Creators, Makers, and Doers: Stephanie Inman
Posted on 8/30/17 by Brooke Burton
Interview & Photography by Brooke Burton ©Boise City Department of Arts & History
Stephanie Inman spends her days (and sometimes nights) working from her colorful and light filled studio in the home that she designed herself. Having traded architecture for design and public art, she continually chases after her imagination, realizing a variety of professional and personal projects from publishing a book to collaborating on art installations with materials as diverse as cast aluminum and plastic toy cars. Stephanie is a big picture thinker and creative problem solver who loves maps, tiny chairs, and dreams of napping in hammocks.
I love your work in the new transit center, “Keep Moving People,” tell me about all those toys!
So “Keep Moving People” is a large collage out of used toys. Our theme for Valley Regional Transit’s Main Street Station was transportation. You’ll find little cars and trucks and boats and planes and whatever I could find. The Youth Ranch gave me tons of things and so did other people in the community. I worked with Trademark Sign Company, they routered out all the letters from a file I sent them, we put the toys in resin and then they painted it all. So, yeah, it says, either “Keep moving, people,” like, you’re kind of being…
…bossy or commanding? Or super polite, like Seri?
Yeah, it could be however you wanted it to be; however your inflection is. But it was fairly inexpensive for the impact it has, which was great because at the time we didn’t know if we were going to have any funds or where they’d be coming and I was trying to think of ideas with recycled materials but also inexpensive ideas for adding art.
It is a very fun piece, I’m a big fan. You started out working for a design company early in your career, how did you make the decision to go out on your own?
Basically my daughter was born, she’s almost twenty [now,] so ever since then I’ve been working on my own. I started out just doing graphic design and then, I guess, maybe ten years ago [started doing] more public art.
When you left the company when your daughter was born, were there any growing pains? Did you have clients already lined up?
I had no one lined up, and I wasn’t supposed to steal clients. So, I was trying really hard not to do that. [Laughs]
I didn’t want to use that word. [Laughter]
Because of my architecture background, I think I first tried calling developers and because it was just me and I was working part-time, it didn’t take a ton to keep busy. I did a lot of work for developers at first when I started—logo design and things— I’m always surprised that I stay busy just [by] word-of-mouth, really. But then, again I like to keep myself busy. I’m going to try to design my life better and my workdays better, but it’s hard to say “no” when there’s so many fun projects out there.
What are some of the fun projects that you’re looking at?
I’m going to be redoing all the signs for the MK Nature Center, so that’s going to be really fun. Then working on a project for Hawthorne Elementary School’s native plant garden, and Foote Park is another project, doing signage for them. I’m doing a lot with the City of Meridian right now. And then projects with the City of Boise, too, I’m working on a team for a cultural site plan for the Erma Hayman House.
What is the Hayman House?
The Erma Hayman House is on River Street and it’s a small home that the CCDC [Capital City Development Corporation] is going to turn over to the City of Boise, and it’s an important cultural site. It’s part of the River Street Neighborhood and really had a lot of cultural influences; It’s the only place where black people could buy property [historically.] It had Greeks and Basques and Asian influences too. It’s a unique cultural spot. We’re doing a site plan [for] where people will gather, where interpretive information will be. But it’s Erma Hayman’s House, and she was quite a little dynamo.
What is a dynamo?
She didn’t take any $#*!, it seemed like, and she raised, like, eight people in this tiny little house. She went to business school but couldn’t get a job, probably because of racism—But she was an excellent seamstress. She was a Rosie the Riveter type at the Air Force Base, and a really interesting woman.
I’m a little astounded by the number of things you have cooking. Do you have time for your own projects? What would you do if you could spend a year in a remote cabin with no tv or internet?
I have all these ideas of projects that I’m not quite getting to yet because I’ve been so busy. [Laughs] We have a little cabin in the woods off the grid near Lowman with no cell service and I want to someday spend a week there instead of just a couple days. So a whole year!? That would be incredible. I’d draw everyday and learn to embroider and play the banjo and take a lot of hikes and bake homemade bread and write a lot of letters and stories. I’d wear braids and wouldn’t take care of my eyebrows. Maybe I’d learn to like whiskey. I would do a lot of reading. I would make things out of twigs. I would watercolor.
How did you get started in architecture?
