Lucky '13: Cortney Lane Stell, RMCAD gallery director and curator
This past year has been tough for many people, and we're eager to kiss 2012 goodbye. In hopes that 2013 will turn out to be much luckier for many, we invited some of the town's cultural tastemakers -- entrepreneurs and entertainers we're lucky to have in Denver -- to answer a trio of questions. We excerpted quotes from these Q&A's in the New Year's Guide inserted in the December 13 issue of Westword, but we'll be featuring the complete interviews in a series of posts through the end of the year. Up next: Cortney Lane Stell.
As the gallery director and curator at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, Cortney Lane Stell puts together impeccably curated exhibitions throughout the year as well as bringing exciting guests like John Waters to the college through the Visiting Artist, Scholar and Designer Program. Stell is also an independent curator and travels to Switzerland for a month every year to attend European graduate school. We spoke with the always fascinating Stell about her New Year's Eve ritual and the exciting RMCAD programming she has planned for 2013.
Westword: Tell us about a time that you got lucky.
Cortney Lane Stell: I guess I don't really believe in luck. I'd like to think that I have a little bit more control over things, and I also think that luck may be perceived as luck when things are really just a pattern of historical events that kind of coalesce in the now. But if I were to answer this question, I would have to say that it was surviving death. When I was fourteen years old, I was in a car accident in which I went through a windshield twice, and so being dead for about four and a half minutes and coming back to life, that whole kind of reconsideration of being and what a person is at the age of fourteen was really fortunate for me.
Half of my face was ripped off from going through the windshield a couple times, so from my chin to the back of my skull, I was pretty much scalped. My entire eyelid was gone, half of my nose and everything. And when I came back after being in ICU for a long time, when I was able to look in the mirror, I was this kind of Frankenstein, patched-together person with black stitches everywhere and not really an eyelid or anything. And I was totally boy crazy before that, and it made me almost go through what a woman goes through, like a midlife crisis, at the age of fourteen. So I think I was able to get over a lot of insecurities that I would not have otherwise. And I think it made me realize how small human existence is. And by small I don't mean insignificant, but I mean small in the grand scheme of what life and energy can be. It made me realize that we are also a product of our circumstances even more than I knew before. Because when I was coming back to life when I was being resuscitated in the ambulance, it took me a long time to realize that I was a girl, that I was a young girl, that I had parents. It was like picking apples out of a tree, piecing this existence together of who I was. I guess you could call me lucky in that way. I guess I'm also probably in that sense lucky to have had Dolly Parton's plastic surgeon.
What is your resolution for 2013?
I don't usually set New Year's resolutions, and if I were to set one, it would probably be learning to read historically. So not only reading texts in and of themselves, but understanding all of the sociocultural implications around texts. I came to that through doing a little bit of research on New Year's resolutions. Historically, they've been about doing good to others, and the contemporary interpretation of New Year's resolutions is more about stuff for the self. So I thought I would do something more contemporary, referring to myself and becoming a better person.
What are you doing on New Year's Eve?
I don't have my plans yet, but I will definitely howl at the moon at midnight. Probably for as long as I can. I did it a couple of years ago: Pictureplane was playing at the Meadowlark, and there were a bunch of people outside, and when it hit midnight, we just started howling, and I think it lasted for maybe half an hour. It was such a great release of, I don't know, energy or tension or just kind of being a little mischievous, you know, making as much noise as you can. But also at points during the howling, it almost became like an om meditation because your voices kind of sync up. So I've made it a tradition since then.
What are you looking forward to in 2013?
The 2013 Venice Biennale. Every other year in Venice, Italy, there's a biennial and it's basically a state of the union address for contemporary art. Countries get national pavilions and then there's a large curated exhibition. This exhibition essentially takes over all of Venice and it's a huge spectacle, but it's also a great time for me to get a sense of contemporary trends and what people are collecting and certain ideas that are circulating. It's really an important event for me to attend, and it's also very overwhelming in the sense that you see the Art world with a big "A," the art world that Colorado doesn't really see. For example, like, Elton John or whatever millionaires or billionaires pull their yachts up along the Biennale and they have huge, like, Jeff Koons sculptures on the prows. You can see Yoko Ono and all the big celebrities, so I also get to be a little bit voyeuristic and see the part of the art world that I'm not really engaged with but I know about. This year my husband's going to be going with me and he's never been to Italy or Venice or to the Biennale. So every year I've gone before I've been by myself, which I also enjoy, but it'll be nice to share it with him.
What's coming up for the Visiting Artist, Scholar and Designer Program at RMCAD in the new year?
This coming term, the theme is ethics and practice. We'll have a panel in conjunction with our exhibition on January 10th called The Temporary Institute for Emancipated Objects. The exhibition is about kind of the ready-made, so artists who use everyday materials in a way that complicates or expounds their original use or intention. And there's four artists in that exhibition, so that night at 7 p.m. there will be a panel discussion. And then there will also be a lecture by Paddy Johnson, who is the editor for Art Fag City, which is a pretty well known New York blog. The last person is Simon Critchley, and he's the editor for the New York Times philosophy section. He's also a professor at the New School and has edited books on how to read Heidegger, things like that. So the entire theme will be around ethics and practice and not just telling artists what to do but kind of looking at our sociopolitical situation and empowering artists to make their own set of ethics and their own set of decisions upon that. Because being an artist is really an entrepreneurial endeavor. So empowering people around the idea of building their own ethical systems and understanding the reasons around and behind and within their actions. It's also the 50th anniversary for the college, so we're going to be doing a big student exhibition in March and probably an alumni exhibition this summer.
What was your favorite thing about 2012?
My favorite thing about 2012 was getting a year older. You know, all of the things that happen within the time span of a year and all of the lessons you learn. I think that time is our most valuable resource, so I think the thing I appreciate the most about 2012 is having another year to reflect upon and to grow out of. Either that, or learning to enjoy the Nuggets basketball team.
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