Spotlight on Stephanie Chefas Projects: An Interview with Stephanie Chefas
Portland based curator Stephanie Chefas launched her space Stephanie Chefas Projects in the fall of 2015. With nearly 20 exhibitions under her belt since its founding, Chefas is gaining a well deserved reputation in Portland for having an eye for fresh contemporary work, bringing forth both the current and the cool in each of her shows. Though the gallery is “off the beaten path” of the usual suspects of the Pearl District, Chefas has maintained strong audience of regulars that only seems to widen in its longevity. Prior to moving to Portland, Chefas gained extensive experience curating in Los Angeles. I was curious to know more about her curatorial background and thoughts on the ever evolving Portland art scene.
SH-How long have you been curating exhibitions? You have a great eye for the current and contemporary. Where did it all start?
SC-Thank you for the compliment! My first introduction to curating was in Los Angeles. I was working as an Admin Assistant for a small (relatively) unknown gallery back in 2009 and was brought on as part of a curatorial team. It was me and two guys, and each of us had a completely different aesthetic. We had some great shows and I met a handful of fantastic artists through the experience, but there were a lot of frustrations as well. It eventually got to the point where my voice felt stifled, so after about 18 months I decided to leave and venture into independently curating. It was around this time when I really delved into the LA art scene and attended every art opening and saw every show possible.
Also at this time I started the art blog Platinum Cheese where I shared my experiences at openings, artist studio visits, and artist interviews. Because I was so immersed, meeting artists just organically happened and soon I partnered with a local artist to curate the group show 'Femme Fatale'. The show was well received and man, was it a lot of work! It was great, I loved it! Since then, I've been curating shows solely on my own. I wouldn't say it's always been easy, but seeing your concept and all your hard work coming to fruition is probably the most rewarding experience ever. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
SH-Can you tell me a little about Platinum Cheese? It seems like a very successful platform in exposing new art in a way that is easy to digest. What brought that about?
SC-Platinum Cheese all started when I was first gallery hopping in Los Angeles. Almost every weekend I would attend art openings and document the experience. I would reach out to artists for a studio visit or interview, usually writing a post that revolved around a current show. I thought it would be great to share these experiences with whomever would listen. People started to take notice and it slowly evolved over the years. My intention with the writing is to keep it accessible. If it's easy to approach and void of pretension, there's a stronger chance you'll connect with a broader audience.
SH-What is your background in the art world in general? Did your education play into your curatorial practice and did you ever make work yourself?
SC-Prior to moving to LA, I earned my degree in Art History at UCF. If I'm to be completely honest, I never really enjoyed the traditional school structure, found it to be boring and stuffy. However, there was one graduate Folk Art class that completely captivated me and provided me with a sense of direction. I almost didn't take the class, but my friend Jason basically nudged me into signing up saying they needed a certain number of students in order to make it happen and that it would be 'really cool' and 'fun'. I told him I didn't want to sit in a dark classroom all day looking at photos of rocking chairs (laughing). Long story short, I signed up and I'm so glad I did.
The class met in the Green Room at the House of Blues, we discussed the work on display at the venue, and the group created a book complied of HOB artist interviews that we each conducted and then donated it to a local non-profit. I felt like I was doing something exciting and part of something important. I was alive! I would say that the experience did plant seedlings for what was to come in the future. And the Folk Art aesthetic I was exposed to still resonates with me today. I see the influence in several artists that I've worked with over the years.
To answer your question about making my own work, it's never something I set out to do. Though I find myself thinking about it more and more lately.
SH-What drew you to Portland and how long did it take you to get settled with the gallery here?
SC-After 8 or 9 years in LA, the grind got a little old and my husband and I were looking for a change of pace. We wanted a city that had a good combination of urban and nature and felt Portland embodied all the qualities we were looking for. Another contributing factor to leaving LA was that owning an art gallery there just wasn't realistic for me. My goal from the very beginning was to eventually start my own gallery and with the insane rent and competition in LA, it felt like a pipe dream (unless I was to come into some serious cash). Portland seemed more realistic to achieve this goal. Now I know this city has been going through real estate upheaval over the past few years, and I feel ya Portland! But in spite of the struggles here, it's still more affordable than other art markets. It didn't happen overnight though, the whole process of gallery ownership took roughly a year after moving here.
