Stephanie Bursese & Emmanuela Soria Ruiz – Artists; Co-Curators, Teaching at the End of Times

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Stephanie Bursese & Emmanuela Soria Ruiz - Artists, Teaching at the End of Times

Stephanie Bursese (b.1980, Schenectady, New York) uses photography, sculpture, textiles, and site-specific installation to create meticulously crafted objects that investigate intimacy, behavioral patterns, and trust. Her work has appeared in numerous group and solo exhibitions, publications, and museums, nationally and internationally, including The Aperture Foundation (NY), The Print Center (PA), Expo Chicago (IL), Cornell University (NY), Galerie Maison Kasini (Montreal), Everson Museum of Art (NY), Silver Eye Center for Photography (PA), and Design Philadelphia (PA).

In addition to her interdisciplinary work as an artist, during the last 20 years, she has collaborated and led numerous projects with national and local foundations, institutions, funders, and collectives as an organizer, program manager, curator and strategic partner. She served as Program Manager for the Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives initiative, a $750K Mellon Foundation grant project (2017-2020), as a Grant Writer for the Indigenous Contemporary Art-focused organization We Are the Seeds (2020-2023), and currently as Co-Director & Curator of of the Pew-funded project Teaching at the End of Times in partnership with Vox Populi where she has been a collective member since 2013. She received her B.F.A  from the University of Florida in Photography & Art History and received an M.F.A. in Photography from Syracuse University. Bursese lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.

Emmanuela Soria Ruiz (b.1992, Granada, Spain) is a multidisciplinary artist and educator based in Philadelphia (Lenni-Lenape occupied land) working in and across sculpture, drawing, video, and performance. Through both research-based and intuitive methodologies, she investigates hegemonies embedded in personal histories, mythology, literature, and architecture. She obtained her BFA from The Cooper Union in 2014, and an MFA from The University of Pennsylvania in 2020. Most recently, her work has been featured in Galleria F2, Arco Madrid, and the Institute of Post Natural Studies in Madrid, as well as the National Liberty Museum, Atelier Gallery, Icebox Project Space, Pilot Projects, Automat Gallery, Cherry St. Pier, and Practice Gallery in Philadelphia, PA.

AF: Hi Stephanie & Emmanuela! We are delighted to chat with the two of you today. To start this interview off, we would love to know more about your upbringings. Where are you both from and what are the arts communities like there? 

SB: The idea of a “hometown” is very unknown to me. I moved from a small industrial town in Upstate New York where I attended (and hated attending) Catholic school to a retirement community in Ft. Myers, Florida when I was seven. Skipping around the Florida coasts, moving every year for a while, I ended up in Kendall, Miami a week after Hurricane Andrew hit. I spent my high school years navigating some extreme economic, class and social dynamics at work within a wealthy suburban public school—population: two thousand, five hundred students.

Pre-high school I had always drawn, sang, made bracelets, and illustrated little stories I would write, using what was easily available. In my freshman year of high school, I found photography and got my first film camera, purchased for me by my photography teacher, Mr. Ladwig. 

Now, we all associate the Miami art community with Art Basel and all the opulent art fairs and commercial gallery spaces in hotels, shipping containers, and yachts (!) but in the early 2000s, those art market machines were still in their launch phases. Back then, I had decided to be a photojournalist, so my chosen art communities were comprised of activities and people who would allow me to document them. Mostly, the punk bands that played at Churchill’s, the radical zine-making club at my high school, the photo department at the Miami Herald where I had an internship during my senior year, and my adopted friend group from New World, the art magnet school I wanted to attend, so badly!

ESR: I grew up in Granada, located in southern Spain, and moved to New York City when I was 14. In Spain, the public schools I attended lacked the resources for a significant arts curriculum. However, my connection to the arts was fostered through exploring the architecture and history of my city. Granada has a rich blend of medieval Moorish, Christian Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque architecture. On a short walk around the historical center you can find bejeweled mummies, intricate plaster and wooden ceilings, homes built in caves, the smell of orange trees, and the sound of flamenco. This unique backdrop provided an intense introduction to art history, sparking my interest and laying the foundation for my art practice today. Upon moving to New York City, I found an environment where artistic expression was encouraged and abundant resources were available. This shift allowed me to expand my practice and eventually pursue formal education in the field, which I am not sure would have happened if I hadn’t moved. 

