Stephanie Leathers: Photographer, Choreographer, Artist, Educator
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.
Stephanie Leathers is a photographer, choreographer, artist, feminist, educator, maker of things (dance and otherwise) and Durham native. Stephanie is a former member of Renay Aumiller Dances (NC), Elojes Dance Theater (NYC), and John Gamble Dance Theater (NC) and performer in the Off-Broadway production of the Time Machine (NYC). She has also had the pleasure of performing with Mark Dendy, David Dorfman Dance (in underground), Gerri Houlihan, Kirby Reed and B.J. Sullivan. She holds a Master’s in Dance Theories and Practices from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. As an undergraduate, Stephanie studied at Columbia College Chicago and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her early dance training and movement studies began at Giordano Dance Chicago, Lou Conte Dance, and the Paul Taylor School. Stephanie has taught in public schools and studios across North Carolina, as a guest artist for Ballet Ketchikan (Alaska), Capitol Movement (Washington, D.C,) among others, and served as a panelist for Tobacco Road Dance Productions. Her work has been presented in numerous galleries and showcases throughout North Carolina, Washington, D.C and NYC. Stephanie is the curator of SITES, a site-responsive investigation in public transitional spaces in Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill/Carrboro. Currently, Stephanie teaches a variety of movement styles/techniques at ADF’s Scripps Studios, in the community and is a dance educator for Durham Public Schools.
[Editor’s note: since this interview was recorded, SITES has been re-launched beginning in September. From the press release: “SITES joins with The Accordion Club for a SITES re-launch: A celebration and kickoff of SITES' new additions. A necessary expansion to Raleigh and Chapel Hill/Carrboro invites new artists, familiar landscapes and critical questions surrounding its research. How are we present with others (community) and ourselves? How do we illuminate tensions between the human body and the civic landscape we're so rapidly revising? The sustainability of SITES depends on those who show up, and invest in the work. Let us always create where art can exist in the streets, alleyways and dilapidated buildings, without becoming sterile, conventional or exclusive. SITES re-launch is a kick-off for our new season, which will run September, 2018 - May, 2019 on first (Raleigh), second (CH/Carr) and third Friday’s in Durham." Find more information here]
Tell me more about your work SITES.
It’s on pause right now because I feel like I’ve exhausted a certain way of doing it.
True, since you have to adapt to what’s going on around you.
There’s so much happening around Durham. So much. It’s expanding in so many different ways. So I’m taking that in right now. I’m processing and I’m talking to individuals – with you, with others in the community that are doing movement work, and also writers, photographers, visual artists – and so right now I’m in that taking-in phase and nourishing phase.
But SITES is about the transition of Durham and being a part of that transition but it’s also about calling attention to some of the things that we aren’t too fond of and also finding a way to live in these spaces that are under construction and in transition before they become something else and sort of give appreciation to what they used to be and allow them to expand into something new and beautiful. So it’s kind of like a ceremony.
What sparked the idea? What made you first think, oh this could be a really interesting piece?
I didn’t think of it as a piece at first. It sort of happened organically when I first moved back to Durham six years ago now – which feels like yesterday. I’m a photographer and I would just walk around taking photos. That’s what I did when I first came back here; I was sort of amazed by all the change. Moving about the city was my weekend thing, to go around and find something new.
And I talked about it with my friends, they’d come take a photo walk with me. And a lot of my friends were dancers, so I started asking them to respond to the space [while I] took photos. And then we’d talk about the experience – how was that? What was it like? How did it feel? And so then it became this movement versus change or movement and change juxtaposition.
I was working on this choreography for an evening-length show. I took over Fishmongers [Restaurant – now St. James Seafood] when it was vacant and lived with my work there for a few months. That was the big next step for me. And I invited dancers, writers and artists to become a part of that experience. That’s how I introduced this idea to the community. That was when the work transitioned into SITES as community dialogue.
How many different sites have you gone to?
I’d say maybe 25 in some capacity in Durham – I don’t have a running number or anything. Some for an hour, a few hours or even a couple days. For other artists involved in the project, I’d say around half that amount.
CELEBRATE SITES was an immersive and audience-participation endurance work where all the past SITES artists came to The Fruit to participate in a culminating experience. It was music, dancing and visual art and people were randomly participating with those involved as performers. I just sat back and watched the whole thing and photographed it and cried.
What does living a creative life mean to you?
I think it means having some sort of responsibility to make and to be and to be relevant in some way with your work, to show up, to support the makers and the doers. Learn from other people and be a part of as many things as you possibly can.
But to be creative isn’t a stamp or anything – I think everybody is creative and we all have our ways of expressing that. I think for me I try to find the through-lines and connect the dots. I’m always looking for ways to connect the dots. I can never focus on one thing.
How can we get this country and also the world to value creativity and the arts more highly and how do you think the world would be different if we did?
Art has to be a part of who we are in this world. It’s how we communicate and it’s how we live and breathe. And if we didn’t have those [artistic] parallels or intersections there would be a good portion of people missing out on life. We all have this structure – I see this grid and I see creative energy flowing through it as something that’s breathed into it and gives it life and allows it to grow. And I think if everyone appreciated it the same way and we all valued it … I see it in my teaching as the kids relate choreography to writing and it helps them understand [both].
