By Sarah Montague
For my first piece as a contributing editor to Parsons Notes, I needed to look no farther than my Integrated Studio teaching partner, Stacy Seiler.
The first thing I always notice about Seiler is her shoes. She has enviably long elegant feet, invariably clad in elegant long shoes. Happily, I get this pleasure several times a semester, when our two classes meet to present and review the “Bridge” projects that shape this unique course structure.
Parsons Notes readers will know that the First Year seminar was designed to recognize the potential synergy between studio/craft/making and critical text analysis; reading and writing.
Seiler is that rare thing, an artist who knew early on in her career that she also wanted to be a teacher:
“I was a graduate student here at Parsons and it was something that I actually knew I wanted to do before I even started graduate school. Ironically, in the interview when I stated that, I was told: “teachers are a dime a dozen, and if that’s what you want to do, you’re in the wrong major.“
Seiler laughs at the memory.
“But being stubborn as I am, I told as many people as I could on campus that [teaching] was my focus, and I wound up teaching in the pre-college program the summer that I graduated my master’s program here. So, I came to Parsons and never left.”
One of the strengths of the First Year program is that many of its instructors are artists, which means that they can bring creative, conceptual and academic perspectives to the classroom. When I ask Seiler about her own work, she responds with a surprising story:
“For a long time, I would say over 20 years, I was working in large-scale charcoal drawings–almost precisionist photo-realistic charcoal drawings of industrial landscapes.”
Seiler says these images related to her childhood:
“I grew up in Baltimore and I was very interested in the silhouette of the city. It was a truly a working-class city. And then as the landscape began to change; symbols that I loved began to go away and I realized that what I was drawing became a documentation of what was disappearing as the Industrial Revolution shifted into the world of technology.”
Artists’ styles often evolve over time—think of Picasso, or Cindy Sherman.
But in Seiler’s case, the change came about unexpectedly and radically following a head injury in 2019:
“Things I had the ability to do, began to disappear. Things I had never done before all of a sudden became this new normal. When you have a head injury, the part of your brain that is injured goes to sleep in order to heal, and to compensate, a part of your brain that you never used wakes up and begins to introduce new aspects of the personality that you did not know you had.”
As an artist, Seiler felt that she was starting from scratch:
“And then learning things about yourself that you never thought were possible. So I went from the realm of two-dimensional flat drawing into working with sculptural forms.”
But she was still drawn to the past.
“I was very interested in old cabinet photos, trying to find connections to people that were lost. Decay was a very important part of the dialogue of my old work. And then all of a sudden it came to be about loss and decay of human identity as opposed to loss and decay of industrial architecture.
So I began to work with found text in old books, and I would kind of create this little rule for myself where I would tear a page, take a photo, and imagine what this person’s life may have been a hundred years prior, then put together a story for them.”
Which, incidentally, is one of the assignments she crafts for her Studio class.
“It [this new path] was also during the pandemic. I was very interested in working with found objects, things that I actually could find in antique stores, things I could find online, and everything was closed, so also things I could find in my own yard. I began to press flowers, which was a popular activity for 19th-century women. They would make these beautiful flower books with decorative motifs. And that led me into collages of the photos.”
With this intuitive grasp of the emotional import of physical life and remnants, it’s no wonder that Seiler shines in Studio. I ask how her past, and her process, connect to her teaching style:
“I think the two forms connect with teaching in the sense that I see the creative mind as a Pandora’s Box that does not have a single story. I think that there’s so much potential that lies within each student. They come in with elements that they know that they’re strong at, but they wound up discovering parts of themselves they had no idea that they’re quite strong at. And it creates so many paths for them forward in life that may unravel right after they graduate, or that may unravel twenty years after they graduate. That continues to build throughout their entire life. And I love the fact that as a creative person, you really do have the ability to be a student for life and someone who is constantly learning. There never has to be a sense that you are stuck or that you become obsolete. You can continue to flow throughout.”
And it is clear that the students themselves are a source of regeneration. (I concur; each class’s responses to texts I have taught for a decade are surprising, revealing and make me rethink my own assumptions.)
“I love seeing inspiration, unique inspiration, in each student that I work with, what their voice is, what their path is. And it feels like such an honor, as someone who’s been working in design for almost 30 years, to so easily be able to say, ‘you should look at this. You should check out this. This could be something that you’re interested in.’ To help them on that path and to make those connections.”
Seiler sees herself as part of a chain of generosity, given just the right context.
“I feel so grateful to my teachers. They were conduits to my becoming the person that I became. And if I can pass that torch, it’s such an honor to me. I just want to see every person thrive, because I feel that creativity, in a world that is very dark right now, is one of the positive things that we have to look forward to. It’s about finding connections in humanity, solving problems, and building a world that could be. One that we all desire to once again live in.”