Tactile Histories: Stephanie Santana
Stephanie Santana (she/her) explores identity, cultural preservation, and interiority through printmaking, embroidery and quilting. Using her personal, archival images as a foundation, Santana’s practice to preserves history — family history, Black history, and the histories of the artists she admires. She was introduced to printmaking a decade ago and has since become the Communications Director & Founding Member President of Black Women of Print, a platform and community of independent, mid-career, and established Black women printmakers.
You describe yourself as a textile artist, surface designer, and fine art printmaker; how long have you been working in these mediums and how did you get your start?
I started learning techniques such as screenprinting, weaving, and fabric dyeing by taking classes at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn about 10 years ago. At the time, I was doing a lot of illustration and graphic design and incorporating patterns into my work, then someone mentioned that this work would translate well to textile design. I took a few classes and fell in love with the tactile nature of working with fabric and thread. A few years later, I decided to study Textile and Surface Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is where I was introduced to screen printing as an artistic medium by printing fabric yardage and experimenting with ways to bring my hand into a design.
Living Room Study I (2020), Serigraph, acrylic paint, embroidery floss on hand-dyed, quilted cotton textile
Your exploration of history through archival images, particularly the reproduction and manipulation of your family’s photographs, is an integral part of your practice. Why have you chosen screenprints on fabric as the medium to which you honor your family?
I’ve always been fascinated with history, the passage of time, and ways to mark time. The first photographic print I made was of a photo that I love of my mom: her senior portrait from Spelman College. I still have the original that she gave me — it’s a wallet-sized photo and has a bit of wear and tear. Taking that small photo, scaling it up, and creating a very personal document feels like a way to preserve self and family. It feels far more permanent than the way many of us document our lives these days, and this practice has grounded me particularly in the past year as everything around us changed so rapidly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The photographs are all of people I love and miss; family members that have either passed or who I haven’t been able to see since the pandemic began. Also, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m surrounded by folks who are natural archivists, so this felt like a progression that happened organically: using an art form that I love in service of preserving history.
Can you explain a bit about your artistic process? How do you execute your ideas?
The process is constantly changing! My practice incorporates screenprinting, painting, illustration (both analog and digital), monoprinting, quilting, relief printing and embroidery. There’s a lot of layering imagery and moving through each step of the process in a methodical, yet meditative way. Printmaking requires so much preparation, and I do enjoy certain aspects of planning out a print, such as the repetition of tearing paper by hand or mixing inks before printing an edition. However, screenprinting can start to feel a bit rigid because so much of the artistic thought — such as composition and color has to happen before a finished piece can be made.
L: Untitled study (detail) (2021), serigraph and embroidery floss on cotton textile
I often come back to media that give me a bit more freedom and allow me to open up, like monoprinting and painting. I think of each piece that I make as part of a narrative, so I’ve started to incorporate journaling into my practice, and will often write during the research phase of gathering references and sketching. Lately, I’ve also been focused on bringing more texture and fluidity into the work, as well as combining techniques.
You see printmaking and textiles as a vehicle for record-keeping and protection, can you explain more about the potential of these mediums and why they’re important to you?
One of the more immediate reasons is that I’m someone who’s old enough to remember when the Internet first became publicly available (the World Wide Web!), and didn’t have a cell phone until I was 18 years old. So, as much as I’m fascinated by technology, the fact that we’re increasingly living our lives online is a bit troubling. I’ve lost data and photographs to devices. My brother lost a decade’s worth of photos when his laptop was stolen. It’s devastating when things like that happen.
In some cases, I’m reproducing photographs of photographs that I’ve taken with my cell phone and turning them into prints so that they’re not lost forever. There’s a long history of textiles containing cultural information, as well as Black women quiltmakers such as Gee’s Bend and Faith Ringgold’s narrative quilts, so in a way, I’m piecing together a story and “protecting” against these moments and people being forgotten.
Mama Wanda (2018), Screenprint on linen
With family and memory being prevalent themes in your practice, has the pandemic, with its emphasis on collective loss and community, lead you to approach your practice in new ways? Are you doing anything different now vs pre-COVID?
I’ve been trying to find a balance between working at a steady pace and reminding myself that there’s a pandemic happening — the first priority is to survive. Even though I’ve felt burnout from trying to juggle work and raising my five-year-old son, my relationship with myself and loved ones has grown deeper in ways I wouldn’t have expected. I think I’ll look back on this time and remember the time spent with family and how the social implications of this pandemic have impacted all of us on both a macro and micro level. I haven’t reflected on all of this in my work yet, but I’m sure it’ will come through in some way.
Who are some artists or works that have impacted you over the last year?
I have to shout out Black Women of Print because they have had an enormous impact on my life and work in the past year: Tanekeya Word, Delita Martin, LaToya Hobbs, Leslie Diuguid. We encourage each other in our individual practices and have collaborated on a few efforts — it’s been so important to have that sense of community in the past year, even from afar. I’ve also been inspired by some immensely talented artists who’ve become ancestors in 2020 and the legacies they’ve left: Emma Amos, Luchita Hurtado.
I love Naudline Pierre’s paintings, which I hope to see at MoMA PS1 before the show closes in March, and Ja’Tovia Gary’s film The Giverny Document, in which she asked Black women the question “Do you feel safe?” I saw this film at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in February 2020, right before everything started to shut down. I was so moved by it that I just sat down for about 40 minutes and watched it from start to finish. The common thread might be that I’m gravitating toward work that is visually lush and colorful, that centers the personal narratives of Black women and femmes.
L: We Been Here (2020), 2-color serigraph on acid-free paper; R: Note to Our Higher Selves (2019), Screenprint on acid-free paper
Where do you see yourself and your practice in the future?
I’d love to continue expanding my work with textiles and print, as well as provide educational and material resources to artists.
Can you leave some parting advice for artists?
Show up for yourself and your loved ones. Back up your files.
Great interview, Stephanie.