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Ivette Spradlin: The Woman Behind The Camera

Ivette Spradlin wants to shine a light on the lesser-known aspects of culture. She’s photographed transient punk kids squatting in abandoned buildings in Atlanta, taught photography classes in the bombed-out Carrie Furnaces sight, and taken on avant-garde creative projects documenting subjects like Big Foot and the cringe-worthy trend of men texting pictures of their genitals.

Spradlin is utterly haunted by photography. “I love looking at images. I don’t think there could be a limit to how many photographs I could see in a day and not get sick of it. I love them. I look at Instagram all day long, I look at student’s work, I can look at old photographs, it doesn’t matter,” said Spradlin. She’s both student and teacher. When she’s not educating at Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, she can often be found wrapped up in an artistic endeavor, most recently working in concert with other artists. “This year has been more about collaboration,” Spradlin said.

By: Roger Wilty


Through her series, Everything Changed, Spradlin has documented women in transitional periods. Black and white shots of these women capture them standing on the precipice of a major life change. In The Oval Portrait Project, presented women through darkened, shadowy, ornately-framed portraits, depicting the struggle to balance art with personal life. She uses her art’s inherent beauty to capture the eye and transmit a statement about larger issues to invoke the audience’s thought processes. “People can understand beauty on any level and love it, so I think if it starts there, and you create a beautiful experience or space, or an interesting one at least, something that evokes an emotion, then at least there’s that connection. They [the audience] may not be able to explain why the like it but they can just like it. Art for art’s sake. I think that’s really successful as an artist,” Spradlin said.

STM recently met up with Spradlin in Bloomfield and asked her about the themes in her work, sexism in the art world, and what she’d like to see come out of Pittsburgh’s cultural scene.

STM: How do you choose your subject matter? Is it personal? Do you feel your art is a representation of yourself?

IS: I think I can’t escape myself, so there’s that level. And I think there are ideas that I don’t even realize that are connecting through all the work. I think that’s a really difficult thing for each artist to figure out personally because they’re so close to it. I think most people have a hard time working it out. That’s usually where it helps to have a really insightful curator who’s familiar with your work and they can articulate it in a better way, that’s positive. That’s the pressure as an artist. Not to just be good at your craft, but to also talk about it and write about it and all these other talents that may not be readily available to you when all you really want to do is just do the thing you love.

STM: What’s your advice for an artist trying to figure that out?

IS: Write. I hate writing. It’s just a huge struggle for me. I’m really proud of the things I write because I feel I work so hard on them. But, every time I do, I figure more out and I think it makes my work stronger. But I despise doing it. I feel like a child about it; I throw a tantrum in my head, but I just have to get it done. It’s good to focus, to put into words what we do, what drives us. Usually it’s very personal, and it’s like if you had to articulate every single thing you do in a relationship, it’s how you react to the whole world, it’s everything, and most people don’t have that level of self-reflection.

STM: Your recent work focuses on women and their experiences; the recreated dick pics using female models, the Oval Portrait Project, etc. What’s different about being a female artist?

IS: Most women, myself included, have been told that they can’t be an artist and have a family at the same time. You know, men don’t get told that. They’ll say things like, ‘If you become a mother it will kill your career,’ and nobody even questions men having kids because there’s an assumption they can pass off the work to a woman. Women have so much of that responsibility of child rearing in their mind. And it’s even been told to me not to have a partner if I want to be an artist, mainly by other older women who said, ‘They’ll take too much of your time, you’ll have to take care of them too much to do your own work.’ I think that’s fucked up and there’s moments when that feels true. I think it makes me really angry. It’s denying women a full life and it’s putting this pressure on them to be things that isn’t put on men. Even if there’s a reality to it, it still sucks.

It’s like having children. I can understand more because there’s a physical toll in that situation that has to happen, especially if you choose to breastfeed and stuff like that. Maybe you wouldn’t make much work during that time unless you figured out a way you could combine it, but I think it’s just a cop out to excuse men from getting involved and supporting their partner. As a woman you’re always going to have to be supporting them instead of them supporting you and it’s just shitty.

STM: After finishing a project that you’re impassioned with, does it feel like an invasion of privacy to put your work out for everyone to see?

IS: I was telling someone that it took me awhile to realize, but I figured out that every time I have an opening and I know I’m going to go to it and I know I’m going to be in a room with people that will be looking at my work, I will pick a fight. I’m not a fighter, but I’ll pick fights out of nowhere, out of nothing. I think it was hard to walk in that room and feel like my emotions were up on display and were going to be judged. For better or for worse I was going to be judged, and there’s a level of fear stepping into that realm.

STM: Did you get over it?

IS: I think I’m getting over it. I think I’m still working on it.

STM: There’s obviously a big reward for you there, so you keep doing it, right?

IS: Right. I mean, I love making art, and when I do I get more and more open. I always made work about things that were connected to me, even from the very beginning. I always photographed my community or a community I was connected to and documented things that had something to do with me and my life. I think that when I was younger I was afraid to make work that was about my emotions. I was afraid it was going to be too feminine a thing to do, and people wouldn’t take me seriously if it was about something emotional. That took getting older and realizing, ‘Yeah, this is actually way more important, and has way more depth, and is gonna reach people in a way that I want.’

STM: How much time do you spend thinking about the final state of this art, e.g., where it will hang, and how much is spontaneous, ‘I have to create this. This is what I’m doing right now’?

IS: Even when I first started I thought about how the look of the image would speak to the subject matter. So, when I made a handmade book on these warehouses where all these punk kids lived in Atlanta, I wanted it to look like punk flyers and the punk aesthetic that made sense with the subject matter. I try to make the message clear in the way it looks. More recently, when I did The Oval Portrait Project, I was going through something big in my life. I also did my show Everything Changed, when I was going through this transition, feeling alone, needing to connect with a new city. Then I started photographing women in these transitional spaces. There was this feeling I had during that time and I wanted to recreate that emotional response in my audience. With the oval portraits the aesthetics came first. That comes from teaching photography and showing a lot of historical images to my class. I knew I wanted the oval frames, ornate frames. My dad and stepmom own a frame shop in Miami so I think about frames a lot. My mom’s Cuban and there’s a lot of gold and ornate frames, kind of Spanish, like Catholic churches. All of that stuff I find very beautiful. And I always loved those bubble glass frames with portraits in them.

STM: What do you think of the local landscape of Pittsburgh art?

IS: What I noticed when I first moved here about local stuff in The Carnegie Museum and other spaces around town is there are a lot of exhibitions where the subject matter is Pittsburgh related. Pittsburgh likes to see Pittsburgh. There’s a lot of imagery that’s of Pittsburgh, like the stuff in the mayor’s office. There’s only a handful of things that aren’t Pittsburgh landscapes. Maybe that makes sense for a mayor’s office, and it is a very beautiful city, but I just think it’s less about ideas and more about the actual physical city. I think connecting ideas to imagery is where we should branch out a bit more.”

STM: So, how do you present art to the Pittsburgh scene and hope to engage with them on broader subject matter?

IS: It’s good if the art is driven by its aesthetics; guided by its beauty and by its form. Guided by its materials’ relationship to the place it hangs. I don’t want it to lose the audience in terms of a person who feels uneducated about art. And I think that’s what happens a lot of the time. People don’t feel they understand art and therefore they shouldn’t be interested. But I think beauty sucks anybody in, you know? If you just have a message and you don’t have the beauty, then I think you lose a lot of people. But, if the beauty sucks someone in and you have a message beyond that, then I think that’s incredibly powerful.