May 2014



Society Is Always Right


You spend much time with Stacy L. Gardner, her brain will make a statement.

It’s the kind of brain that thrives when engaged, and must be plugged in to something that’s stimulating and fast moving. Idle is a difficult gear, complexity a godsend.

The creative mind knows no limits. We are restricted only by our inability (or unwillingness) to go where the bounty of ideas pull. Stacy has developed the means and the cojones to pursue and make tangible the wildness of her dreams.

Her creative reach has no stopping point.

I once accused Stacy of over thinking her concepts – but have since retracted those words. Stacy’s creative voice is born from a brain constantly open to and sensitive to her internal responses to external stimuli. That’s how she creates. That’s what sets her apart.

This is a rare trip – a journey to the soul of one person’s creative processes. There are no filters here, no mental photoshopping to obscure or transmute; just Stacy, in a good and rich conversation.

I am fortunate to count her among my most valued friends. She helped give birth to the shootapalooza photography festival. She’s studying authenticity and risk-taking within the creative process. And she lives with three magical part-dog-part-human, wirehaired pointing griffons, Gidget, Ellie and Deedle.

Judy Sherrod: If I could crawl inside that brain of yours, and look around, what kinds of things would I see? 

Stacy L. Gardner: Lord, my brain is not simple enough to throw a few sentences down that could even hint at all that goes on in there….it’s a carnival in there! The biggest part of the real estate goes to me being honest with myself about how I feel, what I think, and how that translates into how I show up in the world. I’m constantly looking for profound truths. Truths that bubble up from inside of me that I can then see in the greater world. I also look for truths that appear in the world that I ultimately find inside of myself. If I think I’ve come up with a truth, I question it all over again and see what’s down the rabbit hole of that exploration. It’s this wonderful circular adventure. I’m always looking for triggers that get me started down the road of seeing something clearly that I couldn’t get a grasp on previously. Then, surprise, surprise, that gets converted to thoughts of creating something that represents that truth. Bless art’s little pea-pickin’ heart! It’s a wonderful outlet for me being me.

I’m fascinated with pairing things that don’t typically go together. Visual and mental chindōgu is how I reference that in my brain. I’m fascinated how, when unrelated things are paired, they tend to best communicate those profound truths. I also like to think about possibilities; that covers so much of my brain-time. Right now I’m thinking a lot about innovation, taking risks, having a voice, thriving, and breaking through the traditional, entrenched paradigms to live in the world of authenticity, kindness, connection, and support…a place that makes sense to my soul. I think about re-discovering and re-defining the world. And, I think about all the things I want to learn and do and how I’m going to find time for everything. I didn’t mention that all of this relates to art and all of it relates to life; there is absolutely no separation.

Please elaborate on chindōgu, what it is, and how you use it as a creative tool. 

SLG: Wikipedia did a fine job of defining chindōgu:

“Chindōgu is the Japanese art of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that, on the face of it, seem like an ideal solution to a particular problem. However, chindōgu has a distinctive feature: anyone actually attempting to use one of these inventions would find that it causes so many new problems, or such significant social embarrassment, that effectively it has no utility whatsoever.”

It’s a lovely practice of thinking outside of the box. One of the tenets of chindōgu is that you don’t stop with the idea but must create a prototype for it to be classified as chindōgu. It is inspiring that chindōgu inventors must move from real issues to real solutions. I find chindōgu to be the creation of the unexpected but it is only unexpected because we have so fully accepted our world as we currently define it. We can no longer see it with fresh eyes. There’s a quote that I love: “Fish are the last to recognize water.” We are fish and the world is our water. We can’t see that which we are fully immersed in and accept without question or inspection. This is exactly why art is so appealing to me. In the world of art, the unexpected is not only accepted, I think we all hope for it. Combining normal, everyday stimuli in unexpected ways to illustrate a completely new concept or a profound truth is of interest to me as an artist. I love the work of the street artist, Banksy. I find some of his pieces powerful precisely because he pairs the unexpected and creates a strong message. Have you seen his stencil of the iconic naked girl fleeing the napalm blast paired with both Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald? ( Brilliant. Powerful. Simple. I strive to have such fresh and insightful thoughts so that I can wrangle them into my art.

When I asked about how you use chindōgu as a creative tool, I was hoping you’d write about your early morning photographic exercises. Please do. 

SLG:When I want to learn a new skill or feel in a rut, I like to start a daily shooting project. I did just that at the beginning of the year. (I must admit that life has taken a bit of a turn and I have drifted a bit but that’s the great thing about a commitmen, I just get to recommit and get going again!) I currently shoot digital but ache to move into film. I’ve decided to throw myself into analog photography and learn as much as I can about it.