I loved drafting class in high school and I had a drafting scholarship, a small one, but I just loved it. I’ve always loved houses and doll houses and interior design. I think it was a great education. It was amazing. But I also used to go to the library in college and look at Print magazine and all the logos, because that was fun for me. I don’t know why it didn’t even dawn on me that you could be a graphic designer in a regular-size town. I thought you’d have to live in New York or something. When I graduated and I worked for a firm in Eugene, I told my boss, “I think I want to be a graphic designer. I don’t know if I have to go back to school. I’m not sure what I want to do.” But it was hard to make that transition because you do have a lot of respect as an architect and that’s embarrassing to admit, but [changing] that title was the hardest part about changing fields, actually. [Laughs]
I get it. It’s why George Costanza loved introducing himself as Art Vandelay, the architect. [Laughter]
That’s right. [It] sounds good. But I don’t regret it at all. I think design is design and it translates to a lot of different things, but at that time in my life graphic design was a good fit and so I kind of weaseled my way into a job and answered phones and learned the programs and kept pestering my boss.
You did not go back to school for graphic design, you learned on the job?
Yeah. I was in between [jobs] for a month and I would go talk to everybody in town: advertising agencies and graphic designers, and getting their advice about what I should do. I kind of kept going back to [my old boss] and he would give me assignments, like, a CD cover, kind of like a portfolio piece. He told me I was prolific and I remember I didn’t know what that meant and I went home to look it up. [Laughs] I kind of weaseled my way in and it was great, I met one of my best friends there and I worked there till I was pregnant. When I told him I was pregnant, I remember he put his hands on his head and put his head on the desk and I felt bad, but—
Why do you think he responded this way?
Maybe it seems strange, but I actually took it as a compliment, that he valued me as an employee. Maybe he knew I wouldn’t be staying. He later apologized for that reaction and said he was happy for me.
How do you think you would like to respond if you had an employee tell you the same thing?
Ideally I would start by being excited for this employee, then I’d ask about future plans, and then I’d buy her a toasted turkey and provolone bagel sandwich.
What kind of advice would you give somebody who’s thinking about going out on their own like you did into graphic design or something where they’re going to be working independently?
When I first started, because my kids were little, I really wanted to seem professional. I didn’t want them in the background [on the phone] I was very conscious of that, and I always called this room an office. I call it a workroom now. I try to call it a studio but it sounds more pretentious, I need to just embrace that. Also every project I work on, if they ask for something but I have another idea, I always try to show them what they asked for but then say, “Here’s what I would do,” because there’s a reason they’re hiring me. There’s work that I’ve done that they like or for whatever reason, so I push that now with everything I do; how can I make this even more fun, or how can I make this more interesting or more this or more something that I would love to work on. And then it usually makes it better and I enjoy it and then the client also is happier.
It’s exactly true that you are hired for your vision, but would it be safer to give them exactly what they want?
I had that one time. Early on, this one developer, he wanted to be really creative but he dictated exactly what he thought it should be, and then when I showed it to him, he’s like, “Well, I thought it would be more like what you did for “Boo at the Zoo” or whatever, some other thing I did. I was just taken aback by it. So I make sure I don’t do that anymore. You have to remember why they are hiring you. Even though they might have an idea in their head, you can usually suggest something that’s more fitting with your work and your style and what you like to do.
It sounds like you learned something pretty valuable there.
Yeah, so you still give them what they want but then you make suggestions, and I think that’s the best way to go with everything. Even on that cultural site plan I’m working on, the team, and I’m like, “But what if it was like this over here?” “Well, that’s not in our site plan”—But we’re just dreaming right now. Why don’t we just say what we think it could be; it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, let’s not limit ourselves.”
I like that, just say anything, let’s just say anything then scale it down from there.
You can always get edited back, but it’s hard to think big-picture again once you’re constrained.
What does your brainstorming process look like?
I believe in research, and in sketching and getting ideas out on paper. Always. I say never get on the computer until you decide what the design should do first, then you can consider what it should look like. This applies to graphic design or public art or architecture. How do you want people to feel when they experience it? What will they remember? How will it make the situation/experience/space/environment better? Write it down, make goals, argue with yourself until you’re super inspired and you can’t wait to realize it. I keep lots of clippings, photos, articles I like on art and design and color and whatever interests me glued and taped in about 10 sketchbooks I keep in my studio, those are great to refer to if I’m ever ‘stuck’. I’m rarely uninspired though. I always have more ideas than time. I cannot comprehend being bored.