SH-What are your thoughts on the Portland art scene? What makes it unique? How is it challenging?
SC-Portland’s a different beast than what I experienced in LA, but in a good way. Less flash, more substance, the community seems to be tighter knit and more supportive all around. Probably the most challenging part is encouraging Portlanders to become more involved with the galleries. It seems that taking time to do a little gallery hopping on a Saturday or attend a few art openings one night isn't necessarily an inherent part of life. Not sure why that is though...
SH-To me I feel like there is a lot of room for a buyer market here. Do you feel the same way? Have you met a new batch of collectors, or have you kept those that have accumulated over the year?
SC-I agree there's room for growth. The city itself is still relatively small and people continue to move here everyday. It's inevitable that the art scene will grow, however we - the gallerists, artists, curators, and arts writers need to do our part to ensure that this happens. Innovative art needs a platform to be seen. Artists need to tirelessly push themselves further in his or her practice. Curators shouldn't be afraid to take risks. And writers must inform and encourage the public to experience the work.
When opening the gallery, I didn't have a lot of collectors or a big mailing list. The galleries I worked with during my independent days handled all the sales, so I was pretty much starting from scratch in that area. Since opening, I've met a lot of great collectors locally and elsewhere. It's wonderful to share in the excitement of an artist's work and find it a good home.
SH-What does Stephanie Chefas Projects focus on in terms of artists and aesthetic? Anything specific or does it vary?
SC-It varies, but ultimately the work has to resonate with me in some way. For example, the gallery is currently showing photographer Mako Miyamoto's latest work and his Wookie characters grab the attention of the Star Wars geek in me, but his cinematic landscapes definitely keep me there. The work is absolutely stunning, how can I not provide an opportunity for people to see more of it?
Overall I would say I'm always looking for an artist with a distinct voice, someone who has something to say in a way that's fresh and new. And of course, they must possess the talent to back it up ;)
SH-Are you curating exhibitions outside of Portland this year? Anything stand out in particular for you?
SC-Just this past January, I curated an exhibit in San Francisco at Modern Eden Gallery, but nothing else is scheduled on the horizon outside of Portland. I think I want to take some time and focus on growing the gallery.
SH-What are you most excited about this year in your programming?
SC-I’m thrilled to be focusing more on solo shows this year. The gallery's first year was heavy on group shows because I was experimenting and trying to figure out what would working for me. Now that I've gone through that process, it's wonderful to present a body of work from a single artist. Viewing a collection as a whole provides you with more of sense of an artist's vision and the direction he or she may be progressing towards.
SH-Anything you’d like to say about the upcoming exhibition at Stephanie Chefas Projects?
SC-Nathan McKee unveils a new body of work on Aug 4th entitled 'I Don't Want to Grow Up'. Nathan creates fantastic archival paper-cuts with an unmistakable pop-culture aesthetic. In this exhibit, he's bringing the best from his youth and taking us on a trip down memory lane with portraits of all his childhood heroes. This will also be the first exhibit where an artist has completely taken over the gallery. Nathan's transforming the space into a slacker wonderland complete with vintage TVs, a basement sofa, and his own personal memorabilia.
In the Gallery Annex, Oakland artist Kelly Ording is presenting a small collection of new works on paper with 'Places I'd Like to Go'. The simple repetition, geometric patterns, and mapping in her work is brilliant and serene. I want to live in her paintings.
Stephanie Chefas Projects is located at 305 SE 3rd Ave #202, Portland, OR 97214. Nathan McKee's solo exhibition I Don't Want to Grow Up opens on Friday, August 4th from 7-10pm. Gallery Hours are Wed - Sat from 1-6pm. More info can be found at http://www.stephaniechefas.com/.
*Images courtesy of Stephanie Chefas.