I find learning a technical skill can be somewhat boring and one-dimensional so I like to have some sort of theme or challenge to go hand-in-hand when learning a new skill. I pick a theme that challenges the way I do things or how I see the world or I create an outlet for something I want to explore. This time I have chosen the concept of visual chindōgu.

My goal is to take items and put them in scenarios that aren’t usual or use them in unique ways. I have to say, that’s a pretty lofty goal and it is daunting to try to meet it even half way on a daily basis. It’s really difficult to see novelty every day and make an interesting image. So far, my attempts haven’t led to the most interesting images. You could say I’m dabbling in the world of willingly facing failure. I’m not saying that in a self-defeatist manner; I’m saying it because I’m going into that uncomfortable place where my creations are not up to my standards. It’s a daily choice to either face the challenge as best I can or to fall back into what I know and what I’m comfortable with. So far, so good with respect to facing the challenge but I’m consistently disappointed with the images. One thing that I am enjoying, however, is my new relationship with my manikin leg! I put a striped sock on it and a shoe and look for odd and interesting places to put it. The attempts are fun and funny and it tickles my soul.

Articulate a profound truth please, and how it has made its way into your work. 

SLG:For me, a profound truth is one that is floating around out there in plain sight that we just can’t place our finger on, can’t see, are not willing to admit to, or just outright reject. It requires a blindness to how things are. The thing about this sort of truth that makes it profound is that we all know it in our gut but have lost our connection with it as an individual or as a society.

I’m a rule-breaker. I can’t stand the idea of jumping on the bandwagon and accepting things just because someone else said it is so. I need to figure things out for myself. Given that my art is just an extension of myself, I look to express my “discoveries”, thoughts, and questions in my images. I was dabbling one day trying to figure out what my tag-line would be if I had one. I decided the snippet that fit my particular motivation was: finding the profound in the delusion. The delusions that most interest me relate to human nature. I’m interested in seeing what I am blind to. I’m interested in investigating how I show up in the world and my motivations to do it as I do.

I’m also interested in how this phenomenon shows up in our society. I’m interested in commenting on that in my art but I find I can’t really comment on it from a birds-eye view. I am far from omniscient so I have to start with what I know best, which is myself, and ask if it relates to the bigger picture of the society I am a member of. For instance, I have an image “Society Is Always Right.” The image is rooted in an observation I made about how I used to show up in the world. There are parts of me that are afraid, that want to fit in. Those parts of me aren’t too keen on the authentic part of myself. Authenticity is risky. Coming from authenticity is not a great way to be invisible. I’ve spent most of my life perfecting the art of being invisible. So I created an image of all of those parts of me banding together to silence this authentic self. They are a wild crowd at a good ole Southern hanging scene. They are rowdy. They have so much energy…they are aggressive, angry, amused, chatty, indifferent. Hate exists.

This exploration leads me to a question. Is this the same thing that happens in society? I’m I just a microcosm of society? Is society just a bigger Petri dish of the internals of the individual? I think both are true. We don’t start as a hateful, fearful society; we start as a hateful, fearful self. I can’t even dismiss myself from that reality. That for me is a profound truth.

I’m interested in the genesis of the Alone Together series. Was that prompted by a bubble of profound truth or did it come from somewhere else? 

SLG:I took a photography class at one of the local community colleges in the spring of 2012. We had an assignment to create an image based on an oxymoron. Being the good little researcher that I am, I dutifully looked up a list of oxymorons on the Internet. I saw “alone together” and it resonated with me. Originally I had planned to create only a single image and shot a pair of characters sitting on a bench in the park. Once I saw the result, I was fascinated with it and wanted to build a project around it.

You asked if this series was “prompted by a bubble of profound truth.” Well, in a sense, it was; however, I hadn’t fully claimed that voice. I had created images very differently before the “Alone Together – Park” image. Before this image I was, at best, loosely conceptualizing the message that I wanted to convey. I looked at what was in front of my eyes to see what resonated with me; the scene first existed and then I responded. The Alone Together images are altogether a different way of creating. First I define a concept, then I design an image, buy props, scout for location, and shoot. The early images were my metamorphosis into how I create art today.

From the beginning I intended to create several layers of meaning in each shot and across the series for Alone Together. On the surface, Alone Together is about a couple that no longer sees each other. This could be due to any number of reasons but the essential principle is that they take each other for granted. They believe that they know each other completely based on past experiences, assumptions, and beliefs. They no longer really look at or for each other.

