Conflict is awesome. At least when you’re trying to tell a story. Or find one, as the case may be.
“I like places where there is a lot of social tension. Where there’s conflict, there’s a story,” says Falls Church-based mixed media artist and writer Christine Stoddard. “I mean, I don’t want anyone to suffer. I just find it more interesting to go to a place where there’s more happening.”
The daughter of a first-generation Salvadoran mother and an American father whose “family identifies strongly with their Scottish roots,” Stoddard searches the world around her for issues of personal identity and “all the ways that people negotiate their individual or group identities.”
Those interests are reflected in a cannon that includes writings, collages, comics and films that have appeared in the New York Transit Museum, The Huffington Post, the Science Museum of Virginia and beyond. Stoddard also curates stories told through various media in her online and print publication Quail Bell Magazine. “I’m interested in feminism, in immigrant culture, in cultural and political identity, in what it means to be a woman and an immigrant in different places, especially second generation,” she says.
Stoddard has found that her own life routinely generates the hum of identity conflict. “So many of the personal essays I’ve written have been about those issues. My sister and I have experienced them just by being the children of immigrant and non-immigrant parents. Catholic and non-Catholic parents. I’ve lived in Northern Virginia, which is cosmopolitan, and Richmond, which is not.”
She describes the year she spent as an undergrad at Grinnell College, where she received a full scholarship as a senior in high school. “I never considered myself a brown person, but in Iowa I felt my brownness because it was very homogeneous. I lived in farm country so lots of the people I ran into were not very educated. That led to a couple of conflicts,” she says. “I don’t regret it, but it was not the right place for me. After a year I transferred to VCU where I had access to a huge art department and faculty and a city.”
Stoddard’s travels populate her current exhibit, a roundup of geographically-minded photo collages titled “Little Stories.” “I can point to the individual photos in the composite and tell you where I took them,” she says. “Many of them are objects or landscapes I encounter while I’m walking or traveling. There are also photos from Mexico, Peru, Scotland, New York and Miami. I like places where there are lots of different people and figuring out who they are.”
The works themselves are mash-ups: explorations not unlike the philosophical spaces she visits every day. “I take digital photos and in Photoshop I composite them to create collages,” she says. “I adjust the opacity. I change the colors. I might adjust the saturation or contrast and brightness. I might take one segment from a photo, take a piece out, and overlay into another photo. There’s a piece called city textures that shows the skyline of Richmond, and there’s copper and a purple squiggle with graffiti over it which is a detail shot I took of a mixed media piece I did. That’s why it has this crinkly aspect, it came from doing acrylic on tissue paper.”
Stoddard became drawn to this form in middle school, when a teacher introduced her art class to the work of Romare Bearden, an artist known for collaging events and subjects drawn from his community and the broader culture of black history. “He has this one series where he retold The Odyssey and The Iliad as if the stories took place in Africa. He played with so many items; he took everything—fabric, cellophane, tissue paper, magazine and newspaper clippings—and he would use found photos and paint and draw and cut very fine figures using sewing scissors. His work was so beautiful, and got me thinking of collage in a different way.”
When she learned Photoshop and began taking photos in high school, Stoddard was off to the artistic races. “I’ve been doing [photo collage] ever since,” she says. “I have hundreds.”
It was also in high school that she began making ’zines, an ideal outlet for her twin interests in art and writing. “They’re usually very political,” she says. “I loved that people were using collages to convey political messages. I still read and make them today.”
As a whole, Stoddard says, collage is the perfect art form for those drawn to the uneven edges of life, to the questions so easily raised by the juxtaposition of contrasting worlds.
“There is something transcendent and accessible about it,” she says. “My actual practice—it’s pretty easy to do those. Anyone with a camera and access to Photoshop can do the same thing. You don’t have to draw even well, you don’t even have to take technically great photos. It’s about the composite, how it all comes together. There’s a low barrier to entry and there’s something political about that.