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The captivating narrative behind iconic women: an Interview with Stephanie Jaffe

Stephanie Jaffe is an impressive mixed-media assemblage and mosaic artist, whose latest body of work creates a discourse around the captivating world of iconic women. Through her stunning portraits, she weaves narratives about historic figures who have left an indelible mark on our world.

2023-08-04

Joana Alarcão

There is a fascinating quality to art that transcends its many forms and origins. It's a medium that can be created from seemingly mundane objects and transformed into something truly remarkable. However, it takes a special kind of creativity to bring it to life. Today, we have the privilege of delving into the mind of the artist responsible for these incredible and distinctive works. Stephanie Jaffe was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1958. Drawing on her background in ceramics and glass, she creates sublime pieces with often repurposed or discarded objects from everyday life.


Jaffe's artistic creations integrate a range of found vintage materials or vintage ceramics, glass, plastic, beads and buttons into captivating assemblages that defy traditional perceptions of art. She combines them with thoughtful compositions to create dynamic works that explore the complexities of human emotion and the universal themes that bind us all together.


The use of mosaic techniques in her projects further adds depth by incorporating small tiles cut from mirrors or porcelain plates, creating intricate patterns full of texture and colour variations within each artwork. These multilayered compositions evoke feelings ranging from joyousness to sorrow depending on their subject matter, allowing viewers to connect with the artist's vision on a personal level.


Stephanie Jaffe has been using her art to tell stories for more than 25 years now, and her public installations are no exception. Her works can be found in various cities across Florida, including Boynton Beach, Miami Shores, and North Miami Beach.


Judith Chung by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Alain Fleitas photography

Could you start by sharing a brief overview of the conceptual and practical frameworks of your practice?

 

Conceptually, my art is driven by several key themes. I delve into the concept of memory and the emotional resonance of objects, seeking to evoke personal connections and nostalgic feelings through my artwork. My current portrait series explores the stories and narratives of influential women throughout history, using portraiture to shed light on their contributions and impact on the world we live in today. By integrating carefully selected objects into my pieces, I intertwine the histories and symbolism of these materials with the subject matter, inviting viewers to contemplate the deeper layers of meaning within my artwork.


Practically, my artwork revolves around the exploration of mixed media assemblage and mosaic techniques. I employ a meticulous process of collecting and repurposing materials. I scour antique shops, thrift stores, yard sales, and online platforms to find vintage ceramics, glass, buttons, and plastic toys, among other items. These objects serve as my artistic palette, offering a rich array of textures and colors. I rearrange and reconfigure these materials to form sculptural paintings and mosaic artworks.



Your work beautifully portrays iconic women who have shaped our world. How do you select the subjects for your portraits, and what draws you to their narratives?

I am drawn to subjects for my portraits based on their significant contributions and impact on society. When choosing subjects, I consider their historical importance, their accomplishments, and the issues they championed. I select iconic women who have played pivotal roles in shaping our world. My aim is to highlight their narratives and create a visual representation that captures their essence and influence.


Michelle Obama, for example, has emerged as one of the most iconic women of our era. As the First Lady of the United States of America and the first African American to serve in that role, she helped create the most inclusive White House in history while also advocating for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world. She dramatically changed the ways in which families pursue healthier and more active lives.


Wearing her iconic blue dress, Michelle’s portrait jumps off from the quote “When they go low, we go high” She is encased in a rainbow made up of positive influences and pop culture icons such as superheroes, starfish, healthy food, and happy faces on the top half. Education is symbolized by a wise owl with a diploma. The pop culture heroes turn to villains towards the bottom of the piece with Uriah Heap, Voldemort from Harry Potter, Dracula, Frankenstein and villains from Star Wars and Walt Disney films.


I strive to create portraits that not only capture the physical likeness of these iconic women but also convey the depth of their experiences and the significance of their contributions. Through my artwork, I aim to spark conversations and celebrate the indelible mark they have left on our world.


Michelle by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Alain Fleitas photography

Recycling and giving old objects a new life is a central aspect of your artistic process. Can you share a specific instance where an object's transformation had a profound impact on the overall meaning and message of your artwork?

I completed a portrait of Judith Chung, a remarkable businesswoman and trailblazer in New York City's Korea Town. The artwork, commissioned by Judith Chung's daughter, Grace, serves as a tribute to her mother and aims to convey her inspiring story.


