On Mystery & Materiality

The "Starting Over" artist on reading, seeing, creating, and discovering

Brenda Stumpf is a Pittsburgh-based artist, intrigued by mythology, mystery, and the unknown past. Acutely attune to materiality, she uses a variety of media, sometimes picking objects from the trash, to create her works, which have been exhibited across the United States and internationally. Her collages illustrate Creative Nonfiction #67, “Starting Over.” View Brenda’s work at brendastumpf.com.


CNF: A number of your illustrations for this issue incorporate writing or type. What relationship do you see between text and pictures?

STUMPF: Since I was a little girl, I’ve always been taken with script, letters, and symbols, even when I couldn’t read the text because I was too young, or because it was ancient writing that I was looking at in National Geographic on a scroll, or ancient wall carvings.

CNF: What did, or what do, you find compelling about these markings?

STUMPF: I find them compelling because they have the potential to reveal lost information and insights from another time.

CNF: A lot of your work makes use of texture. How did you react to seeing it in a uniform print publication?

STUMPF: They kind of reminded me of blueprints.

CNF: You’ve cited myth and poet Pablo Neruda as influences. Would you call yourself a big reader? Is literature or story often an inspiration for you?

STUMPF: I’m not a BIG reader. I’m kind of a scavenger in that I have hunches and clues and go digging, which often takes me into poetry and mythology and mysticism.

CNF: What are some of your favorite poems and myths?

STUMPF: No favorites—too many influences from mythology, mysticism, poems, and classical music to ever narrow it to favorites—but here’s an example of how important these elements end up being threaded into my work. When I completed the body of work titled Blood Roses: A Cycle of Souls, which was some heavy-duty subject matter, it was towards the end of making that work when Neruda’s poetry became a balm of sorts. Each piece was married to a poem. For instance, the painting titled “Pale Corpses with Dead-Tressed Women (Mary)” evoked and paid homage to the brutally murdered Mary Jane Kelly, [killed] by Jack the Ripper. I selected the poem by Pablo Neruda, “Only Death,” from Residence on Earth, translated by Donald D. Walsh, for that particular piece. The end of the poem reads:

Death is in the cots:
in the slow mattresses, in the black blankets
she lives stretched out, and she suddenly blows:
she blows a dark sound that puffs out sheets,
and there are beds sailing to a port
where she is waiting, dressed as an admiral.

YOUR SOFT SILENCE IS FILLED WITH ROOTS Baby doll parts, plastic and silk foliage, Christmas ornaments and decorations, fabric, plastic beads, discarded vintage matting and backing board, strips of metal, cord, nails, sand, gesso, house paint, acrylic and glue on canvas. 48 x 96 inches.

CNF: Do you see a connection between visual art and storytelling?

STUMPF: Yes, but when I make art it’s anything but linear. It’s more of a constellation.

CNF: You work in many forms, but the work featured in this issue is mainly collage. Do you see a connection between collage and starting over?

STUMPF: I only have so much of a particular material or set of objects, so when I start a new body of work, it’s always different.

CNF: Some people view literature and art as attempts to understand, but you emphasize mystery in your work. Why?

STUMPF: I don’t make art because I know things; I make art to find things out.

CNF: You describe yourself as “working intuitively.” What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?

STUMPF: I don’t plan on how I am going to make a piece of art. It’s about handling the materials and playing with them, arranging them, having conversations with them. It’s like a scavenger hunt. I can only go from A to B and then I get the next clue to get to C and so on.

CNF: How conscientious are you, and does it change as the work progresses? Do you purposefully avoid thinking too much about a piece?

STUMPF: If I’m working on a large body of work that takes me upwards of 3 years to work on, I’m not in a hurry to figure much of anything out. It gets back to the scavenger hunt way of looking at it. Wax on, wax off. Chop wood, carry water. Sometimes I am affixing objects and creating the forms of the work for more than a year before an ounce of paint touches the surface. It’s like being in a hermitage. By the time I’m a year or so in, I’m getting a lot of insight into what’s going on and I’m writing those things down, which will help me sort out a lot of details as the work progresses.

CNF: You work with “found and discarded objects.” How do you find them?

STUMPF: I’ve bought things from house sales and second-hand stores, found items on garbage night, and then sometimes people have given me materials that are interesting.

CNF: Are materials your starting point, or are you thinking thematically before you start working?

STUMPF: The materials hold a potency that comes forward first.

CNF: Do you have a favorite piece or series you’ve made? Why is it your favorite?

STUMPF: Another major body of work was inspired by mysticism and alchemy through the lens of Seshat, the ancient Egyptian goddess of writing, and in a broader sense the Scribe archetype. In these works, I dealt primarily with the process of transformation.

Depicted as the scribe to the pharaoh, Seshat was known as “Mistress of the House of Books,” because she tended to the library of the gods. In addition, she was also given the epithet “Mistress of the House of Architects,” due to her association with “foundation rituals” which were conducted during the laying of stone buildings. For me, this became a metaphor for the building of one’s new life, and to do that in the most deep and profound way one must heal, whether that is an illness, a crisis, or a thought pattern. In hindsight, that body of work literally was a bridge and sort of chronicled one version of my life into another. So Seshat was a guide and a lens in which to see my life symbolically during the changes and sign posts of those 3 years in creating that work.

AKH (THE UNIFICATION OF KA AND BA) Hand torn paper from antique books, glued to book covers. 7.75 x 10.25 inches.

CNF: What other projects do you have underway or on the horizon?

STUMPF: I’m finishing up 2 larger bodies of work and have a couple series of smaller drawings and paintings that I just completed. I will be having an exhibition at the Westmoreland Art Museum in June of 2019 and have been gearing up to create my largest works yet—12-to-15-foot-high paintings, which is really thrilling!

About the Author

Emily Davis

Emily Davis is a fiction writer from Pittsburgh. She studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and is a graduate student at NYU’s Center for Experimental Humanities, where she is the Editorial Director of Caustic Frolic.

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