Columbia artist uses nature as inspiration

Monday, June 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Artist Jo Stealey prepares a piece of river willow as part of a branch in her piece called "The Forest." This work will be featured at the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis in September.

COLUMBIA ⎯ Growing up on a farm in Wentzville, fiber artist Jo Stealey learned to appreciate and respect nature. Now, she focuses on natural elements in her work.

“There’s always some kind of reference to nature that shows up in my work," she said. "It seems right to me. I don’t have a logical rationale. It’s just something I’ve always done.”

For Stealey, being an artist is more than a job or a way to make a living – it is a way of life.

“It’s part of every aspect of my life," she said. "It’s what I do every day.”

Stealey currently has her work shown in PS: Gallery as part of the Fiber Arts Tour & Exhibits of Columbia, which features three-dimensional art produced from processed leaves.

A piece, for example, is composed of branch-like objects that, even though appearing fragile, seem strong enough to pierce the carpet of stones lying beneath them.

Her work in this exhibit is in response to “Pre-Columbian Textile Art: Design that Speaks Today,” which showcases ancient Peruvian weaving and is being featured at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology.

“I wanted to create work directly inspired by the collection (at the museum),” Stealey said. “I began to think about the patterns and noticed the details in the pieces. They are so meticulously woven … the complexity really speaks to me.”

She was also asked by the museum to write commentary about the weavings, which describes how the historic pieces relate to today’s world and are shown with the works.

Stealey said as a child, her parents took her to St. Louis on weekends to visit museums, so she grew up appreciating the arts.

“(Art) was just a part of our lives,” she said.

She also had women who worked with textiles as role models — her mother, a tailor; her grandmother, a seamstress; and her aunt, who did needlework.

Although art is her life today, Stealey admits there are days when she struggles to make herself work on pieces.

“On days I don’t feel like going to the studio, I sit and process the pieces I’m working on …  I just start fiddling," Stealey said. "Before I know it, I’m in the thick of it … I’m engrossed in it."

Having off days is a necessary part of it all, Stealey said.

“If you don’t have ups and downs,” she said, “something’s abnormal.”

To get through the hard days, Stealey said it’s important for her to have a routine.

“It’s a habit,” she said. “You have to take yourself seriously … if you can just get yourself to do the first step, you can get through it. (My routine) keeps me going and pushes me through those times.”

In addition to her work as an artist, Stealey has also been a full-time professor of art at MU since 1992.

She is currently working on a piece called “The Forest,” which will be featured at The Sheldon, an art gallery in St. Louis, as part of “The Language of Objects” exhibit. Her work will combine sculpture and words and is described as “visual poetry.” The exhibit opens Sept. 25.  


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