AF: How did your upbringing shape what you do in the arts today? 

SB:  Due to this early nomadic lifestyle and the isolation of being an only child, my formative years were spent building imaginative worlds in my head. I had a lot of alone time to self-reflect, read, and think about experiences with friends, crushes—anyone. I did A LOT of observing and created a strong sense of self from this internal reflection. Built on years of entering new schools and needing to make connections, my ability to communicate verbally and in writing got a workout. 

Entering into all these new environments exposed me to a tremendous amount of competing perspectives. Even in the Miami suburbs, the political, cultural and social diversity in my academic ecosystem created extraordinary challenges and learning opportunities way beyond the content of the courses.

These two facets of my pre-college years—close observation of people’s behaviors and an acute focus on learning to communicate my ideas to people with different backgrounds—can be seen clearly in both my artwork (specifically my exploration of how physical and psychological worlds effect each other) and the roles I have held as an organizer, writer, and strategist within socially engaged programs. 

ESR:

Moving to New York from Spain as a teenager meant a stark transition between two very different pedagogical systems. In Spain, resources were limited, as I mentioned, and access to art and creativity was restricted by a fixation on uniformity. Once a year, we were tasked with creating miniature replicas of the school chapel, often using pasta or beans. This annual ritual, blending students’ passion and craftsmanship with the teachers’ insistence on conformity, played a significant role in shaping both individual and collective identity.

When I moved to the United States, I noticed that the societal structure was much more individualistic, even isolating. This was exacerbated by my difficulty communicating in English, and by leaving my large family behind.  Though socializing was challenging, in my new school, self-expression was valued in a way I hadn’t known before. This meant that I discovered the transformative power of a sketchbook for the first time, which provided a really needed outlet for visual expression.

Each context had its benefits and drawbacks, and the experience of both developed my critical thinking about pedagogy early on.  As both a teacher and an artist, I am deeply concerned with the institutional conditions that give rise to making, and projects like Teaching at the End of Times come out of a desire to resist normative pedagogical spaces.

AF: What was your first ever job? What did you learn from this experience?  

ESR: When I was 17, I had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant for a free portfolio preparation class offered by my college. Prior to this, during my high school years, I had enrolled in the same course, which played a crucial role in helping me secure admission to a competitive art school with a full scholarship.

Through my work as a teaching assistant, I discovered that I love teaching! I vividly recall a moment in a drawing class when I offered a suggestion to a student to enhance their technique, only to be met with a simple: “Why?” This moment made me realize the importance of articulating the reasoning behind my guidance.  It was rewarding to be on the other side of authority, shaping a learning environment that was fair and generous to my students. This experience felt like a politically potent moment, one where I glimpsed the possibilities for fostering utopian spaces through pedagogy.

SB: There was my first job and then my first job in the art world. From the moment I turned fifteen, when I wasn’t in school, I worked. I had numerous part-time jobs throughout high school-the first one was with this gourmet grocery store, think Whole Foods but family-owned and much smaller. I worked in the prepared foods and bakery department and that job taught me a lot about value and power. Ten minutes before closing I would be weighing out Waldorf Chicken salad and selling it to an old rich woman for $13/lb and then ten minutes after closing, the salad was marked “expired” and we were told to throw it all away. The family that ran the business treated non-family employees very differently and skirted several labor laws. As a teenager, it was a difficult job, physically and emotionally.   

For all three years of graduate school, I worked as an assistant to Carrie Mae Weems in her Syracuse studio. This was one of the most formative experiences of my life as an artist. I also learned about power and value working with Carrie. These lessons took place within the context of a world in which only the most highly accomplished contemporary artists were invited to engage. Watching her navigate and formulate responses to requests from the most elite museums, curators, gallery owners, and collectors was transformative. What I saw reframed my concept of the art world as a young artist just entering this intricate economic and social system. Every day, both in her creative practice and her professional life, she addressed extremely complex issues around race and gender—from choosing which slides to include in a talk to negotiating which pieces a museum planned to acquire—it was always layered. This position taught me how to work with and around artists, how to toggle between being a mentor and being mentored, and how to sense when asking a question is more productive than offering critical feedback.   