We need funders, we need people to show up. People need to see its value... because of who it helps: communities, schools, workplace, homeless, etc.
What are some creative challenges you’ve had and what are ways you’ve been able to move through those challenges?
First and foremost – space and time. Knowing you’re going to be somewhere that you can investigate enough to feel like you need to make something … and you can speak on it intelligently.
When I first came to Durham I didn’t think I had anything to say yet with my dancing and movement – even though I’d been a dancer all my life – until I’d been living here for three years. So I just sat on it [and waited]. So that has been a challenge – time.
And then just the typical obstacles – finding a place to present. And being able to afford things and pay dancers and anybody who is willing to work with you. That’s a challenge with any art form, not just dance. I faced that when I was trying to make a larger work. But with SITES its different. I think the challenges with SITES have been, Are we going to get kicked out of the space? Are we going to get arrested? Are we going to be able to do this work? We’ve been approached by cops before.
Those who are participating have to be on board to guerilla-style go forward and do it. So that’s been a challenge. And finding ways to use what I have available – via conversations and people who surround me that I appreciate – allowing them to speak to me and listening, really listening. Listening in so many ways. Those are challenges that I find I’m moving through. I’m trying to find time to do more – of being available and even if I’ve had an exhausting day at work or when life beats you down so hard you can’t imagine doing anything else with your time.
Have you ever been in a period where you didn’t feel creative and you wondered if you were ever going to be creative again?
Oh definitely. I have a love/hate relationship with dance. (laughs) I’ve danced my entire life, since I was 3, and [went] to college for dance in Chicago and danced professionally in New York City. I came back and got my master’s [degree] at University of North Carolina-Greensboro. So my whole life has been saturated by the dance world, constantly trying to perfect my body and my technique, my knowledge and understanding and the way I communicate.
I definitely hit a wall after getting my master’s degree - for personal reasons and then kind of not knowing where I was going to land. Where was I going to get a job? Obviously finding a job was really important at that juncture and the stress of that just stripped me of any creative energy. Now I can speak about it [with perspective] but for a moment it was just about finding a job.
When I first moved back to Durham I didn’t go to dance shows, I didn’t talk about dance, I didn’t move at all. I just kind of was here existing with my friends. I didn’t even know the dancers in the community. I was not ready. It felt really weird to not know the dance community. Of course now it’s the opposite.
I studied theory and practice, I got my MA, which also included education. So all the theory … it wasn’t just the moving anymore, it was the writing about it. So watching performances was really difficult for me. I didn’t want to see another performance. I didn’t want to point out the choreographic structure of the dance and know what was coming next. I just wanted to enjoy it.
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?
My family has always been supportive, thankfully. And I was able to learn from some pretty amazing artists and dancers.
I’ll begin with lately, and mainly literature, as that’s just where I am at the moment. Hovering over, around and in most of these authors’ works guides me in ways in which I create or see the world as an artist, for better or worse.
I am a woman, so naturally I’m attracted to female artists making relevant work, who speak the same language as I do … or at least I try to speak. My short list of “go to” reading is Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit — I use this largely for my students as they find themselves in a rut and this helps get them out, and feel more free in their efforts of creating and doing.
As a photographer, I turn to Diane Arbus — a biography — a description of her childhood and fascinations and how she came to be. I find these are kindred spirits. There’s connection there that I can’t get anywhere else.
Anaïs Nin. Oh Anaïs Nin. I have a long-time fascination with her work and writing. Mainly the matter-of-fact prose that fills her diary. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend doing so. I’m attracted to her unapologetic approach to her artistic form. She wrote for her lover Henry Miller. Though he took much of the credit.
Alice Notley, Culture of One — make work with what you have, what is given and what is tossed out. I identify so much with this in my work with SITES and in general as most of my work is informed from what used to be or is considered trash, old, under construction, not in use. Telling a story through her lens in a non-confrontational way, allowing communities to come together through hardships and not all that is gold.
The poetry book Violent Energy Ingots by Hoa Nguyen. And a favorite quote of mine is: “when the work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.”
I’m largely influenced by movement of all kinds. I was classically trained with a background in various (release, Horton, etc.) modern forms. We’re products of our experiences, right? I’ve tried to let some experiences go, as in, float on while I engage in others that inform me to be a better thinker and doer in the world, not just in my creative process.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and try things in a different format to see what might have happened. Don’t we all? Maybe some of us are happy in where we land as makers and doers, but for the most part, I think we’re all kind of running around hoping something will work, completely incompetent, until it does, and then… well, there’s more figuring out to do.
What is your advice for someone who wants to make creativity more of their daily life?
I would say make fragments or draw upon things you’re interested in.
Take a paragraph from a book and make a movement sentence from that and then start compiling. Write it down, videotape yourself, be out looking for things, observing things, responding to things. And just make as much material as you can, something that relates to your interest(s).
Take from it what you want later. I’m sure you think of writing similarly. You start putting those things together over time and then you trim it and you edit and make it into something that’s presentable. And then you have your voice in that. It’s a process and it takes a long time. It’s not a formula. So just sit with the work, sit by yourself, be okay with having time when you’re not making anything – because that’s valuable too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.