Cindy Steiler: Reinventing the secret to success

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A guest photographer shares artistic techniques and life lessons with UND students

Cindy Steiler, a guest artist at UND in October, is a photographer whose work uses the wet plate technique of the 1800s, as well as modern digital technology. However, she prefers to work in monochrome rather than in color. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

For some artists, seeing their work become popular enough to generate substantial commercial sales on the Internet might be the definition of success.

Cindy Steiler, a guest artist at UND in October, had it all and gave it up with no regrets.

“It was a blessing because I considered everything I did as a commodity,” she explained. “I carefully tracked the cost of materials and the time required. It took me a while to break that way of thinking, but when I did, it changed my life.

During a public lecture at the Hughes Fine Arts Center in October, Steiler showed examples of his photographs and other artworks while sharing a personal account of his journey.

“I never intended to be an artist,” she said. “I studied acting, set design and costume design in school.”

Teaching aspiring UND artists

Steiler, a Detroit native who now lives in Gainesville, Fla., spent much of October at UND as part of the Visiting Artist & Scholar program. She came at the invitation of Suzanne Gonsalez-Smith, a professor in the Department of Art and Design who teaches drawing and photography.

Suzanne Gonsalez-Smith

Steiler worked on two art projects on campus and demonstrated her photography techniques to students, including wet plate negatives and tinplate photos used during the 1800s. Although she also does digital photography, she prefers to work in monochrome rather than in color.

“It’s partly the technology, but also because I can’t control the palette of the world,” she noted. “For me, the color is really frustrating. We can do a nice street scene and there’s a person in a neon pink shirt blowing up the whole shot. So for me, I think in black and white.

She considers her style of archival photography.

“It makes me want to document the wonderful people I meet because I don’t want to forget them,” Steiler added. “I can see these incredible places and I don’t want to forget them.”

During her time as a guest artist, Steiler took photos of UND students using wet plate photography and tintypes. She considers herself an archivist who preserves the memory of people and places. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Archived Memories of the World

Rather than creating art as part of a commercial enterprise, Steiler now travels the world in search of individuals who make products in isolated places, whose stories she photographically records before they and their profession does not disappear. One example she shared is of a woman in Portugal who raises sheep to make blankets.

“These particular crafts are not dying, but the way these people do them is dying,” Steiler explained. “These are the last. It’s not sustainable to live in a small village and sell to your neighbours.

Portuguese blanket manufacturer. Photo by Cindy Steiler.

While in North Dakota, she learned about the harvesting, transporting and processing of sugar beets, photographed as part of her UND art project. It will also include downtown Grand Forks and UND students and campus.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as a sugar beet until I came here,” Steiler said. “So I got a tremendous education that I wouldn’t have had if I had never come here, and there are some interesting stories here as well.”

Steiler began her career as a stage set designer, which often involved painting large murals as backdrops for plays and other productions. She also created and sewed costumes. When events in her life made it difficult to pursue this path, she took jobs at engineering firms where she built scale models of wind projects and then 3D models of orthopedic implants.

“But then it got really boring, and I started doing these crazy little embroideries for myself,” she said.

A friend suggested Steiler try selling them on Etsy, a global online marketplace for makers of handmade, vintage, and unique gifts.

“It was in the early days of Etsy when I didn’t even know what it was,” she said. “So I put some on Etsy, and they sold like crazy.”

This led to invitations to do shows in Philadelphia and New York. Her embroideries evolved into small dioramas made from photos, fabrics and other materials from the 1800s.

Celebrities have purchased Steiler’s work for their collections, with some giving it to their friends as gifts. Etsy promoted Steiler and sponsored workshops she taught. She also wrote a chapter on embroidery for a book.

But Steiler realized she was creating her work because people wanted to buy it.

“I know it sounds silly to complain, but it didn’t feel right to me,” she explained. “I never started creating with the aim of selling; I started creating because I was depressed. Coming back into the creative world was my lifeline.

“I closed my Etsy shop because I was fed up,” she continued. “I just quit. I still show my work, but I don’t sell it anymore.

Steiler’s successful venture into the online retail world of Etsy.com allowed her to sell small embroidery works using materials from the 1800s. But she eventually found she preferred to browse the world for community engagement projects. Photo by Cindy Steiler.

Find a new direction

On the positive side, it allowed Steiler to find out what she really wanted to do and empowered her to do it.

“I started looking for community engagement projects, and that’s when I started to travel a lot,” Steiler said. “I started doing bigger pieces and installation pieces. It took me back to theatre. It’s about creating an environment rather than small pieces to sell.”

The difference is that instead of creating the vision of a director or producer, she engages in works that she envisions.

An example is a 25 by 25 foot woven fabric that stretches across the walls of a room. In Portugal, she performed in a former olive oil factory, reflecting her preference for displaying her work in non-traditional settings. She was in Palestine to work on a project during the COVID pandemic, which allowed her to spend Christmas in a nearly deserted Bethlehem and photograph a famous Jerusalem church when it was devoid of tourists.

One of Steiler’s recent works is a series of 25 x 25 foot photos printed on fabric that stretches across the walls of the room where it is displayed. Photo by Cindy Stieler.

“It’s been really good for me,” Steiler said. “It gave me a new way of seeing the world, and it enriched my relationships. I think it made me a more generous person, and I’m really happy about that.

His advice to UND art students?

“My suggestion is to travel,” Steiler said. “Go see a place without tour groups.

“There’s so much division and hate and racism and all that garbage,” she continued. “But if you go out of your neighborhood and go to see the others, you will realize that we are all more the same than different. The trip is good for you; it changed my life.

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