“I know the impact [public art] has on a community when you create art in spaces where people wouldn’t typically hang out. Art making in community spaces encourages people’s senses.”
Birmingham native Celeste Amparo Pfau, a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts and The Cooper Union in New York City, was recently recognized as the Magic City Art Connection’s 2017 Emerging Artist. She utilizes a wide array of methods and materials in her work, from her interactive community art projects to her signature fiber art that explores the botanical world of Alabama.
Much of your work utilizes plants and natural materials. What initially inspired that choice?
Natural materials were always available to me and, thankfully, I had parents open to me exploring these materials and making art out of them. At the Alabama School of Fine Arts, I was taught to draw, and drawing opened me up to being observant in a specific way. I later realized I didn’t have to use traditional art materials to be an artist. I like the existing beauty of natural materials and the challenge of highlighting the elements that are already there. And media from nature are versatile and readily available. When I exhibit, my art becomes a platform for really interesting conversations with people who are very knowledgeable about flora and fauna.
How are you currently incorporating nature into your artistic process?
I’m focused on a print making process called botanical mono-printing. I use an etching press, oil based inks, and materials that I gather and forage from around the south to create panels and wearable fabrics.
ASFA has Alabama’s largest etching press and, as a graduate of the school, I’ve developed a connection there. The press has really been the key to the development of my work. The ink doesn’t even dry for two weeks and each of my prints is completely different, so it’s not a process that can be rushed. Working at ASFA provides the opportunity to lay out all of my materials from nature and develop my compositions.
The faculty has been very welcoming, and I have the pleasure of sharing my process with their students. I enjoy being in a setting that isn’t so private. I love explaining what I’m doing and sharing that magic. In an ideal situation, I would have a studio with a big window to the street, and people who were interested could just watch.
How does public interaction inform your working style? Are there types of public interaction that you would like to explore and haven’t yet?
I’ve done a lot of different festivals, and they’ve been such great growth experiences. I started at the Woodlawn Street Market. It was the first time I was forced to talk to a lot of people. That experience was invaluable. It’s such an important part of the art process – the conversations you have with people who look at your work and potentially buy it.
We also did live portrait sessions. I had never experienced so much trust – someone staring straight at me for ten to fifteen minutes. Each time, I had to take a deep breath and completely empty myself out. What can a human do that a camera can’t when capturing an image? I felt like I was literally pulling someone’s essence out into the air, into myself, and out through my hand. Those sessions were really intense.
For larger scale public participation, I’d love to see a cultural parade in Birmingham, something in keeping with the carnival traditions in Latin America. My passion for celebrating our diverse cultures is equal to my passion for the use of nature in my work. That’s why I have two branches of creative work – the botanical mono-prints and my interactive community projects.
Public projects require public spaces. How does Birmingham stack up for you in that regard?
We’re going in the right direction. I’m impressed by the new galleries opening up. I think that artists now have more venues to share their work. I believe, in some ways, having more casual settings to show work would be beneficial. In a lot of cities, artists are allowed to show or create work on sidewalks in designated areas. It’s also important that we find a way to create more affordable studios and practice spaces.
I’ve been doing a lot of informal research on public art. And I know the impact it has on a community when you create art in spaces where people wouldn’t typically hang out. Art making in community spaces encourages people’s senses. They hear new sounds, feel new textures. I think the word I’m looking for is “haptic.” The space is physically changed and people experience it in a new way.
Birmingham should have a percent for art ordinance. If every new development and renovation had one percent of the budget dedicated to public art, it would be amazing. And I want to remind people that there are plenty of artists in Birmingham that we can use for projects rather than bringing in artists from outside of the city.
You recently went through CO.STARTERS. How did the program help you think about the business side of being an artist?
CO.STARTERS kicked me in the butt. It forced me to think about the things I didn’t want to think about. Artists are so passionate about making their work that they aren’t always thinking about how to sell it, making a profit, or even just breaking even. It was the first formal time I’d ever devoted to really talking through how to be sustainable. It’s made me rethink legal and accounting issues, partnerships, and project collaborations. I’m now more deliberate in my thinking about contracts, time logs, tracking of all of my receipts. CO.STARTERS helped me be more accountable. I’m encouraged, more confident, and I see more clearly that I can do this.