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Stephen Wolf

0103 - Stephen Wolf

For this longtime designer and increasingly activist artist, the story is not about using his life to make art, but using art to make his life.


We flashed back with a classmate from decades ago, whose ongoing story has been about how awareness and motivation keep feeding each other, with creativity being rediscovered again and again as both a vehicle for each and the meeting ground of both.

Malcolm: Hi again Stephen! ... I wanted to see if we could pick up our talk today and keep going, about choosing to influence change through art...

Stephen: I’d define myself as a creative person in general, rather than as either a writer or artist or designer or musician. That’s the life I've led, from very early on: “following my bliss” creatively to wherever my curiosity has led. I've been fortunate to have some facility in different creative areas, and find that they all bleed together, spring from the same origin within; the urge and desire to create is a way of making sense of this existence and the world we're in.


Malcolm: Were you born into an artistic family?

Stephen: My parents subscribed to the Atlanta Symphony, and they supported the High Museum of Art. So I had exposure tangentially through them, but the only other creative person in my bloodline was my uncle--my mother's brother--who was a newspaper columnist turned best-selling novelist turned successful Hollywood screenwriter. It wasn't until very late in life--I'm calling my thirties “late”--that I realized I could pursue those things, that film and TV were an open avenue, which had never occurred to me until then.

Malcolm: What did that avenue look like to you at that point?

Stephen: I’d already gone through a few career transitions, creative disciplines in various media with some degree of overlap. So I looked into it.


Malcolm: I was just picking up now on whether there was a certain more memorable moment, or some intersection of experiences that, when you were 30-ish suddenly turned a light bulb on--that realization that you could change directions or change speed again.

Stephen: There was a turning point that came as a result of various forces simmering below the surface.

I finished art school, at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), in winter 1977, with a split major between graphic design and environmental design. Right out of school, I was offered a job at a top San Francisco design firm, where I did branding, identity design and packaging. After only a few months, I received an offer to work in aviation interior design--which was my thesis project--in Miami, which I jumped on. After a few years, I transitioned to architectural interiors and landscape design (I designed a pocket park for the City of Miami, based on Constructivist principles). After that, I joined a design office in New York, where I worked on the marketing campaign for the original IBM PC. At each step, my work was being recognized with industry awards, publications--in fact, a poster I designed for IBM was selected for the U.S. Library of Congress Design Collection. It seemed that anything I was interested in, I had the opportunity to do.

But, I realized, if I keep on this track, I'll never get the chance to pursue 15 other things I'm interested in--non-commercial creative work running the gamut from experimental product and furniture design to landscape art to photography to interactive computer graphics.

I’m compelled to mention a crucial milestone here: finding a life partner and soulmate. My wife, Adrian Lee, is herself a designer--a Georgia Tech grad in Industrial Design--who has had her own creative journey and triumphs. Having someone who gets and can co-navigate the twists and turns of a creative life has been fundamental, not just to my emotional sanity but my survival.

I was at that time a senior art director at Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, the world’s largest ad agency. But in order to undertake all these creative ventures, I’d have to quit and open my own shop, which would allow me time to do all these other things. So I launched my own “boutique” design studio, and I did all those things I’d been dreaming of, while also building a steady business and a blue-chip clientele. But after ten years, I was tired of account management and business development, necessary tasks that were creative in their own way, but were not as fulfilling as the purely creative work.

This sense of dissatisfaction coincided with a desire to leave the New York area and return to California, which I had always loved. So we sold the house and moved to LA, eager to see what would happen.

This also coincided with seeing the film Slingblade, a very personal and (to me) poignant film. This may speak to my lack of cinematic knowledge at the time, but Slingblade is the first movie I had seen that made me feel it was possible for me to tell human stories in ways that are meaningful and can touch people, in ways they’re not touched when you're trying to sell them personal computers and TVs and credit cards. The idea of storytelling as an artform became more and more compelling to me.


Stephen: In practice, my visual skills included a literate, or verbal, dimension. All along, I’d worked with copywriters, developing ad headlines for campaigns that are textually and visually interdependent.

Around the time I moved to California, I wondered whether I could write narratively at a professional level. I put my design business on hold and applied to UCLA’s world-renowned screenwriting program. With some diligent effort, I got in, found I was a pretty good writer, and pursued it heavily for over ten years. I’ve won or placed highly in several top screenwriting competitions, had a handful of scripts optioned by producers, worked as a writer-for-hire, and came inches away from selling an original TV series based on the true exploits of an excessively ambitious gunslinger in the Florida Everglades.

