Of all the art by local artists I’ve seen this summer, there are three pieces that stand out more than anything. These are Gabriel Ramos' “Mi isla” at the MFA and Emily Stehle's “Blue Monster” and COVID Comfort Baskets at The Gallery at Creative Pinellas.
I initially planned to cover these outstanding works of art in two features—one feature devoted to Ramos’ work at Skyway and another feature covering Creative Pinellas’ 2021 Emerging Artists Exhibition. Both of these summer art shows provide an unparalleled opportunity for Tampa Bay artists to get their work noticed year after year.
This is your last weekend to see Stehle’s work at The Gallery at Creative Pinellas (12211 Walsingham Rd., Largo), which will have it up through Aug. 15. Ramos’ “Mi isla” is on display at the MFA (255 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg) through Aug. 22. Creative Pinellas is accepting applications into their Emerging Artist program through Sept. 7, 2021.
This year, I noticed another connection. Gabriel Ramos was Emily Stehle's emerging artist mentor. Not only did these two artists make the most of these great opportunities, on some level, they did it together. And that’s how I chose to interview them—together, on a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas.
I sat with Ramos and Stehle for two hours as they compared and contrasted their pathways to art, their work, and their evolution as artists. Here’s what they had to say.
Gabriel Ramos discovered his love of art in a high school photography class. When Ramos embarked on his first semester of undergrad the following year without an art class, he felt something was missing. He signed up for a Photo 1 class the following semester.
"It totally changed my life," says Ramos, who realized "I need this and I want to pursue this."
Ramos transferred to USF and got his BFA. Afterward, he fortified his portfolio with some video work, applied to grad school, and attended Cornell.
“The environment in Ithaca was so gray,” Ramos tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Color kind of faded away in a weird way.” At the same time, color faded away from Ramos’ work. He started drawing, and as he contemplated how to bring these lines to life, he began sculpting with wire.
Despite coming to Cornell as a photo/video artist, Ramos’ thesis exhibition was all wire. The wire sculptures allowed Ramos to experiment with light, shadow and line in new ways, outside of photography, and it excited him.
The hardest part of becoming an artist for Ramos was figuring out how the whole professional artist thing was going to work.
"My parents were not that supportive at the beginning,” Ramos tells CL. “And I was still trying to figure out my place as an artist, and as a professional artist, how was this going to work. It's quite challenging, and it's still challenging, to some degree, to have a practice continuously and support it."
Emily Stehle, by contrast, is more of a second-act artist. Though she crafted throughout her life, Stehle didn’t enter the realm of fine art until after she retired from her day job as a public writer.
"I never was going to be an artist," says Stehle. "In fact, I didn't know what I was going to do when I was in high school. I had no idea what I was going to go to college for. It depended on what college accepted me, what my major would be…I ended up going to school at Northeastern University and getting my degree in Journalism."
For the next 40 years, Stehle worked communications jobs while attending art workshops, throwing clay, weaving baskets, fusing glass, beading, felting, and making jewelry in her free time. About 10 years ago she started experimenting with making things out of natural materials—anything 12 inches long works as a weaver. Her practice soon became an exercise in recycling.
"One of my jobs was to create and design marketing pieces-rack cards, tourist stuff, things you pick up at a front desk,” Stehle says. “Eventually they expired. I started saving them because I hated throwing them away… About 5 years ago I started shredding them and using them in baskets.”
One of her friends suggested she enter a competition for a magazine called Fiber Art Now. Stehle didn’t make it into the book, but her work found its way into the online gallery. It was encouraging enough for Stehle to continue her practice of weaving trash into art.
About 2-3 years ago, she started weaving things that weren’t functional baskets at all, like a dress and a sculpture of two unfortunate fish caught by a fishing pole.
“People were paying attention to them,” says Stehle. “I couldn't sell them, but they were looking at them. And I thought, 'that's better than people asking me how to make a little basket because they're going to make the same thing.’”
Stehle kept on weaving, winning awards at the Florida State Fair, entering more shows, and applying for emerging artist programs throughout the Tampa Bay area. Florida CraftArt named her an emerging artist in 2017, followed by the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in 2018 and Creative Pinellas in 2020.
Finding each other
Ramos and Stehle met in November 2020 courtesy of Creative Pinellas’ mentorship program.
Once Creative Pinellas CEO Barbara St. Clair and Gallery Curator Danny Olda decide who they’re awarding an emerging artist grant, they dive deeper into the artist’s work so they can choose an appropriate mentor for them.
“We try to match them in terms of the professional artist’s interest, skill set, style, and that ineffable thing that is a feeling of when you land on the ‘right’ name for the match and you know it,” says St. Clair. “As we talked, there was something for both Danny and I that felt like a connection between the two artist’s work, but that Gabriel was giving a full expression to his creative vision (and he felt free to do so) and that Emily might still be hunting for the truer expression of hers.”