In the artwork, I wanted to capture the transformation Judith Chung initiated by purchasing an old gift shop on West 32nd Street and transforming it into a pharmacy, where Grace's sister could work as a recent pharmaceutical school graduate. Over time, the small pharmacy evolved into several department stores, symbolizing Judith Chung's entrepreneurial spirit and success.


To emphasize this aspect of the narrative, I placed a recycled mortar and pestle at the top center of the piece. This object, once used for grinding and blending ingredients in a traditional sense not only visually enhances the portrait but also serves as a powerful symbol of Judith Chung's determination and accomplishments throughout her life.


Judith Chung by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Alain Fleitas photography

Memory and emotional resonance play a significant role in your practice. How do you navigate the complex interplay between personal memories, collective nostalgia, and the stories conveyed by the objects you incorporate into your artwork?

 

Objects can carry personal or collective meanings, memories, and associations that have the power to elicit strong emotional reactions or connections. This can vary from person to person, as different individuals may have unique experiences, memories, and individual interpretations associated with specific objects. 


When selecting objects for my artwork, I often seek those that hold personal significance to me or have a broader cultural relevance that can resonate with a collective audience. These objects serve as conduits for personal memories and emotions, allowing me to infuse my artwork with a sense of authenticity and personal connection.


For example, Greta Thunberg, the face of climate activism, is portrayed in her iconic yellow raincoat and braids, representing global warming and the precarious future of our planet. The sculptural relief border includes childhood symbols such as a carousel horse and a pair of Mary Jane shoes along with objects representing the rights of future generations, such as clean oceans and hiking in nature. Noteworthy symbols in the artwork include a toy dinosaur symbolizing extinction and an anchor representing Greta's oceanic journey to address the United Nations.


Greta Thunberg by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Stephanie Jaffe.

As a public artist, how does creating artwork for public spaces differ from your studio practice? How do you adapt your artistic process to engage with a wider audience and address the specific context of each installation?

 

When working on public art projects, I adapt my artistic process to engage with a wider audience and address the specific context of each installation. Public art projects often involve collaboration with various stakeholders, such as community members, design teams, and commissioning entities. I embrace this collaborative process and work with these groups to incorporate their input and visions, into the artwork. By involving the community, I ensure that the public art resonates with and represents the local context and identity. 


As an example, V is for Veterans is a Veterans memorial sculpture located in front of the Town of Miami Lakes Government Center. I worked very closely with the town’s Veterans Committee during the design process of this memorial. This pentagonal-shaped sculpture base honors Veterans from all five branches of the United States Armed Forces. The Tile plaques on the sculpture base display the military creeds and seals and the V evokes the universal symbol for peace.


Public art is designed to enhance and interact with its specific location. I consider the site's characteristics, history, and cultural significance. I engage with the physical environment, architectural elements, and surrounding community to develop a concept that harmonizes with the site and establishes a visual dialogue between the artwork and its surroundings.

 


V is for Veterans by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Alain Fleitas Photography

Your artwork is featured in various collections, including public art installations. How does creating art for public spaces allow you to engage with a broader audience and contribute to the cultural landscape of a community?

 

Public art is accessible to a wide range of people as it is often displayed in outdoor or easily accessible locations. Placing artwork in public spaces, ensures that it is available for everyone to see and appreciate, regardless of their background, socioeconomic status, or art knowledge. This accessibility fosters inclusivity and allows a diverse audience to engage with my work. 

 

Moreover, public art has the power to reflect and celebrate the identity of a community. By incorporating elements such as historical references, local symbols, or themes relevant to the community's values and aspirations, my artwork becomes a reflection of the community itself. It can serve as a catalyst for discussions on important topics, such as history, identity, social issues, or personal narratives, encouraging dialogue and promoting a deeper understanding of the community's cultural fabric.


For Example, "ON THE GREEN," a functional, whimsical, and interactive sculptural artwork commissioned by Dick's Sporting Goods and Agree Limited Partnership, LLC thru the City of Boynton Beach Art in Public Places. The sculpture showcases three colorful fiberglass golf tees embedded in a porcelain and glass tile mosaic golf green. This public artwork aims to attract visitors to the tenant, Dick's Sporting Goods, and the property owner. The piece aligns with the project's goals of complementing the sporting goods business and reflecting the surrounding golf communities. As an engaging feature, visitors can sit on the golf tees.


