Immersing herself in art
Christine Stoddard (B.A.’12/A; B.A.’12/H&S; Cert.’12/B), can’t be defined by one form of expression. The multitalented artist and writer’s new feature film, “Sirena’s Gallery,” tells the story of a Salvadoran American art gallery owner, played by Stoddard, who has to adapt to self-isolation, visions and navigating the world of e-commerce in the wake of her husband’s suicide. VCU Alumni spoke to her ahead of the film’s premiere at the Byrd Theater in Richmond, Virginia, on Aug. 27.
Was there a catalyst for you that made you realize “I want to make art” or “I want to be an artist”?
Wow. I’ve always wanted to be an artist, and it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific moment or story or memory. I come from a very creative family. My father is a documentary filmmaker and my mother is a housewife who would always make art and do arts and crafts with us. My siblings and I were constantly taken to music festivals and museums and introduced to all kinds of art as children. I would say that after college, like many recent grads, I struggled with trying to figure out how I was going to make a living. I went into journalism because I knew that I had strong writing, photography, video and some design skills.
While I was an undergrad at VCU. I had the chance to work professionally as a journalist; I had pieces published and got broadcast and television experience, but it was not the right fit for me and wasn’t what I wanted to do full time. [Journalism] is still something I get the chance to do once in a while, but I was very happy when I had the opportunity to go to grad school, get funding and just redirect myself to try and focus as much on my personal creative practice as possible.
What was your experience like on campus as a VCU student?
I love VCU! I was a transfer student. I went to a private college where I had a full scholarship, but I walked away from that and transferred to VCU. I love VCUarts and the Department of English. I was also excited by the da Vinci Center and the Brandcenter, and while I was never a Brandcenter student, I still went to seminars and other events with guest speakers. I just tried to take advantage of as much as possible on campus and in Richmond.
I also studied abroad. I received a scholarship for the VCU Glasgow Writers and Artists Workshop in Scotland, which no longer exists. I also got to go to France one summer, and stayed with a French family to work on my language skills.
The summer I graduated I had the chance to go to Mexico because I was also a Spanish minor and taking classes in the Spanish-English Translation Interpretation program. They had just secured funding for a partnership, and one of my professors pushed me to apply for the scholarship. He said, “You can go to Mexico. and you only have to pay for airfare.” All right, that sounds great to me!
I knew I didn’t have to pursue every little thing that I start or explore here, but I wanted to at least expose myself to new ideas and professional opportunities, meet different kinds of people and find out about different kinds of companies and organizations. I did overbook myself at times, I will admit, but I went for it, and I’m glad that I was able to do that at VCU because it was not possible at the tiny liberal arts college that I attended before, and it’s not possible at a lot of universities. I think one of VCU’s strengths is that it is a full research university and there are so many different schools and programs. If you learn to navigate the system and figure out what’s there and you’re willing to be a self-starter, there’s plenty of room to just explore and grow.
Did being in Richmond have an influence on the work you were making at the time?
The city definitely influenced the art that I made. One of the projects that I did while I was at VCU was a documentary on the life of Edgar Allan Poe, specifically [during his time] in Virginia, and his influence upon the art scene in Richmond; I did it through the School of the Arts’ undergraduate research grant. I never would have thought to do that project if I hadn’t been living in Richmond.
I was inspired my first week of VCU because I went on the tour bus after orientation and I saw the Poe Museum! I was so confused because I had just moved to Richmond and I didn’t know Poe had any kind of Richmond connection; I really just associated him with Baltimore. It just intrigued me. I figured, you know, I might as well do some more research to find out what this is about, and little by little over the next year or so, I just kept finding all of these other Poe connections and different kinds of artists who were doing things involving Poe. I even had the chance to act in a few plays at the Poe Museum and in some Poe plays in the Library of Virginia through VCU connections, too.
I would say more than anything, being in Richmond influenced my pacing. Because it’s not a huge city, it let me step back. It was a good place to concentrate and make my work without being bored. It’s a city full of really fascinating tensions too — racial tensions, historical tensions, class tensions. I love that about the city, and I hope that it continues to change and move forward, but it is interesting that you can see so much history changing before your eyes even now.
I moved to New York City in 2016 because when I was living in Richmond and the Washington, D.C., area. I found myself outgrowing some of the opportunities I was pursuing and I wanted to make new connections. I also really wanted to be on the cusp of contemporary art and literature, and it’s maybe the world capital in terms of culture; so even when I was at VCU I knew I was going to end up here. [As a student] I would take the bus from Richmond to come to the city and be involved in art shows, screenings and even screen some of my films; just making every opportunity I could for myself.
Where did the idea for “Sirena’s Gallery” come from and what was the production process like over the last year?
I wanted to make that film for a few different reasons. When I was working on my M.F.A. thesis exhibition at City College of New York. I actually got to inhabit the campus gallery. They gave me full access to it and I spent two and a half months installing different kinds of work there. While I was there, I really just started to think about what it would be like to be a gallery owner.
Being in the gallery itself day after day made me just dream up a character and I started writing the story in spring 2019. 1708 Gallery [in Richmond] gave me the chance to do an artist residency with 24/7 access, and I thought to myself, Where else was I going to get that kind of access? Who else is going to give me unlimited access to a gallery for free? No one. That’s the kind of opportunity you have to apply for — and to get lucky and have it fall into your lap like that was perfect timing. Otherwise I think I would have probably just written it as a story instead of making a film because I was overwhelmed by the logistics, organizing and getting that kind of access again.
I made the film using social distancing, remote access and remote collaboration. The only person who was in person with me was my husband, and the other characters in the film did Zoom conversations with me or they recorded voice-overs from the privacy of their own home. When I was in the gallery, I shot everything myself, except for a few things my husband did. He also helped shoot some of the outdoor location scenes in Richmond.
Right now I’m submitting the film to festivals and different distribution companies, but there are going to be special opportunities to see it in limited release. The Howard County Center for the Arts in Maryland is currently playing it in their gallery through October, and I’m bringing it to different universities to screen, starting in September with Old Dominion University.
Where did you draw your inspiration while making the movie?
I try to expose myself to different kinds of work. One of the million reasons I’m so happy I went to VCU was because they had a language lab there where you could watch different foreign language films, and I was there almost every day. European cinema, Asian cinema, Latin American cinema, basically anything that’s not Hollywood or Bollywood, often has a much slower storytelling pace. I like visual storytelling but I don’t think dialogue has to be essential to a film. I wanted [“Sirena’s Gallery”] to be slow and contemplative.
For this project, I was really interested in music and sound, so I tried to think of layered, dreamy and ethereal music; I listened to a lot of Beach House and Wye Oak. In terms of colors and composition I looked at a lot of still photography and was definitely influenced by Nan Goldin and the golds in her photos, as well as the dream-like images that photographer Sally Mann creates.