which was so powerful, and helped me to see myself as a capable human. They took my art seriously and I started to for the first time too. We frequently took trips to Oakland, San Francisco, and other neighboring places to see what artists and designers were up to. We went to art museums, pop-ups, studios, and even a graphic design conference that Adobe held. I began creating art in a serious way, and at the end of my time there I felt like a completely different version of myself. I am still so grateful for my time there, it really changed my life I think.
After a few months though, I realized that I missed the mountains and my family and the friends that I had made in Missoula, and decided to reenroll in school after all - but this time in art, psychology, and creative writing classes. It was a completely different experience. I still struggled with mental health, but it was more manageable because I was doing what I loved and had tools to help me through it. I felt connected to the faculty and peers, and the art community of Missoula. I was given my first mural opportunity through the art school, and fell in love with painting on a large scale. I met the friends who are now my bandmates in CryBaby, and became involved in the Indigenous community in Missoula. I started working at Clyde Coffee, where my coworkers became very good pals, and the manager and owner were incredibly supportive of my art and gave me opportunities to show it there. They encouraged me to have music shows, art pop-ups, and to do creative projects for the business. I felt really safe to show my work there because I was surrounded by supportive people who care about me, and after that I started showing my work at other businesses for first Friday events.
I also did an internship with the Radius Gallery, and that experience was very formative for me too. The owners were incredibly kind and answered my questions about artist gallery relationships and what it could look like to be a working artist. I learned how to document artwork properly with them, how to keep an inventory, price work, safely ship it, and so many more things that I think really have helped me get started with my career.
The last big thing that I can think of which felt like it solidified the possibility of really working as an artist for me was a residency that I completed through Open A.I.R. at Home ReSource. They provided me with support, the materials of my dreams, and a great place to work. The other artists in residence ranged from established artists, to other people like me who were just starting out. The experience was really eye opening, and the conversations that I had / connections I made there really helped me to take myself seriously as an artist! After the residency was completed I was invited to join the Western Montana Creative Initiative’s Indigenous Art Advisory Committee, which I am currently part of and so excited about. I am also now working with the Art Mobile of Montana, which feels awesome for similar reasons.
AS: What designers and/or artists have inspired you historically? Recently?
Stella answered this question beautifully and gave us an absolutely incredible list of local and far away artists that have inspired her throughout her life. I have done my best to compile their websites or Instagram pages and I highly encourage you to look through them as they are all incredibly talented.
SN: Magda Boreysza, Jon Carling, Ishii Nobuo, Michelle Summers, Erica Lord, Adara Sanchez, Ellen Von Weigand, James Black (Black Marrow Tattoo), Courtney Hassmann, Anastassia Zamaraeva, Elizabeth Jean Younce, Julie Buffalohead, Molly Murphy Adams, Courtney Blazon, Doug Turman, Kenzie Olson, Jules Lucero, Mary Leona, John Isaiah Pepion, Bear Fox Chalk, Christa Carleton, Jeffrey Gibson, Raven Clark, Sarah Conti, Joshua Bacha, Chien Nie, Charlie Draws Carrots, Anita Moore-Nall (my mum), Abby French, Mary Ann Testagrossa, Daphne Sweet, Agnes Cecile, Aubrey Pongulelert, Monica BringsYellow (APORTA Shop Featured Artist), Steve Krutek, Dayna Danger, Crystal Moery, Beth Lo, Jason Clark, Rose Greenberg, Stephanie Dishno, Bruce Kitts, Mirtle Makes, Krissy Ramirez, Jim Bailey, Andra Jenko, Salisha Old Bull, Lady Pajama, Christine Sutton, Jo Big Mountain, Jamie Okuma, Alasdair Lion, Kammi Pilati, Rio Weber, Cathy Weber, Michelle Louis, Cassie Loretta Smith, Barbara Kuebel, Barro Alto, Elisa Uberti, Cooper Malin, Molly Rivera, Sukha Worob, Lane Chapman, Brooke Armstrong, Mimi Matsuda, Be Thunder Creations, Trey Hill, Anomal Press (Sold at APORTA Shop), Drake Gerber, Ootsipskii Pikuni Boy, Haypeep, Ashe Walker, Michelle Postma, Dani Clauson, John Buck, Jessica Roux, DG House, Elias Jade Not Afraid, Adrian Arleo, Two Hold Studios, Julie Harbers, B. Yellowtail, Ben Pease, Studio Mano, Beyond Buckskin, John Casey, Reinaldo Gil Zambrano, Sunshine Cobb, Thundercliffe Press, Brad Allen, Elizabeth Dove, Catheryn Mallory, Jennifer Comb, Theo Ellsworth, Nicholas Galanin, John Murie, Juane Quick-To-See Smith, Nancy Erickson, lots of others too !! ! !! :-)
AS: How do you feel that Covid-19 has impacted your practice? Have there been any upsides?
SN: Covid has been difficult in a lot of ways, but it actually has been pretty beneficial for my work. Being forced to minimize social interactions left me with lots of time for the studio. My day job shut down for the pandemic, and is still closed for renovations, so I have for the first time experienced working full time as an artist. I am not sure I would have been brave enough to make the leap yet on my own, but working full time on creative projects has been going well so far, and I am grateful that I am able to do it!
