Ottawa Animation Festival: Stacey Steers pieces together a life in art

A scene from Stacey Steers' Night Hunter.

In her recent work, the American artist and animator Stacey Steers combines imagery from silent films, the legendary photographer Eadweard Muybridge, along with thousands of her own handmade collages in her animations. Steers’ films have screened across the U.S. and internationally including at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is also now creating larger installations are creating a new context for her films. At this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival, Steers’s work is the subject of a retrospective. She spoke with ARTSFILE before the festival opened.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

A. I would say I have always been artistic. I loved to cut things out as a kid and make any sort of arts and crafts, really. My mother shared my inclination. Using my hands has always made me happy.

Q. When and how did you discover animation? What was the appeal?

A. I loved some Saturday morning cartoons — Mr. Magoo and A Charlie Brown Christmas jump to mind, but what really got my attention were the Tournées of Animation that used to make their way to universities and art cinemas when I was a college student. They were compilations of artist-driven, short animated films from around the world, you might remember them, and I absolutely fell in love with the expressive possibilities of the form.

I think the dynamic possibilities of moving images have always intrigued me. I thought about it as a kind of choreography and I imagined images moving in my head. I also loved to watch clouds (Colorado has great clouds) and think about what they looked like and then see how they changed form as they moved. I read a lot as a kid, but I also drew, made stuff and used my hands, so who knows.

Stacey Steers will be at the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Q. You live in Denver. Is it the kind of place that embraces the arts?

A. I was born in Colorado, but I moved away for a critical period in my early-late 20s and lived in Latin American for seven years. Colorado does not have much public support for the arts, but after I returned from Latin America I was able to study at the University of Colorado Film Studies program as a young single mother and finish my degree. Stan Brakhage was there at the time and there continues to be a very impressive community of experimental makers in the Denver-Boulder area and at the university. I see my art practice as emerging from the experimental tradition as much as from the fine-art animation tradition.

Q. Do you have a connection to Canada?

A. I have shown my work in Canada, but mostly at experimental festivals and venues.  I have been lucky to have the support of Marcel Jean who runs the Cinematheque Quebecoise and is also artistic director of Annecy International Festival of Animation in France. He has introduced a number of people to my work. I’m very excited to meet Chris Robinson, but this will be the first time in Ottawa.

Q. Your work is very intensive. You piece together works into collages on paper and film. Why this process? How did it evolve?

A. My very first film was made by moving cut-outs under the camera and it was such a drag to develop film only to discover problems that required completely repeating the time-consuming process of creating the animation. This was in the old days of using actual film with quite a delay between shooting and seeing the results. I decided early on I would always have a paper record of anything I made, so that I could reshoot without having to redo the entire artistic process. Ever since then I have made works on paper, even as I moved to constructing collages. It has been hard, obsessive work, but the process also gives me incredible control over details and motion.

Q. Do you work alone or do you have a team? 

A. I work primarily alone, though I do get help cutting things out and I love good feedback along the way.  I’m lucky to say I can work just about anywhere. I do love artist residencies though, just because I need long uninterrupted periods of time to simply get work done.

Q. I note you have expanded your thinking into installations in which art works on paper and sculptural pieces are paired with animations. For example Night Hunter. Can you talk about this installation.

A. After I finished Night Hunter, I worked collaboratively and made a miniature house with 10 rooms; each filled with tiny objects and a small video screen. I called it Night Hunter House. The rooms reflect on aspects of the film, a different loop from the film plays on each screen. I never realized how much people love miniatures and peering into windows until I made this piece. It’s been installed in many museums now and audiences always love it. I enjoy the sense of creating a conversation between the films and the installation objects. They build on one another and create a stimulating experience. It’s now a standard part of my practice to develop objects after I finish a film.

From Night Hunter by Stacey Steers.

Q. Technology can take us into Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality and any number of realities. Are you interested in these things?

A. I think any tool can be used effectively by the right artist. I enjoy my style of working and I’m not through exploring what’s possible with my current process. I also like building things by hand. It’s critical to my creative thinking. I get ideas when I use my hands to make stuff. I would never rule out any means to an end though.

Q. You are being featured as a speaker on process. What will your message be?

A. My particular session is about artistic process; how I got to where I am as a maker. I’ll also describe how I create my films step by step and what I think I’ve learned about the way I work.

Q. You are also the focus of a retrospective of your work. Is it a bit daunting? Is is a bit premature?

A. Well, it’s not my first retrospective and I’m grateful people think I deserve such a thing, but of course I do hope to create a lot more work. I think of this more as a presentation of my collage films, and I’m very happy and excited to have them play together in Ottawa.

Q. Speaking of that last point. what is your current project, or are you working on a couple of things at the same time.

A. I tend to work on one project at a time. I’m just getting started on a kind of 19th century space odyssey.  Of course, I work intuitively and structure my films as I go along over a long period of time, so we’ll just have to see what happens!

Q. Many people are talking about equality on screen for men and women and people of colour. Is there a need for a similar sense of equality in the field of animation?

A. I think there are a lot of women working to create artist-driven animation. I’m not talking about the studio system, which I know very little about and which seems to be very different, but as far as working independently on small personal film projects — that’s something women have done a lot of in the last 15 years or so and I think they have been recognized fairly equitably. That being said, I do think that men tend to be taken more seriously, as if the work they do is somehow more consequential and the ideas more vital. I think women who make personal work are always up against an interpretive divide and perhaps disadvantaged in that way. With my own work which often explores emotional connections, I think I see an impassioned response from more women than men.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.