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i3C Group - Yulia Shtern

In the sixth interview of this series, we introduce you to a remarkable artist and innovator, Yulia Shtern. With a rich background in both theatre design and visual arts, Yulia has ventured into a world where creativity meets environmental consciousness.
In this episode, Yulia will share her insights and experiences in the realm of sustainable artistry and will reveal how she has harnessed the power of up-cycled materials to create meaningful, environmentally conscious works of art.

Joana Alarcão: Thank you, Julia. I just really want to thank you for being here and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me about your time with the i3C group and your practices in specific.

So to start, I just really want to talk about your practice. I know you started out as a theater designer, so can you tell me how that influenced your approach to materials and working with different mediums?


Yulia Shtern: Sure. And thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. Actually, even before I've got to back up a little bit in the journey, even before becoming a theater designer, I was a painter in acrylics and mixed media, and from that my practice evolved into theater design set and costume design. And then I was doing those things in parallel.


Now, both of those really, I guess propelled me into working with upcycled materials the way that I do now because as a mixed media artist, I was experimenting with a variety of materials already and then as a theater designer, specifically for scenic design, you often have to think on your feet. 


So sometimes things come up very quickly in the rehearsal process that you need to respond to and also just the nature of the medium itself. It's a make-believe kind of environment where you make one material look like another material all the time. So that teaches you to think outside the box in terms of what you use to, what you use to represent forward.

So both of those, I think give me a good head start on that.


Joana: And I also imagine that you really know all the technical aspects of the materials. If you have to make something look like something that it's not. And that probably helps you with creating these sculptures. I imagine.


Yulia: Well, not necessarily, because theater is a bit of a ridiculous medium in the way that you have to, sometimes you have to think very quickly and you just use whatever you see around you. There was in fact, a kind of a theater joke in the community for what we do for theater, where you give a list of ten ridiculous things, nine of which were true, and one that wasn't that you've done in the process of your work.

And then people rarely are able to guess which one is actually not true because they're all equally ridiculous. So for example, once I fixed a maple leaf, made a maple leaf with a coat hanger, true story, as ridiculous as that sounds. 



My friends Carmen and Gloria by Yulia Shtern. Image courtesy of Yulia Shtern.

Joana: Yeah. So can you also share how did you transitioned to working with upcycled materials and what drove you to do this more ecological or environmental concern approach?


Yulia: Well, I've been concerned about the state of our environment for many years, and have collaborated with various nonprofits that addressed the environmental issues. I've implemented many environmentally conscious practices in my home and my daily life. So it has been something that I engaged with deeply as a person for a variety of reasons, especially the materials that are being used in both painting and theater.


There isn't really much that you can do in terms of the materials. So in terms of them being ecologically safe, costume design is a bit easier in that sense because often you're able to use garments and fabrics that have already been previously used. In fact, I did that as a costume designer whenever I was able to, but coming directly to work in the medium of upcycled materials was a bit of an accident.


I was moving long distance, as I tend to do quite a lot in my life. For whatever reason, it just happened and for a while, I was separated from my regular art-making materials because they were travelling by land in their container. So while I was waiting for the materials and wanting to make art and thought perhaps I could obtain some more materials.

But that makes no sense because they were in transit right now. So I looked around my home, and saw my recycling bill was very full of really colourful material, so I thought, why don't I try and use that? And basically, a long story short, the time when materials reached me, I was no longer interested in using them.


So I've been practicing with the upcycled materials pretty much ever since.


Joana: Okay. Can you tell us a bit about your series of work called Magical Zoo?


Yulia: Sure. That was the series that was the product of discovering that array of color in the recycling bin. The series of sculptures and walls, wall sculptures of animals, and the medium is mostly food packaging, some fabric leftover, some plastic bits and pieces, and some foil. The language of the series is magical realism. It cannot really explain why it has taken that route.


They just naturally flew into that and have been staying in that visual language for much since the very first piece that I made in the series. Now, the work uses no paint, and the only ingredient that is added to the upcycled material itself is a transparent sealer.



Caroline by Yulia Shtern. Image courtesy of Yulia Shtern.

Joana: How do you gather this material?


Yulia: It just naturally occurs in my home. It's amazing how much, especially packaging material, enters a home alongside something else. You know, pretty much any item of groceries that you buy comes packaged in something. So I put that packaging aside and then just use that, same with fabrics, same with foil. It is just something that naturally occurs in there alongside my daily activities.


Joana: Yeah. So your work has quite a big message infused into it. So how do you balance the need for your creative expression and creating work that has a message?


Yulia: Well, the message occurs naturally, partly because of the materials that I use and partly because of the subject matter. The subject matter of the series is animals and when I portray them, quite a bit of research goes into it as well in terms of what the animals are like, what's their biology, what's their behavior, what's their habitat, what's their conservation status.


So the research I make actually goes alongside the artwork. And when the artwork is displayed, there's also a text alongside it. Speaking about the artistic expression, well, is what remains, the actual making of the sculpture, the shape and the colour.


Joana: Yeah, you do a lot of research before creating the work and then you apply materials that you have in your home and create the sculptures. 


Yulia: Yes. 


Joana: Okay. So can we now speak a bit about the collective? How did you join the i3C Collective?