Stehle freely admits that she’s still searching for the best ways to express herself as an artist. “Sometimes I do things because I don’t know what else to do,” she tells CL. “So I try things out, and if they work, I’m really happy.”
She was thrilled that Creative Pinellas was giving her a mentor as part of their emerging artist program. “I was really excited that I was going to have someone to help me and guide me, because I'd never had that experience before—not with this kind of stuff,” Stehle told CL. "When I was given Gabriel's name as a potential mentor, I looked up his website and I thought, 'Wow. This guy has done all these different things.'”
Working in multiple media is one of the things Ramos and Stehle found they have in common. As Ramos tried many different media to explore his ideas, Stehle’s tried many different crafts over the past 40 years.
"That's probably why I liked what I saw when I looked at your website,” Stehle told Ramos. “Because I saw that you had such a variety of mediums you used and different techniques."
Finding success together
Ramos was already working on his big Skyway piece when he began mentoring Stehle, mid-pandemic, via Google Meets.
When he first proposed an 8-foot-by-8-foot foot sculpture for the MFA’s Skyway exhibition, Curator of Contemporary Art Katherine Pill encouraged him to make something larger. “You don’t get many opportunities to display your work on a bigger scale,” says Ramos, who jumped at the opportunity.
As Ramos said this, Stehle laughed. His big piece of advice for her during this period was to use the large space at Creative Pinellas Gallery to make something bigger. At that point Stehle had never made anything larger than 2-foot-by-2-foot.
While Ramos was re-imagining his initial idea to span a 24-foot-long wall at the MFA, Stehle started planning what she calls “The Blue Monster,” a 4-foot-by-12-foot flat woven piece. The large size was a challenge for both artists, who didn’t exactly have the space in their homes for such large projects.
Ramos had to assemble his work like a puzzle, and he encouraged Stehle to do the same.
For Ramos, this meant more planning in advance than he’s used to. He usually makes his sculptures, somewhat spontaneously, in the space where they’re to be displayed. But this wasn’t really an option at the MFA in the middle of a pandemic.
Like so many of us, Ramos took to the digital realm during the pandemic, beginning with a digital design. Then he had to figure out what materials to use to bring his digital design to life at the MFA. Somehow, wire just wouldn’t cut it this time.
Gabriel says that as much as he’s inspired by artists who make it through their whole careers working in a single medium, that just never worked for him
"I strongly believe that some ideas require mediums to change to really get fulfilled,” says Ramos. “That's where I think those changes happened for me. I visualized this work—what I made for the MFA—and I couldn't visualize it in a linear way, just working in wire.”
Ramos chose plastic for the project, despite having never sculpted with it before. He spent about 3 months testing different plastics and paints so he could deliver the red translucent look he was going for. Using his digital design as a guide, Ramos laser cut the plastic into pieces that would later be assembled like a puzzle at the MFA.
For Ramos, experimentation and improvisation are a necessary part of the artistic process, especially when you’re creating large works outside of a studio. As he was creating his red monster, Ramos guided Stehle through the process of making her “Blue Monster” a reality.
“There's the concept and then there’s how you think the work is going to be created,” says Ramos. “You also have to think about the other part of it, like, ‘How is this going to be installed and viewed?’ All those pieces have to come together to have a project be successful." As he shared this knowledge with Stehle, she wove her Blue Monster in pieces on her coffee table and assembled them in her driveway – the only surface large enough for the job.
Together, Ramos’ and Stehle’s work, on display this summer, tells a story. It’s not just the story of their time together during the pandemic. It’s also the story of their lives up to that point.
Like much of Ramos’ earlier work, “Mi isla” begins with his childhood in Puerto Rico. You can see it in the tropical flora and fauna throughout “Mi isla,” along with a series of artful nods to Puerto Rican iron work. The longer you stare at it, the more you discover.
The same could be said for Stehle’s “Blue Monster” and 41 COVID Comfort Baskets.
She literally wove the things of life into her artwork in 2020.
“My baskets are storytelling for me, although people don’t realize it because I don’t tell them,” Stehle told CL. Each of her 41 COVID Comfort Baskets is woven from things she consumed during the pandemic that brought her comfort, like junk food and music. Several are woven from pages of sheet music. Others are woven from beer and cereal boxes.
As I looked at the “Blue Monster” up close, Stehle described how all the different patches of color got there, like a green and blue section made from Pier pamphlets. Each patch references a place she’s been, somewhere she’s worked, or something she’s enjoyed simply through her choice of materials.
Together, Ramos and Stehle have woven their life stories into these amazing works of art, and I never would have known it if I hadn’t had this conversation.
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