AF: How did the two of you meet? When did you realize you wanted to collaborate with each other? 

SB: In 2022, we met as members of Vox Populi, an artist collective and gallery space in Philadelphia which consists of around fifteen to twenty five individuals. Vox Populi is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and with the exception of the full time salaried Executive Director, is run through volunteer labor from the artist members. We had been in numerous collective meetings together as all members serve on smaller committees that tackle specific aspects of the organization, i.e. exhibitions, fundraising, education, etc.  

ESR:  While Stephanie had been involved with the collective since 2013, I joined in 2021, during the pandemic, a time characterized by limited opportunities for social interaction. It was really during this collaborative process of working through the grant application and then talking for many hours and months about our ambitions for this project that we got to know one another well. 

SB: Many Vox members contributed to the project idea—Emmanuela and I just kept showing up to the meetings. Together we started to put structure and more concrete outcomes around the concepts, stages of the cart development, and public engagements. We knew we would not be able to fulfill these goals without a grant and as we worked on the funding pitch we also built our relationship. 

AF: Together, you created Teaching at the End of Times, a multipurpose mobile classroom based in Philadelphia that provides outdoor art programming and workshops. Tell us more about it and how it came to be! 

ESR: This project emerged from a collective aspiration shared among artists within Vox Populi and other Philadelphia organizations to engage with grassroots education and explore alternative pedagogical approaches within our practices. It also stemmed from the challenges of organizing events in public spaces during the pandemic, where access to equipment and electricity posed significant barriers. With a desire to overcome these obstacles and ensure the safety of outdoor events, we sought to create a platform that would make such gatherings more accessible and feasible. In doing so, we aimed to foster connections within our community while also providing opportunities for sharing and engaging with a broader audience in Philly.

SB: We had identified several artists and organizations we wanted to work with, either as partners in designing the mobile unit, as workshop leaders for the program series, or as contributors to the exhibition. Once we were notified that our project had been selected and would be funded, we started a very involved planning process to confirm the thirty plus artists and organizers we wanted to include in our project. 

AF: Tell us about some of your past events! What are some events that you hope to implement in the future? 

SB: Teaching at the End of Times has always been about engaging with artist-led experiments and community leaders who are actively addressing questions about access to education, alternative pedagogy, and collective learning. We view ourselves as part of a continuous process, starting with feedback from these field members, experimenting with methods, seeking further feedback, and responding to critique.

In line with this approach, our first step was hosting three Philadelphia-based focus groups involving over twenty organizations dedicated to public engagement. The data gathered from these sessions informed the creation of a battery-powered mobile teaching unit, which launched in the Fall of 2023 alongside our workshop series, website, exhibitions, and printed materials. Over thirteen events featuring fifteen or more artists were organized across four locations in Philadelphia. Each artist had full autonomy over their workshop topics and exhibited work.

ESR: We included artwork and workshops on very different topics which included abolitionist and harm reduction practices, agitprop and graphic design, anti fatness and body liberation, frameworks for collaboration, coalition through storytelling, Black wellness, sick positionality and world-building, portable rituals, self-care and late capitalism, as well as explorations of memory from an anti-colonial perspective.

SB: Recently, we conducted assessment interviews with all collaborators. Based on these conversations, we organized an upcoming event at Vox Populi on April 11th. This event will feature two educators discussing strategies for teaching amidst the ongoing genocide in Palestine.

AF: What does your daily routine look like, and what’s something you hope you can do more of in the coming months?  

SB: Most of my days are split between building and maintaining relationships, talking about administrative work to be done, or working on various tasks in my studio. Currently, I’m transitioning away from several administrative roles to make room for residencies and new work that involves more sustained physical labor. The days that I can carve out free of meetings, I move my research forward by reading or simply sitting and thinking—resting being more important in finding balance than any work. 

