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Six of the Best 45: Stella Untalan


Allsorts, marker, ink, flashe on 6-inch-square birch panels

Part 45 of an interview series in which artists reply to the same six questions. Stella Untalan, an artist from Philadelphia, is someone who epitomizes the possibilities of abstract art: rigorous formal repetitions of elements, the grid as a basis for the exploration of two-dimensional space, and the beauty of color , line, and texture. You can see more of her work here.

Philip Hartigan: What medium do you chiefly use, and why?

Stella Untalan: Paper is my favorite surface. It is sexy in every way. The surface responds to everything you offer it  — at each touch it reacts and I react back.

My work for the past few years falls into two categories: Small works on paper, and drawings on painted panels or MDF. I’m currently using various graffiti-based markers by POSCA, Montana, and Krink. I mix some custom colors for the refillable Montana markers.

The work is on paper, museum quality board, or synthetic papers like Yupo. Works on paper focus on a vocabulary of marks. Some of these marks have been in my work for decades. Work on panels and MDF explore repetition and measurement and are leading to more sculptural work — drawings wrapping around and crossing planes.

PH: What piece are you currently working on?

SU: If you visit my studio space you’ll see it is set up for multiple projects at one time. I have designated walls for work I’ve just begun, work in progress, and a display wall. 

Right now if you came to visit me you would see my Allsorts series, a grouping of 6 inch x 6 inch cradled birch panels. These are minimalist drawings made with markers and ink on painted backgrounds of a single hue. These were inspired by and named after one of my favorite colorful licorice candies.

Another wall holds my Rondo series drawn on 6-inch rounds of MDF cutouts. These drawings are much like the Allsorts but using a different form factor that doesn’t play to its roundness. 

On my worktable I have a series of postcard-sized small works on Hahnenmüle watercolor paper. These are experimental in nature, extending my vocabulary of marks and their interaction with each other. I’m sharing the drawings and process on my Patreon account as I make them. 

Rondos (from top: Looming, Equator, Unraveling), marker, ink, flash
on 5/8 inch MDF, 6-inch-rounds

PH: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

SU: I’m always surprised with how my drawings develop. I set minimal criteria like medium, substrate, and size and that’s it. Since all the work is driven by materials and process, every deviation reveals something new. The addition of new materials requires giving in to their nature. The biggest surprises come with trying to increase the scale of my marks and looking for new tools to make lines.

One of the most exciting projects that I completed recently was a collaboration with New York City poet David Zimmer. He discovered my Mapping the Terrain drawings on the ello network. Something about the drawings moved him to write poems in response to the series. He asked me if it was ok and he sent me each poem as he wrote them. I love them all. It almost feels as though my drawings were made in response to his poems.

It seemed to me that this was a perfect project for a zine, so I decided to make a side-by-side relationship of the drawings and poems. I’ve made signed copies available at my little art shop and gifts for my top level Patreon patrons.

Right now I’m making larger and calligraphic marks. Their negative spaces are intriguing. The layering of marks or their tangency is of particular interest.

PH: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

SU: Photography and Poetry. Photography reveals vocabularies and the referential nature of repetitive marks. I love to read poetry. I find poetry to have a direct relationship with my drawing. I love its rhythm and abstraction.

Mapping the Terrain, ink and flashe on paper, each 4 inches x 6 inches

PH: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

SU: I’m not sure which was the first but I can remember being reprimanded in grade school, I think I was seven or eight, for drawing when I should have been paying attention to my academic subjects. I would make still life drawings all day long. I also made lots of comic books. I love graphic narrative.

PH: Finally, and you can answer this in any way you want: why are you an artist? 

SU: I know it sounds trite but I’m compelled to make art. I love to spend time drawing wherever I am, and the rituals of a studio practice, and living an artist’s life.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe to my Artist Newsletter via the link in the right-hand column? Thanks, and keep creating.

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