Stacey L. Kirby: Performance artist, Installation artist

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity. 

Stacey Kirby Headshot.jpg

Stacey L. Kirby is an artist from the American South currently based in Durham, NC. Kirby’s "performative interactions" and collaborative projects combine installation and performance in both alternative, private and public spaces. Fueled by the current political climate and issues of citizenship, Kirby invites visitors to become active participants in her work to empower the voice within all of us.

Kirby is a recipient of the ArtPrize Eight Juried Grand Prize (2016), the NC Arts Council Artist Fellowship for Visual Artists (2014-15), an ArtPrize Pitch Night Grant (2016) for North Carolina and an Indies Arts Award from the Independent Weekly (Durham, NC) for her participation in the BAIN Project (2009). She is nominee for the Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2017) and a finalist for the 1858 Prize by the Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, SC) for contemporary Southern art. Kirby has also been awarded artist residencies throughout the U.S., including the Headlands Center for the Arts (Sausalito, CA), the Atlantic Center for the Arts (New Smyrna Beach, FL) and Artspace (Raleigh, NC). She is also a recipient of grants from the Durham Arts Council and the United Arts Council of Wake County. 

Kirby's performances take place in various environments such as vacant historic buildings, protests, festivals and traditional art spaces. Her work is represented in the Duke University Rare Book Collection and other private collections. Kirby has a dual degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Studio Art and in Visual Communications in School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

How do you think we can get our country and the world to value creativity and art more highly?

I think it’s about sharing our personal experiences and elevating one another and celebrating one another in the creative community.  It’s so challenging to be our own business owners and the more we can talk about our experiences and the more authentically we can share our experiences – whether positive, negative or struggles, et cetera – [the more] people are drawn to that and can understand the value of it and connect with it.

This is totally idealistic and it’s not like I have an action plan ... but I really feel like if we just continue to work from the authentic part of ourselves and embody our creativity in that way people will inherently see the value. And I think it’s also important to stand up and ask for what you need as a creative. If you don’t stand up and ask for what you need from the community and the world then they can’t meet you and support you. The more we do that the more the value of the work is elevated because we are elevating it within ourselves. Unfortunately creatives tend to undervalue ourselves. People in business don’t typically do that. So it comes from within. If we do the inner work it becomes a collective and then it rises.

The value system that we’re all fed in our society has led to one of my biggest challenges: leaving my 9-5 structure. Because I inherently started questioning my own value as I got out of that structure. So it takes a lot of confidence within ourselves. And some days we won’t have that confidence and then we can lean on one another.

Additionally, we aren’t just creative in one realm. We are creative in our whole lives. For example I’ve been practicing yoga and I’ve been certified for 12 years. I didn’t realize this until a few months ago but I started yoga and therapy and my performance work all in the same year. And it’s all connected. I went through yoga teacher training just to unpack the connection between my yoga practice and my creative process.

I’m starting to see these links and how the two worlds intersect for me. And I‘ve had some interesting conversations with creatives where they’ll say “well you’re not doing yoga when you’re performing” and I’ll say, “I am absolutely doing yoga when I’m performing, your definition of yoga is very limited.” It’s fascinating how it all intersects and I think it’s important as creatives to take some time to step back and see the bigger picture of ourselves.

And this is a totally new thing and I want to say it out loud to you because I want to make it happen. After working in the 9-5 world for quite a while [I realized that] so many of us are working in that realm. We sleep, we work and then we spend some time with our loved ones and ourselves each week. It’s kind of crazy to think about that breakdown in time. And so I think there are different pockets of our society that need art and creativity and I think the workplace is one of them.

Some workplaces have integrated that. But I’m fascinated since I’ve been making work environments to perform within – what would it look like to integrate those work environments into workplaces? So, like partnering [for example] with [a big company in the area] and doing a performance and creating an office in SAS and the employees can come by over a week or two-week period and interact with me in my vintage office that I set up somewhere on their campus. And then getting people to think about – through art – about themselves within their workplace.