On the green by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Stephanie Jaffe

Could you provide insights into the thematic and conceptual underpinnings of your solo show Treasures Reconstructed? How did it reflect your artistic journey and current artistic pursuits?

 

In my solo show titled "Treasures Reconstructed," I mostly showcased my mosaic topiary sculpture series. These were vibrant and textured ceramic sculptures that celebrated the beauty of imperfection and the potential of discarded materials. 


The exhibition also featured the first piece from my portrait series, titled "Audrey," where I expanded upon this concept. I delved further into incorporating more diverse found objects into my pieces. This marked a significant transition in my artistic practice which added layers of symbolism and personal narrative to mosaic portraits.


Additionally, for that piece, I incorporated resin casting into my artistic process for the first time. By pouring resin directly into frames, I not only add a layer of preservation but also enhanced the visual impact of my artwork. The resin serves as a unifying element, encapsulating and protecting the intricately composed portraits, while adding a glossy finish that enhances their overall presence.


How do you find inspiration and connection within the artistic community, and how does exhibiting alongside fellow artists influence your creative process?

 

I find inspiration and connection within the artistic community through various avenues, such as participating in exhibitions, attending art events, collaborating with fellow artists, and engaging with art organizations and social media. These interactions provide me with opportunities to exchange ideas, share experiences, and gain fresh perspectives on my own artistic practice.        

Exhibiting alongside other artists allows me to engage in conversations and receive feedback on my work. Interacting with fellow artists, critics, and viewers provides valuable insights, constructive criticism, and different viewpoints that can help refine and develop my artistic ideas.



Eleanore by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Stephanie Jaffe


From your perspective what role does art play in the contemporary political atmospheres?

 

Art has long been a vehicle for expressing political ideas, challenging power structures, and critiquing social issues. Artists, including myself, can use their work to shed light on political events, ideologies, and movements. Art provides a platform for expressing dissent, questioning authority, and advocating for social change.

 

Art has the power to provoke thought, raise awareness, and stimulate conversations about pressing political issues. By presenting these issues in a visually compelling and emotionally resonant manner, art can engage viewers and encourage them to reflect on and engage with political realities.

 

Art can transcend boundaries, spark dialogue, and inspire change.


As you continue to explore mixed media assemblage and mosaic art, what new directions or themes are you excited to explore in your future work? How do you envision your artistic practice evolving in the coming years?

 

I would like to continue exploring the power of portraiture as a means of elevating individuals to iconic status, capturing their essence, and conveying their stories through visual symbolism and narrative elements. I will seek out more commissioned projects that allow me to visually preserve the stories of inspiring individuals, much like my portrait of Judith Chung. This could involve exploring diverse subjects from different backgrounds and cultures, aiming to celebrate their achievements and contributions. Additionally, my exploration of mixed media assemblage and mosaic art opens possibilities for experimentation with materials, techniques, and textures. I will continue to push the boundaries of these mediums, incorporating new elements and innovative approaches to create visually dynamic and impactful artworks.


Lastly, could you share some podcasts, books or artists with our readers?

 

"Cut to the Chase" with Gregg Goldfarb is a podcast that delves into contemporary legal and environmental issues. Gregg Goldfarb, the host, explores a wide range of topics related to the intersection of law and the environment, providing insightful discussions and analysis.


https://www.inliquid.org/artist/dougherty-patti-painting


Know more about the artist here.

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Cover Image:

Greta Thunberg by Stephanie Jaffe. Image courtesy of Stephanie Jaffe

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Stephanie Jaffe 1958 was born in Brooklyn, New York. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ceramics and glass in (1980), from Temple University Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During her college education, she studied in Rome, Italy where her love for implementing mixed media into assemblages was born. Upon her return to the states, she founded Germantown Glass, which became renowned for refined glass objects d’art. Stephanie’s work has evolved to include mixed media mosaic painting and sculpture. For the past two decades, she has also worked as an accomplished public artist in Florida. Her work has been displayed and sold in galleries and museums across the country. She had a solo show titled “Treasures Reconstructed” 2018 at The Sol Taplin Gallery, Miami Shores, Florida. Notable group exhibitions include “Just for Fun” (2018) at the A.E. Backus Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, “All that Glistens” (2019) at The Laundromat Art Space, Miami, Florida, and “I Want Candy, the Sweet Stuff in American Art (2007) at The Hudson River Museum of Art, Yonkers, New York. Her public art pieces are in several collections including Florida Art in State Buildings and The City of Boynton Beach, Florida.

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