In the Studio – Eric Steen

Well, technically we weren’t really in the studio with our dear friend Eric Steen when he filled us in on his recent work and his return to Portland from Colorado Springs. But when he suggested we take a hike up the Sandy River Delta to see Maya Lin’s bird blind, part of the Confluence Project, we thought that sounded like a good idea.

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Duplex: What brought you back here to Portland and what are you up to?

Eric Steen: I had a beautiful teaching job in Colorado, and I absolutely loved going to work everyday. I had a beautiful walk to work every morning. It was a five-mile walk and I would spend my time thinking about what I wanted to talk to my students about. I’m really passionate about teaching I’ve come to realize, so the only problem was I was that I missed the only place I’ve ever felt at home. And after falling in love with the PNW, you just can’t live anywhere else. So I quit my job, and Stephanie quit her job, and we moved without a concrete plan. I have organized a few events, Beers Made By Walking, Homebrewed By Design, some Portland Beer Week stuff, and I’ll be adjunct teaching at PSU in the Art and Social Practice program.

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D: You were one of the first graduate classes in PSU’s Art and Social Practices.

ES: Yeah it’s kind of cool to be invited back there. It’s exciting to have them say “we’ve liked what you’ve done so far and we think we can learn from you”. What I was doing in Colorado as an educator, was putting community engaged art and social forms of artistic production into the foundation level curriculum, and I taught with a community-based project style with upper level classes. For one project,I had my students meet a bunch of people they’ve never met before, who lived downtown. They became artists in residence at those people’s homes and spent the semester, hanging out, even babysitting, cooking and just spending time with them – not living with them, but working with them.

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D: Did you find these people or did the students?

ES: I found them. But at first I wanted the students to find the people, like “Let’s go door to door!” But the university had a problem with that. It was great; the idea was that they had to do non-traditional projects, meaning: no paining, drawing, sculpture or traditional photography. So they really had to work with the people, negotiate things with them, work out schedules with each other. And they would, together, create an art piece and work out what that could possibly mean for their chosen homes. Some did different types of installation pieces, some projects were really wild.

D: What was their perspective on that after it was over?

ES: I think the students that weren’t going to enjoy it just dropped the class, because the majority of students ended up really appreciating it. It got them out of their box. We organized a public tour, where we walked between the houses and the students had to present their projects to all the families, students, friends, and local journalists. So they really had to put on something that was finished and something they were happy with, which caused a lot of stress. As an artist, I really don’t like to do things under stress, but I don’t have any problems giving students more work than they can handle. They have to figure out if it’s too much for them, how to streamline their process to make it manageable. I’d talk them through it and encourage them. I think they learned a lot about what it takes to organize an event and clarify, and make tangible their ideas.

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D: What were some of the finished projects?

ES: One student became really interested in how the residents of the house didn’t feel at home, they didn’t feel a sense of place there. She wanted them to do all sorts of things to get them to think about their home in new ways and notice things about it. She asked them to sleep in different parts of the house. For the public viewing, she had them sleep in their dining room, she moved their whole bedroom where their table was and they slept there for five days. When the public came in, they were introduced to this couple’s living room/bedroom. Another student worked with a family with two sons, and she worked with the older son. He was maybe 5 or 6. She hung out with him a lot. She worked with him to invent and illustrate stories, which she then framed and hung on the walls of the kid’s play area – but the play area could only be accessed above the bunk bed in their room. During the presentation, the public had to get onto the child’s top bunk and open up this hatch, which would normally lead to the attic, and we had climb in. It was only a crawl space, but it was big enough for a kid to stand up and play around in. You would crawl through it and see all these kid’s toys, but now it was also an exhibition space. You became a kid crawling on your hands and knees and looking at this artwork in a children’s playroom gallery.

Artwork by Kimberly Woolridge - children's drawings for the Household Residen(t)cy class 2
Artwork by Kimberly Woolridge – children’s drawings for the Household Residen(t)cy

D: Were these undergrad students? That’s a high level of commitment from undergrads.

ES: Yeah they are undergraduate students. One of my methods in teaching is to set up a project-based curriculum. I tell my students “these are the things I’m interested in exploring,” and I teach a class that I would want to have as a student. I say, “let’s set up a framework that allows you to explore the things you’re interested in” while they engage people in a way that’s completely different that what they’re used to in other classes. I wanted to do these projects with my students. I didn’t think of it as, I’m the teacher and this is what you should know, but I really want to do this too and I want to do it with you. I loved being a part of the project. I like being able to say, “I really like what I did for this and it’s going in my portfolio. When I apply to jobs or residencies, people are going to see this work we did together.”

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D: When you explain your art practice, how do you describe it?

ES: Through socially engaged actions, I make art that asks questions about how people get to know a place. I’m interested in how people use their spare time to build their lives around their interests and hobbies. I have questions about the professional and the amateur, and what those mean for everyday life. A lot of my projects are didactic, and use alternative forms of education as a form. From an art perspective that’s what I do, but I don’t always have to call what I do art. I have no problem talking to you about it in those terms, but I’ve set it up so that it just doesn’t matter anymore.

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D: That seems like how you set up your project Beers Made by Walking. That people could participate and enjoy it regardless of their interest in it as an art project.

ES: Yeah I agree. It is very much art for me, but that doesn’t matter. But when I approach a brewer, I never say, “I’ve got this art project…” I’ve developed a language to talk to them about it. I’ve been working with brewers for over five years and I do it because of my interest in beer, I love the culture of it. Talking with brewers about doing a project can often involve conversations around marketing.

Conducting yeast experiments in the cold with Thunder Island Brewing for Beers Made By Walking
Conducting yeast experiments in the cold with Thunder Island Brewing for Beers Made By Walking

D: Did you start Beers Made by Walking here and then bring it to Colorado?

ES: No I started it in Colorado and brought it here.

D: How do you think it differs in each city?

ES: It’s very different in each city. The similarities between the places where I do the program are that I always invite brewers to come on nature hikes and identify native plants. While I was in Colorado, I was able to organize a large festival with 17 breweries and it just got more and more attention each year. Here in Portland, it’s much smaller. I had 10 breweries but we just did a small tap takeover at a bar, not a full blown festival. But now that I live hear again, my plans to make it grow are just starting. So perhaps the difference is just in scale and that’s what I’m working on now.

Beers Made By Walking - glassware for the festival in Denver - photo by Daniel Flanders
Beers Made By Walking – glassware for the festival in Denver – photo by Daniel Flanders

D: Tell us about your beer label design contest.

ES: A graphic designer named Jason Sturgill asked me to collaborate with him on it. It’s called Homebrewed By Design. We invited 20 homebrewers and 20 Portland based graphic designers to participate. The brewers made beer and the designers made labels for the beer. We had the labels printed, and then there was a big party where we opened the beer and had the labels on display. It was really great, the designs were cool and the beers were tasty.

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