My characters appear in full body suits which, at a passing glance, gives an appearance of nudity; however, neither character actually shows unique details. For me, nudity symbolizes authenticity and being seen. The characters believe deeply that they can see each other but, in reality, they do not. Each of these images is also literally and conceptually a self-portrait. I play both characters. Each character shows different aspects of how I see myself. These parts of me are also alone and together simultaneously and do not exist in the same physical space and can’t interact.

As I created new images for the series, the layers of meaning of each shot became more complex. My most current images make statements about our society. They are quite subtle in their metaphor. I am continuing to create the subtle images for this series, however I find it increasingly more difficult to keep this voice. I am evolving away from subtlety and wanting to be more direct. You will see more direct messages in my newest images: “Asleep, Awake, or Stirring” and “Society is Always Right”.

Select an image from Alone Together and deconstruct it. Take it apart and reconstruct it so we can follow along. 

SLG:In the “Alone Together – Music” image, one character is sitting in a chair listening to music while the other is playing the guitar. These two characters are distant; they are completely ignoring the other. One has chosen to drown out the music of the other by putting on large headphones and deeply escaping into their own little world. The second character is nearly making love to the guitar. This character needs a place for their love even if they have to displace those feelings and invest it in places other than their partner. There is absolutely no communication here and only the space is shared; one character is expressing while the other character is no longer listening.

There is also a larger social commentary in this image. One character is sitting in a chair taking in music. Some outside force is pumping information into this character right down the umbilical cord into the gut of this “individual”- propaganda is entering like nutrients from a mother. The character has been lulled into a peaceful “sleep.” The other character is making their own music and rebelling against the system in order to have a voice and be heard. The comment is about how these two mindsets are at odds and the sounding of one’s voice is not always heard by the media-fed masses. There is one thing that could use a mention here. Neither character is portrayed as the “bad-guy.” They have just made different decisions for themselves and both have found peace in their decisions and the world they have created. The question really is for the viewer. Which world is right for you?

As I mentioned, these images are self-portraits. Music is important to my soul. When I sit and listen to music, it can be my complete world. Everything disappears. I also have spent a little time making my own music, and yes, sometimes it is like making love. All of the aforementioned metaphors apply to my internal world. Sometimes my ego does what it takes to ignore my authentic self even when it is passionately singing its song. These two do not work together and communicate to create a cohesive partnership of self. Additionally, sometimes I listen to what society says and take it in hook-line-and-sinker without stopping to determine if it resonates with me. At other times, I use my voice and speak my truth (and art is the primary outlet for that!).

One last thing to include in the mix. There are some slightly hidden or subtle messages. The blackboard has writing on it. The base level is syntax from a programing language called python. It is a series of lines from basic code. It represents our programming that underlies our decisions and the way we show up in the world. On top of that are the guitar chords and lyrics to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”:

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much I haven’t said enough

I’ll leave the interpretation as an exercise for the reader’s imagination to roam and see where they take it.

You mentioned the elements in “Society is Always Right” in your answer above, about profound truths. It and “Asleep, Awake, or Stirring?” begin another series that you are designing. Can you pull back the curtain on that concept? 

SLG:Actually “Asleep, Awake, or Stirring?” was a transitional image. I had the opportunity to collaborate with the kind, supportive, passionate photographer, Valerie Patterson ( in October, 2013. I knew I wanted to take more risks in my work and combine words with images. I took this opportunity to start dabbling with these ideas. “Asleep…” was the first attempt at that and “Society…” was the second. I don’t have plans to chase down the ideas in “Asleep…” in additional images. It’s an entirely different story for “Society…”

When I first saw “Society…” as it was forming, I didn’t know if I liked it or even if I thought it was any good. Now, I’m completely fascinated with it. It brings up so many questions and thoughts. I’m most pulled to art that makes me question my ideas and beliefs and this image does that consistently. The idea for the image came from the line “The public is always right,” in the movie The Artist. As soon as I heard that statement, I thought of a good ole Southern hanging scene.

The concept is about group-think and how we often believe that what is right goes hand-in-hand with what is popular. I think that is very dangerous. As I mentioned before, I don’t tend to comment on society based on my perceptions of what I see; I contemplate my own internals then comment from that perspective. It was clear to me that I have my own type of group-think going on inside of me and it’s related to fear. There are parts of me that are afraid and they all agree that I should stay safe. But safe from what? Well that would be my own authenticity, my true self. If I always go with my truth, it is risky and people will see me for what I am. My ego doesn’t so much like that so sometimes different aspects of the fear-based-me try to kill off the authentic part of myself.