"I think that sometimes when people think of Indigenous art they think of it as dated or something of the past, but that isn’t true."
AS: Your art is so modern, but has a sense of nostalgia as well. How do you balance your ancestral background with your connection to the modern art aesthetic?
SN: Some of my work draws from techniques and knowledge from my culture, and some of it I developed based on aesthetics or to speak to my own experiences. I am Indigenous, but I am also living and working today and exposed to modern art in the same ways that other artists are. I think that sometimes when people think of Indigenous art they think of it as dated or something of the past, but that isn’t true. Artists practicing traditional art today should be seen as contemporary, they are living and making work today. Knowledge from my ancestors and our traditions inform my work, but I also have a degree in fine art, and the knowledge and experiences from my time in higher education are equally influential I bet.
Most of my work is not what would be considered traditional to my tribes, but I do incorporate some imagery and techniques from my culture, such as beadwork and elk’s teeth. For example, I often combine beadwork or other culturally significant processes with two dimensional forms of art-making that I learned elsewhere, such as printmaking, painting and illustration. By tying traditional processes and aesthetics to techniques that the viewer may already be familiar with, I hope to expand the amount of people who are interested in engaging with Indigenous art forms. I also hope that this work will challenge the existing stereotypes and expectations that the viewer may hold regarding what Indigenous art should look like, and help foster the understanding that Indigenous art is contemporary art.
Reflections, 2021 (example of beadwork on illustration)
AS: How are you practicing sustainability in your work?
SN: I try to limit the amount of new materials that I purchase for my work, and whenever possible I use recycled or found objects. I try not to throw away pieces that I see as mistakes, and rather paint over them or deconstruct and reconstruct them into something new. Home ReSource is a great source for finding materials for my projects - most of the wooden panels that I use are made from donated hollow doors from there! I also often use scrap wood that is discarded from hardware stores or construction sites (with permission from these places of course!). I am always experimenting with new processes and surfaces to try to find more conscious ways of creating. An idea that I have been thinking about lately is to take apart the wooden delivery pallets that are left behind grocers and restaurants, and stretch canvas over them to create a surface. I am excited to try it out!
Two Heads are Better Than One, 2020 (example of sustainable painting, using donated house paint and a wooden door from Home ReSource)
AS: Do you feel that your Psychology background feeds into you art? Vice versa, do you think art has fed into your understanding of psychology?
SN: My background in psychology is more apparent in some bodies of work than others. I think it is particularly evident in my large scale abstract paintings. I’ve started referring to them as ‘process paintings’ because they act as a venue for me to work through my feelings. Each of these pieces stems from an experience, emotion or impactful time in my life. I begin by thinking of the very first memory of the matter, and then work forward through all of the thoughts, recollections and emotions up until the present. I work on a given piece until I feel as though I have thought all there is to think about it, or at least until I have found some sort of peace within myself about it. When I first started making these pieces I viewed them through the psychoanalytic theory as a form of sublimation. I initially thought of them as a way to disappear my emotional pain. They can still be viewed through this lens, but I now see them a bit differently. Rather than to dissipate anxieties and sorrows, I look at these paintings as a way to enflesh them into something that I can see and touch. By giving body to difficult emotions, they become more tangible, and as such are easier for me to understand.
Confections, Lies, 2020 (example of ‘process painting’)
I think that art has helped me to understand psychology better on an individual level, and it is definitely integral to my self care and managing mental illness, but I am not sure that it has significantly affected my nomothetic understanding of the field.
AS: What do you think the future of Native art looks like in Missoula? What has your experience been like in the changing demographics and culture of Missoula over the past few years?
SN: There are a lot of great efforts in the community geared towards building a more accepting future for Indigenous artists and I am excited to see them take off! The Missoula Art Museum has a gallery space dedicated to showing the work of contemporary Native artists. The Western Montana Creative Initiative has developed an Indigenous Arts Advisory Committee to advocate for and facilitate opportunities for Indigenous artists, which I am really excited to be a member of - I think great things are coming. Open A.I.R. has inclusive residency programs and does a lot to support Native Artists. Matrix Press, run by Jim Bailey at the University of Montana, brings in nationally and internationally known artists to produce limited edition prints in collaboration with students and printmaking faculty, many of which are Indigenous artists. The University of Montana’s art program offers awesome classes on historical and contemporary Native American Art taught by knowledgeable Indigenous faculty, and the Montana Museum of Art and Culture does a lot to support Native artists too. The YWCA just had an art call for their new space which prioritized submissions by Indigenous artists. The ZACC and the Radius gallery are awesome too, both places frequently show contemporary Native work and are knowledgeable and inclusive in their practices. I haven’t lived in Missoula long enough to speak to the changing demographics, but I have felt very uplifted by the art community in my time here so far, and hope that the future of the art scene will continue making progress and supporting Indigenous artists
AS: What’s been something you’ve been incredibly proud of in the last year? Gotta have a little good with your pandemic, ya know!
SN: Two of my pieces were purchased for permanent collections in museums, and I had my poetry published for the first time! :-) I was also really excited / proud of working with you on the land acknowledgement for APORTA, thank you!