Another way to manifest change that way and draw attention to the arts is integrating them into other places that don’t traditionally have them or need to have them. I’ve been talking to some people in the past about bringing a vintage office environment in a law office and being there and working on a typewriter. Creativity leads to so much more happiness in employees and productivity and release. And I think there is a movement happening in this country but its slow.

Unfortunately creatives tend to undervalue ourselves. People in business don’t typically do that.
— Stacey L. Kirby

You’ve segued into my next question – what does living a creative life mean to you?

It’s about identifying how my creativity is all encompassing. It’s in my yoga practice. It’s in what type of yoga I do and who my teachers are. It’s in the way that I create my home. I’m an installation artist so I care very much about environment. I think all artists care about their environment – we are all curating things.

Curating your environment has come up in every interview in a way that surprises me.

And who I surround myself with. I am really interested in my social practice and who feeds my social practice. I’m not an artist that typically just goes to a studio and sits in a space and makes work. I draw inspiration from my experiences.

So this is going to sound so funny but I am super excited about going to the new health and human services building and having a tour of their mailroom. I ran into the mail guy [when I visited] and he was pushing a cart in one of the county buildings. And I just stopped, said hi and was like, You’re the mail guy. Tell me about what you do. I love your whole cart, I love your whole system here. And so I asked him where the mail room was and he pointed me in the right direction and I asked him for a tour.

I was trying to figure out how to be an artist. You only learn so much in school.
— Stacey L. Kirby

I love dropping into these systems we’ve created for ourselves whether they’re through bureaucracy or some other social system and analyzing them and using that as inspiration for my work. So part of my creativity is also just having unique experiences. Now I’m in a place where I can craft those experiences, and how I’m getting those experiences ... and I have to look for them too. Like I went to the DMV last week and I was trying to take pictures because I just love the DMV.

I have never thought about the DMV that way. You couldn’t make that room up if you tried.

True! Also I’ve been fascinated by death certificates lately because I’ve been experiencing a lot of death in my life since last September. There have been four beings in my life that have passed away, some close and some not as close. But I’ve been thinking about how you get a death certificate. So when my friend had to get a birth certificate for her new child I went with her to Durham County and went through that process with her and was asking the employee behind the counter how I could get a death certificate. She wanted to know who it was for and I told her it wasn’t for anyone I was just curious about the process. So these are the things I have to do.

What are some creative challenges within your work and how have you moved through them or have you moved through them?

The way that I’m envisioning my work happening now is very space oriented. So I need some space to do the work. As an artist we need opportunities to show [our work], space to show. So how much do I need to go out and ask people [for space to show] and how many times am I waiting for people to ask me?

When I was working full-time the in-between times didn’t seem so empty and quiet because I was working. And so now I have these times where I don’t know the next thing I’m doing – do I have a thing or no? – and if not, then what? And then you kind of start spiraling out of control thinking am I ever going to have another thing? So it’s a challenge of having faith that new things will come up and then how to naturally and authentically have conversations with people [to encourage work and other projects]. Some artists want to apply to everything. But you can’t do that. So it’s a bit of patience and faith within myself and my own work.

I had this whole vision of how I was going to leave my job and all these opportunities would just pop up and it didn’t feel like that happened, even though it’s starting to happen now. But there was a down period and of course “down period” is the wrong label because it was just a transitional period. So I think going through those waves …

Recognizing there’s an ebb and flow.

Artists do so many different things and wear so many different hats and that’s a plus side to being an artist.
— Stacey L. Kirby

Yes there’s not one straight trajectory and it’s not linear either. So it’s having that trust that the flow will come. And especially if you’re authentically doing what you should be doing.

There was a moment where after I transitioned out of this job I was like, ok now I need to start making objects to sell immediately and I need to go for the big things and then I had to tell myself no Stacey that’s not even what you’ve been making. You need to dial it back and give yourself some time to have this naturally surface what you should be focusing on if you are going to go down that path and how it connects to your work and not over analyze it too much.  Finding that amount of pressure to have on yourself or not. That’s been my most recent challenge.

