Photograph by Steven Fisher
Louise Stern is an artist who grew up in the Bay Area of California before attending Gallaudet University to study art. Upon completion of her degree at Gallaudet, she attended Sotheby’s of London for her Masters in Art and has made London her home since then. After her time as an assistant to well-renowned British artist and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood, she has crafted pieces of her own that appeared in galleries of Europe. Some of Louise’s art originated out of scraps of papers she uses for written conversations with non-signing individuals. Recently, a collection of her compelling short stories was published into a book, “The Chattering.” “The Chattering” presents stories that are primarily about deaf people – those who are wild, restless, and young. Her first book has generated a buzz across the UK. Alan Warned said it was “an amazing debut: vibrantly perceptive, gentle, funny and profound.” Always one to push boundaries, Louise is currently in a Mayan village in Mexico working on her next book.
Alan Warner, a Scottish novelist, said it was an amazing debut, that it is “vibrantly perceptive.” So how did the book, a collection of short stories come about? From an artist known for visual imagery?
I was getting frustrated with the way that my art was being interpreted and trying to find another way to push my ideas whilst also staying faithful to them. I wondered if there was a way to write that would feel almost physical, that would question language. So, I started to write… a few stories came out of it, I sent them to publishers and at the same time I was still showing and making art.
Your characters are restless. They party, they travel, and they push boundaries. What fascinates me about your characters is this, if you remove deafness from most of your characters, I think very little will change.
Yeah, I agree. Not to sound pretentious, but I want to look at something that is human and not just “deaf.” Trying to understand others and to be understood is so human, and for me that is what the stories are about. But with deafness, it is more obvious that you’re having difficulty being understood, and also the deaf community is where I come from, so…
You’re heading to Mexico for your next writing project. Where in Mexico?
First, a tiny village in Yucatan. Maybe you’ve heard about it, it is a Mayan village and everybody signs whether they are deaf or not. It interests me because deaf people there don’t even feel a special connection to each other because they can communicate with everyone, deaf or not. So, there is no such thing as deaf culture or identity.
It all boils down to language and communication.
Yeah, and that’s what I’m interested in: how sign language itself changes your relationship to the world and your understanding of it. I think it shapes things differently than the voice or writing does, but can be hard to separate that from deaf culture and politics, etc.. But, it is separate in this village, so I’m gonna spend a month there and head to a beach north of Zihuatanejo, rent a small place and write and surf. That’s the plan.
Let’s go back in time a little. The last time I saw you, I think was at Gallaudet. You were a young student, a kid if you will. So between that, you ended up in London for your masters at Sotheby’s. How’d that happen?
I just felt restless at Gallaudet. I knew I didn’t want to work at a deaf school like my parents. Don’t get me wrong, they get so much from it and I admire my dad so much for his integrity. But, I wanted to see more of the world.
That’s a very interesting point albeit on different levels.
But (my) art history class at Gallaudet was the class I felt passionate about. I was the only art history major there, though and I wanted to be around people who felt the same way I did. So, in a nutshell, I ended up at Sotheby’s.
That brings up the dreaded glass ceiling for deaf people. Has it been imposing deaf people for too long?
Well, of course. I know how unfair deaf history has been, and that drives me in many ways. At the same time, you’ve just gotta go forward, and go with your gut and not pay attention to anything else. And the emotions it brings up, anger, etc…you can use in many different ways.
That’s an interesting juxtaposition facing deaf people. When does it become critical for one to step out of a comfort zone? But, at the same time, is it so bad for deaf people to work for VRS companies, teach at schools for the deaf, or what have you?
Not at all. If you feel that is what is right for you, more power to you. But, if you really don’t feel it is what you want, you shouldn’t feel pushed into it. God knows I feel deaf children need good teachers, smart and passionate ones, and leaders in the community to look up to. But, they don’t need bitter ones who feel they are doing their job because nothing else was available.
Indeed. There’s another interesting juxtaposition. Some are saying you are giving a voice to the deaf community, and yet at one point, you may have felt claustrophobic in the same community (if that’s a fair statement).
Yeah, it’s a strange balance, but I think that tension feeds many artists and writers. If it didn’t come from where I grew up, it would have come from somewhere else, probably. And, my parents, my dad especially, have so many inspirational qualities in his work. He made the best choices for himself, and I respect that. Being a parent, you don’t know who your children will be. You can only do what you think is right.
In Eruption, sign language was shown to be a very iconic language and I imagine that resounded with hearing people. Sign language being iconic seems to be one of your constant messages as well. However, if we sat down at a bar, had a good conversation, I’m going to bet that most of the signs we would use would not be iconic at all.
Yes. That’s true. I think it’s more about the essence of the language as I see it.
On one level, it’s deeply iconic. On the other, it is not. The essence of language…
And its foundations. I think sign language users do have a different relationship to the world and to other people than people who speak and trying to isolate what this is about is what I’m trying to do with my work.
Again, it’s the intersection of life and language that I see. Your negotiation of meaning. While language is incorporated in your work, it seems to suggest that words may not be essential to experience.
And you’re right, it’s the intersection of life and language that obsesses me and that is what the deaf experience gives me, at its root.
Intoxication I seems more chaotic, more young, and perhaps less clear. When I look at Intoxication II, it seems more organized, more seasoned, and perhaps in more control. It also seems more potent to me, but in control.
Thanks so much. It feels that way to me, too. It can be tough sometimes trying to balance emotion and control while not diluting either.
Seems indicative of progress in your life.
I don’t separate my life from my work. Not to say my work is biographical, but that my life feeds my work and vice versa.
One more question about Intoxication I and II. When I first saw it, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Grigley.*
Yeah, I did my dissertation on Joe and another artist. He has been an influence on me and we have some of the same interests. I think I am more interested in narrative and emotion than he is, though. Not sure if he would agree, but… He is a good friend to me, though.
Let’s go back to what you just said about language being physical if you don’t mind.
Sure. Language can’t be entirely physical because of what you say about meaning and symbols, but I did try to use direct and physical words and to try to get at the concrete meaning of what I was trying to get across because for me that is closer to sign language, and often sign language feels more honest to me.
And you use the written language to get your message across.
Yeah because it seems the most direct way even if I don’t entirely trust written language. It’s that tension we were talking about before again. I don’t think trust and comfort is necessarily a good thing. It can become complacency very easily.
Now, we’re nearing the end of our interview. I’d like to close with a series of the Proust Questionnaire that originated in France, but is being popularized by James Lipton of Inside The Actor’s Studio. I do this for all people I interview.
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
What turns you off?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
Someone’s personal ass wiper.
What is your favorite curse word?
If Heaven exists, what would you like for God to say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
Here’s a pint.
*Joseph Grigley is an artist who is also deaf and an one-time professor at Gallaudet University. He often uses his scraps of written conversations to, as described in 2001 by the Gandy Gallery, build wall pieces and table-top tableaus that all take as their subject matter the ineluctable differences between speech and writing, and reading and listening.”