I have designed a project based on the concepts in “Society…” At this point, I have already designed another 6 plus images for the series. The project will be about my personal journey… one that started out with a commitment to staying safe and being invisible. The story will evolve to the commitment of living in authenticity. This work will pair words with a visual that is based on our society’s iconic imagery of the past… a picket line scene, a war scene, a scene about the crucifixion. I’m very excited about this project. It will, however, be much more in-your-face than anything I’ve done previously. There is a possibility that people will have strong reactions to it and the part of me that seeks invisibility is a little cautious. The bottom line is, facing these fears is part of the work too – my personal work that is.

These series were made using a DSLR. Last time I saw you, you were shooting a DSLR, a Hasselblad, and a drop dead gorgeous Speed Graphic. You say you ache to get into film. The concept of film seems incompatible with where you say your “voice” is taking you. What brought about this ache? How do you reconcile the two? 

SLG:Here’s the idea that first comes to mind when I read your question: the tool should not dictate the voice but the voice should determine the tool. That said, I believe the voice should shine through regardless of the tool used.

I’ve been feeling like I’ve embraced the first statement a little too much in the last year. What I mean by that is that my brain tends to think of the digital process when considering how to voice my ideas. That’s a very narrow and dangerous road for me. I feel like I’m creating a pigeon hole for myself where my tool is starting to affect my voice.

I’ve been asking myself recently “if I can’t create images that reflect who I am using film, what kind of creator or innovator am I anyway?” Film is a scary place for me. I have no idea how I’m going to do my thing with film. As daunting as that is, it’s also super exciting to be poised to take a great adventure.

When I think of all the forms of analog photography, I think “soul.” That darn stuff’s got soul I tell you. I like soul. I need soul! So by gosh, I’m going to go out and wrangle up some soul with analog.

I don’t want to imply that digital doesn’t have its own soul. It just feels different inside my gut. My gut says digital is computer and technology and modern; analog is craft and hand-made and deep-rooted. It literally seems more touchy-feely to me. The body is involved. I touch film with my skin, smell the chemicals, hear that most wonderful “whap” when the Hassy’s shutter slaps. It takes time. It feels like meditation. I feel alive. It’s a rabbit hole beckoning me and it’s an adventure I just have to take.

It has been said that a complete work of art is a collaboration between the artist, the tangible piece (or performance), and the viewer. It takes all three to tango, so to speak. What does the viewer bring to your works? What is his/her contribution? 

SLG:Art is a dance of giving and receiving between the artist and the viewer. Both the artist and the viewer bring their experiences, beliefs, and perspective to the dance. The artist may be considered to have the upper hand in this relationship because they create the piece while the viewer may be thought to only have the response role to what was created. This is not fully true.

Like any conversation, the speaker formulates what they want to say and creates a communication. The listener has their own filters and all information trickles through that before a meaning is assessed. There’s lots of opportunity for the message to be twisted and deformed in the process. The same goes with art. The artist creates a communication and, if the viewer chooses to look, will form their own understanding and possibly have their own reaction. The art itself is both the medium for the communication and the instigator. It is a co-creative process.

Now that’s a nice polished answer isn’t it? There’s a more daunting type of participation viewers of my work can partake in – daunting for both me and the viewer. My work is meant to challenge the status quo. I think that, as a society, we don’t like to get into our personal and collective muck. Let me tell you, it’s no fun there. I know. I tend to visit my swamp monsters regularly. Did I say “Yuck!”?

I’m looking to create visceral reactions. I so desperately want to create images that churn my gut at least once. I selfishly want to create images that create gut level reactions in the viewer too. That’s a dangerous place to play. I’m interested in seeing how many people are willing to engage in this topic. I’m interested in who is willing to engage in this topic. Engagement is the ultimate contribution. Without it, is there any contribution?


Stacy first got into photography in 2010 when she began and completed a 365-day photo challenge. She shot and experimented every day for a year. Being an avid reader, she learned most of her basic techniques from books but then looked to classes and workshops to further her understanding and connect with other creatives.

Stacy has spent much of her adult life pursuing other arts – the arts of self-awareness and authenticity. She grew up gay in the South and became a master of wall construction and the art of invisibility. Her creative expression is both a way to untangle these lessons and offer her understanding to others. Specifically, she does this by looking for the profound in the delusion, both conceptually and visually.

Stacy is roused by the art of Banksy, the street artist, and Carrie Mae Weems. These artists motivate her to take more risks in her work. She greatly appreciates how both artists are direct with their immediate message. Banksy simplistically pairs the unexpected while Weems creates infinite layers in her work.

Stacy L. Gardner

Judy Sherrod lives in Wichita Falls, Texas, and loves writing for SXSE.