And when I share this with some people they’re kind of surprised by it. Because we all project how we think other people lives should be, [for example] “Oh you left your job, oh that must be glorious!”

And also figuring out what you can say no to is kind of tricky too. I really appreciated when you reached out for this because having the opportunity to talk about where I am and discuss creativity with you, that’s something I don’t get to do on a regular basis outside of my own circles. And it’s great to tap into a larger community.

What are some creative resources or influences that have been life changing for you as you’ve grown and discovered your role as an artist?

I didn’t realize this for a while, but the fact that my mom had been a court reporter and started her own business. My mom and my aunt both had their own court reporting businesses in Raleigh. And so I think seeing my mom as a business owner running her own business was extremely empowering as a female and connecting with her through that world influenced the type of work that I make and my own confidence as a woman and owning my own business as an artist. And it took me a while to see that but now I see that. My aunt is a powerhouse too, and so is my grandmother. So I’m just seeing the roots.

[After college] I heard about this place called Women’s Studio Workshop that’s in New Paltz about an hour outside of New York. These four women in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s started this organization to give women opportunities in the arts. Two of the women are partnered and still together today. It started off focused on creating artists books and they have printmaking, photography, silk screening, a paper making studio, ceramics, letterpress. And so they bring artists there, they have artists residencies and classes.

I went up there as an intern and was blown away and started researching how these artists on residencies got to be there. So I’d go through files and copy their resumes. I was trying to figure out how to be an artist. You only learn so much in school. So I talked to and got to know a lot of artists and figured out their paths. And then I stayed there for another year and ran the papermaking studio. Moving up to Women’s Studio Workshop and seeing what those women had built for women ... it’s now for men too but they’re not changing their title. That’s actually when I came out as lesbian and I was able to have my first girlfriend there, which is huge. That was a huge transitional point and that allowed me to go look back in my life and say, Oh that makes sense.

Artists do so many different things and wear so many different hats and that’s a plus side to being an artist. It’s not like, “you must sit in your studio and make this one thing.” That’s just not how we exist. We can celebrate how we work in different ways.

Then I really think the Headlands Residency was extremely influential. I think moving to Durham and finding my community here and feeling supported and excited by that. And then working with Creative Capital through the Durham Arts Council has been huge. Going through workshops with them.

I don’t know much about that program.

They were started by the Warhol Foundation and they dove into doing research for artists, the way they live, approach their income, their work. They have a lot of webinars, a lot of workshops around the country, an amazing website. So now they’re bringing their research [about artists] into the communities. Creative Capital started working with the North Carolina Arts Council early on. They have a great relationship. We have a really good arts council. We don’t get funded by the state enough but they’re doing a great job.

Creative Capital always encourages you to think big. Most artists don’t think big enough. And when you start thinking big then things happen like winning 200K at the Grand Rapids Art Prize like I did. That’s definitely connected to Creative Capital. And [Creative Capital has demonstrated that] artists are good with money. And we don’t believe that.

Well we have internalized the belief that we aren’t good with money.

These workshops emphasize that, [they tell us,] We have done research and we are here to tell you that you are good with money. Don’t let anyone else tell you differently.

I think the next big step for me will be stepping into the vulnerability of not having a full-time job. This leap has been huge and I’m glad I did it.

Advice to someone who wants to be creative?

I think you have to find what inspires you. And that doesn’t mean what color to play with. For me it’s about my environment and who I’m surrounding myself with. If you feel inspired by seeing a movie, see a movie. if you feel inspired by walking in nature, then walk in nature.

Have some time to be quiet. I know that’s really hard in our society. But you can’t hear how you want to manifest this creativity until you have some time to yourself. Whatever gets you in the flow. And try to structure that in your life. That happens to me in my yoga practice. Don’t put so many expectations on yourself – just play. Be playful.

This interview has been edited and condensed.