Yulia, Well, it was actually Adriana, when she created the Collective, she had met me elsewhere, she knew that this was the focus of my work and it, of course, fit the mandate of the collective. Very much so. She invited me to join, and I'm really grateful for the invitation because it's very nice to be working alongside like-minded artists.



Banff by Yulia Shtern. Image courtesy of Yulia Shtern.

Joana: Do you feel that your practice has shifted or improved, or do you have, any event where you saw that your art has a bigger impact?


Yulia: Well, as a part of the collective, of course, it has a bigger impact just because combined we reach a wider audience than we would have individually.


Joana: So did your art change at all, or did you just continue what you were doing before?


Yulia: Well, I am continuing what I'm doing, I guess it's more... I wouldn't really say that it didn't change per se, but the collective is based in Massachusetts, so because of their location, when I make work that is going to be exhibited with the collective I research animals that are local to them.

Just so that when the work is presented in that area, it's more engaging for the audience.


Joana: Yeah. So what is your opinion of an artist joining a collective? Would you advise an artist to join a collective?


Yulia: Yes, absolutely. If the work resonates with the mandate of the collective and you personally resonate with the people in the collective, of course, by all means, it's a good idea to join.


Joana: Have you been part of any of the talks or workshops of the collective? Are you a part of any of the different areas of the collective itself, the marketing and the exhibiting and all that?


Yulia: Well, I wish I could participate in the activities of the collective a bit more, but because we're so remote geographically, while I can be a part of their conversations on Zoom, there isn't really much that I can contribute for local events. Having said that I did give a talk.


Joana: How did the talk go? Do you feel that you had an impact on the audience?


Yulia: Well, I hope so. At the end of the talk we did get a nice conversation with the attendees. This was of course on Zoom because again, I'm not there in person. I'm quite far from Cambridge, and the talk became a part of the Cambridge Arts Association's archive. So I imagine they do make it available to other audiences as well.



Lula by Yulia Shtern. Image courtesy of Yulia Shtern.

Joana: So what advice would you give to young artists?


Yulia: What I would say to young artists is, first of all, continue practising your art and practice it in a way that is authentic to you. Let it flow whichever way you feel that it flows out of you because sometimes artists feel that they need to fit a particular criteria with their work and try to make their work fit someone else's understanding of how their work should be. I would advise against that. 


What would work better is to find places where the type of art that you make is appreciated and also don't be discouraged when your art is not accepted into exhibitions or competitions, because as artists we experience rejection many times. It is really quite constant in the practice. When we submit our art to a call and then for whatever reason it does not get accepted.And no matter how nicely the rejection letter is worded, it takes time to learn how to process it. 


And now the biggest piece of advice that I could give to younger artists is to understand that once that happens it's not about you and it's not even about your work, especially when you submit your work to a group exhibition or any call for art that involves showing not only your work but also someone else's alongside it.


You don't actually know what other work has been submitted and you don't know how well your work will fit into that space. So learning to know that just because your work has not been selected is not a comment on its quality. And it's definitely not a comment on you as a person. What it really is, is that for whatever reason, the piece that you submitted does not flow well with the other selection that has been made.


Perhaps the jury was looking for works that were in the red and yellow and yours is blue and green. And no matter how much they love that, they just cannot make it fit. Yeah. So it's just as simple as that. It's not about you. So submit your work elsewhere and tailor the calls that you enter to the work that you make and not the other way around.


Joana: Yeah, I do agree with all that you said, but the last part, because I also received a lot of submissions from artists and sometimes I see that they have not tailored the work for the submission. And even if I really enjoyed the work they did, I cannot accept them because I have other artists who took the time to take a look at all the submission to the call that I made. I would have to go with that artist and not the one that did not tailor the work.


Yulia: What I mean by that is instead of first reading the call and then making the work fit even though it is not authentic to you, find calls that already resonate with you and the work that you make now. So find calls that are already a good match to your practices.


Joana: Yeah. Because otherwise, you are not going to be accepted if it's not completely in tune with the call or if it's something else- if you have environmental art and you are applying for political art, you just not going to get in. It's got nothing to do with your art but with the call itself. 


Yulia: And it took me a ridiculously long time to figure that out.


Joana: Yeah. They don't teach that in school.


Yulia: No, they don't teach a lot of things in art school. They certainly don't teach how much time you spend doing that. I wish that was at least mentioned, if not thought.


Joana:  It was my last question. So thank you for being here and sharing your experience. I'm sure all the listeners will really appreciate it and appreciate your insights.


Yulia: Thank you again.


Find more about the artist here.


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Yulia Shtern is a Canadian Visual Artist. For over a decade she has worked as a Scenic and Costume Designer for Theatre, Dance and Opera while maintaining an active visual art practice.


Yulia earned a BFA in Drawing and Painting from the Ontario College of Art and Design (Toronto, Canada), a Master degree in Scenic Design from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), and a Master in Opera Direction from the Verona Accademia per l'Opera Italiana (Verona, Italy).


Her art has been exhibited internationally, and can be found in private collections across North America and Europe. She has attended artist residencies in Italy, Germany, and South Korea. Both her theatre design work and her art have been recognized by a number of awards, including Jessie Richardson Award for Significant Artistic Achievement: Outstanding Design Team, as a Costume Designer for a musical in Vancouver BC, Canada (2011), and the Blue Lily of Florence Cultural Association’s 2nd Place Award for Sculpture in Florence, Italy (2019). Yulia's CV can be seen here

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