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Jo Stealey: Capturing Inspiration

Jo Stealey's Friday Feature Artist Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.

Fibre Arts Take Two recently had the privilege of diving into the mind and studio of one of the most innovative and inspiring artists in the fibre arts world, Jo Stealey.

Jo has charted a remarkable path through the intersections of nature, traditional craft and contemporary art. Her journey began rooted in a deep fascination with the natural world and an inherent desire to blend this with her domestic environment, creating pieces that stand as art and as bridges connecting the viewer to the tactile and brief life experiences. 

Jo’s sculptures, books and collages are not just seen but experienced, urging a deep connection with the art and ultimately with ourselves. Fibre Arts Take Two was lucky enough to enjoy a chat with this remarkable artist.

Jo Stealey artwork - book sculpture

Early Inspiration

Jo always had an interest in textiles as she grew up with a family of women who were seamstresses, tailors and needleworkers. “It was a very idyllic upbringing,” she says, “because I grew up on a farm where I was free to roam over fields and into the woods and gather rocks in the creek bed and, and really explore nature. But at the same time, my family would go into St. Louis on weekends, and we would go to museums, we would go to concerts. I had the best of both worlds. I had advantages that I didn't realise were advantages as a child that have really informed who I am as an adult. And I think that those patterns and the love of both nature and, and the cultural manifestations of what we as people make, have just stayed with me all of my life.” 

Later, Jo combined her love of fabrics with other disciplines. “When I went to college and studied weaving, as well as ceramics,“ she explains, “it felt like I found my home in terms of what I wanted to be making in my life. Then, in the early 1980s, I took a papermaking workshop and then a basketry workshop, and I found that I could begin to incorporate everything that I loved about clay and vessel making, and everything that I loved about textiles and weaving, and a body of work where I use both of those processes. And I've been on that journey ever since.”


Basket Making and Ceramics

Jo has a deep love and respect for her chosen mediums of basket making and ceramics, “They are ubiquitous to all cultures. Every culture has a ceramic tradition, every culture has a basket-making tradition, and they've gone hand in hand. 

Archaeologists have even identified that the earliest clay forms had basketry textures embedded in them, so obviously, they were used together, and we still love them today. They're still ubiquitous for us today. Sometimes they're made out of plastic rather than reed or other natural materials, and most of us still eat off of clay plates. So these traditions are still part of our lives.”
Jo Stealey Artist exhibition

Capturing Inspiration

Jo likes to keep a notebook with her at all times. “I never know when I'm going to see something or have an idea that I want to pursue, and I may just write a little note in it, or I may do a quick little sketch and then come back later. Those are really helpful things when you don't have time to sit down and really think through what you want to do. You've got these little cheat sheets, notes you can take with you. And then you open those notebooks up when you're ready to sit down and think about what you're doing next, and all of a sudden, all that information is coming right back to you so that you can get going quickly.”

Despite keeping a notebook, drawing is not Jo’s focus, “I use my drawing to get my ideas down,” she says. “And I do more drawing now than I used to. But there was a long time when I was so intimidated by drawing that I would do stick figure drawing just to get the idea down with lots and lots of writing. So, if you don't feel comfortable drawing, don't let that stop you. You just need to get that information down because then it's out of your head.”

An Artist’s Responsibility

Jo takes her work very seriously, “My responsibility is the making of the object and trying to be as poetic in the way that I'm expressing that idea as I can be. But I don't want to hit the viewer over the head so that it becomes a one-liner because if that's what's in the work, I look at it once and I say, ‘Oh, okay, I get it, I don't need to look at it again.’

I want something that causes you to have that deeper relationship with the work that you want to stay engaged and continue to experience it. I think of it as visual poetry. It's like reading an Emily Dickinson poem or whatever poet is that you love, and you want to come back to that poem many times because it's speaking to you in a way that is important and soulful. And I want my work to do that as well.”

Jo Stealey artwork

About Jo Stealey

For Jo, studio practice is a way of life – art is life, and life is art. It is hard work, lyrical play and how she makes sense of the world. 

Mundane domestic moments and nature inspire the work. Gathered materials from Jo’s environment transformed into handmade paper, textiles and mixed media form her vocabulary. Most of Jo’s art is autobiographical, reflecting interactions with family and her spiritual connection with nature. 

Forms of work range from intimate books to sculptural vessels to large-scale installations. Jo wants to seduce the viewer to touch the work – to initiate a conversation with a piece and, just like getting to know a new friend, learn intimate details as the relationship develops.

See Jo’s latest work on Instagram


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