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Stamps Alumni Spotlight: Stephanie Brown (MFA ‘18)

In 2019, Stephanie Brown’s interactive, mixed media installation solo exhibition Do Not Bleach was on view for a 5-month run at the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Florida.

Examining melanin positivity through soaps, 2-D work, textiles, t-shirts, and paper dolls, the exhibition encourages participants to embrace, celebrate, and advocate for their skin tone. A Jamaican descendant born and raised in south Florida, Brown is interested in crafting programs and experiences that bring art to communities through immersive and interactive experiences. In addition to her creative practice, Brown works as the Knowledge Coordinator for the Professional Photographers of America, a nonprofit that helps photographers develop profitable & sustainable businesses.

Tell us about the genesis of Do Not Bleach and your hopes for visitors who experience it.

It all started with a deep dive on laundry care symbols and the marketing tactics used by household cleaning product companies in the 1920s. Those 1920s ads commonly associated the concept of ‘dirty’ with black figures and ‘clean’ with whiteness. I found laundry symbols to be subtle yet widely familiar visually. They are icons with set instructions and perceptions that many are aware of and not aware of. I felt there was a layered possibility here to communicate something about these symbols in relationship to identity construction. I intended to eventually work with all laundry care symbols but after my 2017 trip to Ghana where skin bleaching is a health concern, I knew that I would begin with the “Do Not Bleach” symbol. I decided to use the “Do Not Bleach” symbol to first make T-shirts. The shirts had potential to be easily shared, distributed, and displayed. Advertising on t-shirts is equal to walking billboards. Those who wear the shirt carry the symbol with them on their chest and consequently advocate for the symbol. I want people to advocate for their melanin by wearing the shirt and in turn take a step toward resisting the inferiority of brown skin. In order to accomplish this, I marketed the item for use by those who self-identify as a person of color. It’s my dream for this work to be an empowerment movement of melanin positivity. For people near and far across the globe to relate to the message and opt in by wearing a shirt as a personal pride symbol.

You are both an exhibiting artist and a non-profit professional. What advice do you have for students to best prepare for the balance and varied skill set of a career path like yours?

Never forget your end goals and find a job that compliments your skillset. Post graduate school I dreamed of fellowships and tons of residencies but ultimately made a hard choice to prioritize getting a full time job with benefits. I was nearing 26, my free healthcare was about to expire, and I wanted to find a place to set down roots, pay off debt, and establish a fund to afford my art career. I have a lot of peers who run from full time employment in fear of getting stuck or “falling behind” in this fast evolving art industry. My best advice to art students is to never forget your end goals, keep your artistic goals a priority and start to explore other skill sets you have that you can leverage to financially support your art career. That may mean working for a company, school, or starting your own business! I am all about building doors for yourself when you can’t find an open one. For me PPA was a perfect fit and brought me to Atlanta which has proven to be a very supportive art community. As the Knowledge Coordinator in PPA’s education department, I utilize my museum studies background in this role, my photography knowledge, and my inherent talents to do project management, big picture thinking, organizing, scheduling, and creating innovative systems and processes. This role has even revealed a new interest of mine in learning experience design that pairs even more closely to my art practice. My director knew that I was an active exhibiting artist from the first interview and fully supports it, that transparency I have with her is well cherished and something to strive for. 

I always answer the “What do you do” question with some variation of, “I am an exhibiting artist”. I do that not just for others to know but as a constant reminder to myself that this is who I am. Being an artist is my priority and my non-profit professional job not only enhances my other skill sets, but also affords me to be able to apply to shows, frame new work, and most recently allows me to afford my own studio space. Together these spaces help me succeed and the same can happen for you.

Who is your art hero? Whose work do you admire? 

I am my own art hero. In my opinion, the concept of having a hero or heroism assumes that where there is a hero there is someone out there waiting for help, and you can only wait so long. There are many artists, mediums, industries, and corporations who have been admirable in my eyes however my admiration of them did not make my work or advance my career, real work did and multiple leaps of faith. I am of the belief that when doors aren’t found or given to you, then you have to build your own. I think that is something people of color have been doing in particular for generations to create a better life for themselves and their families. My work has an ultimate goal of sharing knowledge and aspiring for others to take control of their own narrative and identities by questioning everything and finding solutions and truth about themselves for themselves. We have to be able to look within. There are an insane number of artists living and dead who carved their own paths doing work that was meaningful to them, and even as I find meaning and value in their journeys, it’s up to me to seek and conquer my own accomplishments and career goals.

What gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you motivated? 

Untapped potential and a strong desire to make a difference with my work wakes me up in the morning. Knowing that I'm doing my heart's work keeps me moving. The strength in my purpose and the journey of seeing my purpose unfold is the best motivation I could ask for. I have an internal drive telling me and affirming me that my work and ideas can serve others. 

Learn more about Stephanie Brown at stephaniebphotos.com.