ESR: I struggle with some fatigue and because of this I have to prioritize sleep in a big way- I’m trying not to feel guilty about sleeping 9 hours each night. I usually have two types of days: studio days are for listening to audiobooks and working in the studio, and admin days are for meetings, applications, emails, teaching prep and teaching at night. I hope to do less admin, and more drawing and reading in the coming months. 

AF: As you know, Art Frankly is a community that cares about job transparency and supporting fellow art professionals. What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world? 

SB: Artists are always ahead of every kind of institution, foundation, university, and museum. Ahead in their understanding and deep grasp of value systems around labor, compensation, accessibility, power, integrity of vision, and the specific actions needed to minimize harm and grow care within the creative community. As someone who often works between artists and these larger groups—as a professor, educator, program leader or staff member—all of the conversations I have had individually, as part of a collective or artist-led project, have been years ahead of these institutions. 

Currently, it is necessary for most artists to engage with institutions-whether they are supported financially or given access to other critical resources. These spaces often uphold an outward facing gloss of morality but are driven by the agenda of their donors and real estate values. 

It has been imperative for me to create spaces, relationships, and communities where I can have collaborative conversations about art away from these hierarchical groups.

ESR: I agree with what you mention, Stephanie, and as an artist who mostly works as an adjunct professor at different universities, I think unionizing is a great step to put these ideas of collaboration and fair labor practices into action within large institutions. Since I earn most of my living through a job that does not offer benefits or long term job security, I’m very glad to see the unionizing efforts that are happening throughout the nation, which are great ways of prioritizing collaboration and community building.  

AF: How do you think the art world can become more transparent?  

SB: By slowly breaking down power structures, which is often done by simply sharing information, we can work to build the world we want to live in. I’m thinking of Michelle Millar Fisher’s Arts & All Museum Salary Transparency crowdsourced spreadsheet which has over three-thousand salaries from hundreds of international art workers. Fisher noted in a published interview that the AMT spreadsheet was partially inspired by Joshua Boldt’s Adjunct Project from 2012, which was a collection of adjunct salaries. W.A.G.E has changed the value standards and compensation models at all levels of creative production. I think trying to pierce the market from all sides and create an equitable exchange for artists within the art economy is at the top of my goal list in any role I occupy.

ESR:  I want to echo that. It’s clear that artists and teachers need to be compensated fairly for their labor! And this starts with turning transparency efforts such as the ones that Stephanie mentions, into a generalized practice.

AF:  What is one Art Industry (or career) resource you love that is accessible to all? 

ESR: I have been using the Libby App using the Philadelphia Free library to access free audiobooks. I do a lot of tedious work with my hands in the studio, and listening to free audiobooks through the library has been life changing! I usually listen to novels and biographies, and they have a phenomenal collection of contemporary novels, so it’s a great way to keep up with new fiction.

SB: I follow and use the Creative Capital list of Artist Opportunities religiously. They organize a mind-blowing round up of residencies, grants, open calls and award opportunities, all online and free to see. For Philly folks, I second the show of love for the Philadelphia Free Library. In addition to the audiobook collection, they have this incredible resource called BRIC, Business Resource and Innovation Center, which gives you free access to thousands of expensive databases that track funding in the arts. If you are a grant writer or an individual artist looking for people who invest in projects or want to write a pitch to someone already interested in what you do, put this on your list. 

AF: Thank you, Stephanie and Emmanuela, for participating in Frank Talks, it has been our pleasure! To finish off, we’re curious: If you could own work by 5 different artists/craftspeople, who would be in your collection?  

SB: A beaded sampler piece by Peggy Fontenot; Live in one of Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West structures; the entire building size installation of Roni Horn’s Vatnasafn/Library of Water in Stykkishólmur, Iceland; any one of the embroidered textiles from the Multiple Visions permanent exhibition at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, NM and the sculpture Untitled (Hair collar) by Ann Hamilton. Thank you Art Frankly!  

ESR: A curtain painting by Beatriz Gonzalez, a kinetic sculpture by Laura Lima, a still life painting by Juan Sanchez Cotán, a sculpture by Teresa Solar Abboud, and a Bicho by Lygia Clark. 

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