I'd been taking pictures from the early 1990s onward, which sprang from my work as an art director, in which I worked with photographers to create visuals for ad campaigns. I educated myself in the history of art and photography, attended workshops in New York and Santa Fe, found inspiration in the work of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston. You learn from those you observe--that's how you grow as a creative person.

Malcolm: I especially appreciate how you gave yourself the personal freedom to start things without putting finite endpoints onto them. And, unless I misunderstood what you were just saying, the other thing that I like is that you were very knowingly cultivating these combinations of instincts and talents.

What I'm thinking about right now is when you said to yourself in part of this ongoing transition, Hey, I can be a pretty good writer too. Maybe some cross-pollination was going on… Did you also have the idea that becoming more of a writer might change what you were like as a visual artist or as a designer?

Stephen: Everything you do potentially affects how you do anything else. I was acutely aware that my visual sense informed how I expressed myself on the page. I felt that for a screenwriter, that was a powerful skill to have, since screenwriting is a peculiar form of writing in that it depicts the external. You are writing what can be seen and what can be heard, i.e., what can be filmed and recorded.

My final class in the MFA program was called “Strategy.” It was a forum on how to best navigate the treacherous swamp of Hollywood. The professor brought in accomplished alums to share their experiences, which shared a common theme: “Pivot.” No matter how each had started out, no matter their dreams, at some point they were forced by circumstance to change direction, which led to their ultimate success.

I had been pivoting most of my life, significantly when relocating from New York to Los Angeles. I had previously rejected the 9-to-5 life and, by virtue of moving, had shuttered my own business. I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a starving artist; I needed income independent of my own work product. We settled into our new home, wondered what to do with the proceeds of our recent home sale. Income property seemed a good choice, since we knew something about architecture and had been renting out the bottom floor of our brownstone back East. This was pre-recession, when mortgages were ripe for the plucking. One property gradually became three, and we found ourselves to be real estate investors--an unplanned and unexpected pivot that enabled my creative pursuits for the entire second act—if our lives have acts—of my life.

Malcolm: Coincidentally, I wonder if you saw in one of our first two issues our interview with Rob Kutner who is a comedian and writer, and his publishing partner Allison Garwood, who was his illustrator. They're both storytellers. They came together to produce a book for kids. While we were talking to them, like we are talking with you now, they were teaching (at least me) things that I realized I'd never actually understood about the constraints there are in doing illustration. And in particular, Rob was pretty interesting about what kinds of adjustments he went through as the writer in order to work with Alison, who was creating all the visuals.

Their work's completed and people can see it now. And of course, when good work is all finished, it looks to some extent like, well, like it was almost easy. But we're now really sensitive to that very steep climb that they each went through just to meet each other, and then even steeper to get to their finish line together. Allison has released new work as a comic strip during the recent few months.


Malcolm: We've got a couple of themes that are weaving in and out of the magazine from issue to issue. One of them is about learning and learning environments. Another is about the pathway through COVID. Getting to the other side of COVID is not all about creating your own future, but it needs to be about creating your own future. So we've had several different ways to explore this idea of creativity, of what that needs to mean on an individual level now, and then also collaboratively. Now, frankly, not that many people have the range of capabilities that you do. It has allowed you several life turning points that you created yourself...

Stephen: I had yet another creative turning point in late 2016, in visual art. It was in reaction to the political events of that year. I thought my art could do more, in terms of raising issues and hopefully providing food for thought.

Malcolm: I want to hear more of your thoughts about that turning point, and how you knew that you wanted your art to do more--to line up more assertively with your care for social justice and your commitment to it.

Stephen: The 2016 presidential election was clearly a turning point for our country. I began wondering about how I could respond in a meaningful way, what exactly that would look like. My photography had always made social commentary in a documentary vein, though it did so rather obliquely. I felt that a different medium or image-making mode would let me comment more directly, and more boldly.

My first project in this new mode questioned how we, as social media users, are complicit in our own subjugation as advertising targets, and as voters in terms of how the electorate was targeted by the Trump campaign, through the use of Facebook user datasets. I found it disarming that this enterprise was enabled by our own--Facebook users’--unwitting complicity through our shares, likes and dislikes, time spent viewing this ad or that, all of which Facebook records. I engaged this subject through various digital media, including video, prints and virtual reality. I called the project “Open and Connected,” a phrase cheerfully coined by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, ‘though I use the phrase ironically. (This work was exhibited at the Lois Lambert Gallery in Santa Monica in the fall of 2019.)