I can see that! Can you comment on the current design community in Boise?
I feel like Boise is currently culturally vibrant and very alive, especially in comparison to our size. I know this is because of our geographic isolation––we don’t rely on other big cities because we don’t have any nearby! It’s like Boise is sorta scrappy. We have to create our own cultural experiences, and I love that. I feel very privileged and lucky to be able to make art in this city I love, and I’m so grateful we have a Department of Arts & History. I am proud our city is celebrating James Castle and our city council values him as an Idaho artist. I get emotional when I think about him and his need to produce his art. It amazes me. I hope the support of culture continues. I would love to see more art galleries in town, more venues for artists, and more opportunities. There are so many talented people in Boise. And there is room for all of us.
We were talking about how much you love architecture but you’re also an artist?
I think it’s hard to call myself an artist still—it’s a big word. Architecture was good for me. I remember one of the first projects—I was just really loose and it kind of honed me into a little more practical thinking, I guess. It was [a structure] on a hill, I can’t remember what. We had to [design] this driveway and you had to know the slope and the pitch and everything. I remember I just [cut the model] like this [spiral] ribbon of cardboard. Done! It was like a sculpture. I guess that would explain my actual personality.
That cracks me up, you are asked to design a functional road for vehicles to travel on and you basically made a Calder mobile.
You know, it wasn’t to code. Let’s just say that. It wasn’t to code. But with projects in public art, what’s nice is I can have the big picture and the ideas and then my fabricator [and I] we can work together on the exacting part. Because there’s so many ways you could build something and I am not going to dictate the exact way.
I can see how that is a good fit for you because you get to let your imagination go free and churn on ideas but collaborate on production. So if it is a driveway, the cars don’t fall off. [Laughs]. Have there been times you’ve had happy accidents or taken risks?
I’ve tried a lot of things that just didn’t work out, little businesses. My family’s very supportive and awesome, my husband [and I] were wanting our daughter to do something, it’s like, “Just do it. What’s the worst that could happen? Look at your mom. She fails all the time!” I laughed really hard at that. That is really funny because it was totally true.”
It’s scary though, to fail.
Well, there’s another quote “It’s not really failing if you keep at it.” [It] makes you decide: “How badly do I want this thing?” Sometimes I’m like, “Eh, not that bad.” Other times I’m like, “Yeah, I really want that.” Failure is harder if it’s monetarily involved; I don’t want to fail on someone else’s dime, but if it’s my ego, I’m okay with failing if it’s just my ego, I guess. I’m over that.
When you see a project that is a little out of your scope, and you get that feeling, “Maybe I shouldn’t do this because I don’t know how,” what do you tell yourself?
Yeah, sometimes, “What have I done?”
[Laughs] It does hurt the ego but you learn from it. Would you like to just keep dreaming if you could?
Sometimes, but it is fun to realize the [project,] to come to a conclusion and realize it. I did an art plan for the Nampa Public Library and I loved working on that, too. If there was no art there or in the bus terminal and other places, it would just be boring. No personality; I guess I love doing it because I feel like I’m really contributing in a good way to the public experience in public spaces. People are creating memories there, that’s what I loved about architecture. I was reading this book the other day and this woman said, “Everyone remembers their first tree,” or their big tree of their childhood. You had an important tree in your life. I had never thought about that. I was like, “What a cool thing; I totally remember the tree of my childhood.”
It’s so true, especially something like a park or library where children spend a lot of time, or city landmarks. They become ingrained in your personal history. I remember my first tree too! I’m having a memory sensation where I can smell the tree because it was an elm and they have an odor—
I’m thinking of my fingers burning on the willow, trying to fly on it.
I love those sensory memories. It’s an unusual experience.
Yeah, so, I thought that was a wonderful thing to think of, the idea of things that make a place more unique and memorable.
You have another favorite quote: “The artist is nothing without a gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.”
Haven’t you known people who were really talented but they didn’t do anything with it? Stephen King or somebody said, “Half of it is just showing up,” it doesn’t matter how talented or great you are. You’ve got to be there on time. You’ve got to do the work. You’ve got to go above and beyond, because there are so many talented people out there. “Talent is as common as table salt,” you know.
It’s showing up?
Yeah, it’s showing up and what you do with it and where you go with it.
I foresee you going somewhere very unique and playful, with a turkey sandwich, and possibly, some whiskey.
North End August 30, 2017 Public Art Collection
Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.