My current project, currently in progress, is entitled “Bloody Ground.” It’s a landscape-based examination of our need to perpetually soak this beautiful planet in blood, and depicts Civil War battlefields in simultaneously abstract, photographic and metaphoric terms.


Malcolm: Social media is crazed…we need help! It's hard to avoid calling some things by the names we’re already very familiar with, and “censorship” is certainly on the front burner with all of this right now. Of course you can't say “let's censor” without saying who gets to do that, on what basis, and so forth.

Meanwhile, if Facebook was not driven by ad revenue and it had enough money to keep going just because it had enough paying subscribers, I do wonder what it would wind up being like.

Stephen: How do we define Facebook and the other social media outlets? They defined themselves as platforms. In my opinion, they’d be better classified as publishers. I believe the Federal Communications Commission has a say about whether certain content is considered lascivious, inflammatory, or contrary to the public good; the FCC’s mandate, in part, is to regulate content publishers. But that hasn’t been happening online, due to what I call the semantic twist: Facebook et al aren’t treated as publishers, but “platforms.” The unfortunate distinction stems from Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which in my opinion is long overdue for revision.

Another question: who makes these decisions as to what is indecent, inflammatory or contrary? Traditionally, laws governing this have been made by the paternalistic instincts of mostly aging, straight white males. It's a fundamental question as to what is our society, who is vested in it, and what kind of society we want to live in. It’s a question that has recently gained much traction, and deserves much more.

If social media platforms had to pay attention to the same strictures as a traditional news publisher, we would be having a very different conversation, and arguably this world would look very different than it does.

Malcolm: Yes... what I just instinctively feel is missing in most social media is editors.

Stephen: Exactly. The democratization of media afforded by the internet is incredibly powerful; it has yielded much wonderful fruit. But there's a dark side, which was a theme of my “Open and Connected” project: that there's a nefarious side to all this connectedness; we shouldn’t pretend everything’s democratically coming up roses.

Malcolm: Certainly, as human beings in this media environment,, we always need to pay attention to at least these next two things.

One, there are specific conditions which we know represent injustice or wrongdoing. And, there's an urgency about them that tells us to speak up and be counted, or suffer the consequences. So, as artists, we may invest materials, time or powers of persuasion in any way that we can, to create these presentations and these critiques.

The other thing I think is equally important or even moreso. We've got now what I'll say is maybe three generations of people, younger than me, who have been presented a certain type of “norm” that encourages willful ignorance as the foundation on which they intellectually construct the rest of their understanding and interest in the world. This second thing seems pretty much like the source of what makes the first thing so urgent.


Stephen: You've hit on what is behind another of my creative turning points—veering into an entirely different medium—which is narrative prose.

I'm currently co-writing a novel with my sister Merrill; it’s about our North Carolina ancestors’ experience during the Civil War. A question we set out to answer when we started this project is why so many people vote so enthusiastically against their own best interests.

Why did hundreds of thousands of Southerners--poor, disenfranchised, often illiterate white folks--willingly shed their blood for a system in which they had no stake--a system run by an elite who actively kept these folks under its thumb, and had no genuine interest in giving them a better life? Historically, certain policies--Jim Crow, for instance--have proven contrary to a happy, healthy life for the entire community, including those who enabled those policies. As demonstrated by a variety of metrics, a segment of the national electorate continues to vote against its own interests. This is nothing new, and started well before the Civil War.

Malcolm: Well, we’re certainly going to want to talk to you and your writing partner about the novel when you two are ready.

Meanwhile, thank you for this great trip through your creative evolution.


Malcolm: I'm busy on an almost daily basis telling people to make your own future, don't wait for it -- roll the dice, and so on and so forth. It doesn't feel like bad advice to me, It feels like good advice, but what is, what do you think I'm missing, that I also need to be telling them?

Stephen: It's definitely good advice--advice my future self might have given to my younger self, because I’ve certainly lived that way, by instinct more than by intention. To that advice I would add to never stop listening to yourself, your own inner voice. “Know thyself.”

I’m fortunate that when I was first out of high school and ready for college, my parents didn’t push me in one direction or another. They didn’t give me the explicit advice you just offered--to roll the dice--though at every step I’ve taken chances on myself, and when a door has opened, I’ve gone through it.

Not to say I haven’t made wrong turns, or run into blind alleys. But I’ve managed to adapt and get around those obstacles. With a lot of luck, good timing, and effort, it’s all worked out, and for that I’m grateful.

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