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College Artist Spotlight: Izzy Stoneback Describes Opportunities in Watauga County for Local Artists

By Wesley Britt

Izzy Stoneback. Photo submitted.

Graduating high school in the midst of a global pandemic, Izzy Stoneback navigated their arrival into adulthood through a haze. Uncertainty ran rampant around the world, and many graduates entering college did not know if they would be taking courses in buildings with historic names or in the kitchen while parents prepared dinner. Given the two options, Stoneback elected to stay at home their freshman year rather than be on campus.

Growing up in Wilmington, Stoneback wanted to give the western part of North Carolina a try, enrolling at App State. At the start of their sophomore year, Stoneback finally got to move across the state to Boone to pursue a major in studio art and a concentration in drawing and painting.

Stoneback described the art scene in the High Country as a diverse community of modern collegiate artists and well established Appalachian crafters.

“There’s a really big college-dominated art scene in Watauga,” they said. “There are a lot of art students that make up a really big community here. They always have ‘First Friday Art Crawl’ in Downtown Boone. Every first Friday of the month, we have pop-ups where students will usually show their work. It’s a great way to look at art and connect with fellow artists.”

Stoneback continued, “We have a little art museum downtown with a couple of different galleries that students often showcase their work at. Outside of Watauga, there is the older, more-established craft community that has more traditional Appalachian craft people that deal with wood-working, pottery, and fibers. The High Country has a very interesting intersection between art and craft. We have two very different connotations in the art community with very different backgrounds and histories.”

In April, Stoneback contributed a couple of pieces to “First Friday Art Crawl,” where they joined the local organization OASIS, whose mission is to end sexual and domestic violence in Watauga and Avery Counties.

“Intimacy” by Izzy Stoneback.
“Cadaverous Womb” by Izzy Stoneback.

When asked about other opportunities in the area, Stoneback told High Country Press about App State’s new program with the Penland School of Craft:

“For a few months, students will go to study at the Penland School of Craft near Spruce Pine,” they shared. “I did a work study there and got to meet a lot of really cool people. Although I haven’t had a direct mentor, I kind of had an indirect one through Ila Prouty, who set up and organized the program. Ila studied [at the Penland School of Craft] after she graduated college and was a resident artist there. She spent two or three years there making work. She’s a huge reason why I became a studio art major. I was originally a psych major, and I took a class with her as an extracurricular and fell in love with the course.”

Like many artists, Stoneback draws inspiration for their art from personal experiences, but they also referenced Dadaism, a 20th century art movement developed in protest to conformity and war. 

“A lot of my work is very angry. And I guess it’s also therapeutic and cathartic, and I find a lot of inspiration in art history. I’m such an art history nerd. There’s this one movement called Dadaism, and it’s so incredibly weird. It followed WWI and a lot of it is about the body as it relates to the human condition and absurdity. It looks at the human condition through a lens of absurdity. It’s art for the sake of making art. Hannah Höch is one of my favorite artists, and she was a huge Dada artist. She was revolutionary, in a way, as one of the first women artists to trailblaze for women and art.”

Izzy Stoneback

Stoneback finds another creative spark in music and fem-punk culture. Riot grrrl, specifically, is one of Stoneback’s favorite styles to play. As a subgenre of punk music, they best described it as “angry girl music or women screaming about being a woman.” In Boone, Stoneback is a fan of the fem-punk band Babe Haven, which has performed in major cities like Boston and Cleveland. Babe Haven released an album in May of this year called “Uppercut,” and the heavy beats and gritty lyrics can be described as headbanging.  

Stoneback’s other local influences include App State professor Mark Burns, Kurt Anderson of Spruce Pine (who does pop-art, wood-working, and character cut-outs), and Becca Stickler (A photographer that Stoneback collaborates with for features).

When asked about the overall theme for their art, Stoneback became flustered. Laughing, they said, “I don’t know! I always have a hard time with this question because there are so many things, and they’re all overlapping, so it’s hard to pinpoint just one. Mostly, the reason I make art is for myself, so I can work through things and try to reframe certain experiences that I’ve had. Like I said earlier, it’s a super cathartic process … Other people find it relatable, which is nice. My work is very raw, explicit, and upfront. I think it can be off putting for certain people, but I think that’s a little bit of the point … The way that people receive it. There’s a reason some people relate to it, and some people don’t … Recently, I’ve been infatuated with combining the human body with words and poetry. It’s definitely been a recent focus in my work, and it’s a way of reclaiming and redefining autonomy. 

“In my pieces, you see a lot of viscerality. That comes from my time in high school. I tried really hard to fit in, and there was a lot of self-suppression. I didn’t realize I was queer, and the things I’m interested in now I was back then, too, but it just felt like a secret. Now that I’m older, I realize I could’ve been a little weirdo, and it would’ve been fine! I didn’t have the best childhood, and I didn’t really have the voice that I needed to. Art has always been a safe space where I could say the things I wanted to without actually verbalizing them. Now that I’m older and have more freedom, for lack of a better way to say it, I just don’t want to shut up, and I don’t have to, and that’s really empowering for me. And that’s the reason my art is so visceral because I’m not going to let myself be silenced.”

Izzy Stoneback

When asked about their precise process for their human body and poetry pieces, Stoneback explained, “Most of the time it’s kind of like word vomit. I keep a little notebook with me, and whenever I have a cool thought I’ll write it down. I cut the words out of sticker paper and put it down on the canvas and paint over top of it. Once everything is dry, I’ll peel it away and those words show through the underpainting.”

“Teething” by Izzy Stoneback.
“Wasp Bodied” by Izzy Stoneback.

Stoneback enjoys adding a bit of edge to all of their creations. Recently, they have been taking ceramic classes and liked the idea of flipping the welcoming and soft aspect of pottery on its head, opting to make the “least welcoming and least functional bowl ever!” They combined the soft aspects of pottery with the jaggedness of their work, appreciating the contradiction that comes with it.

Photo submitted.
Photo submitted.

Boone and its art scene has been amazing for Stoneback. They described it as, “the place I feel the safest and most seen.” They joked about how, due to renovations in the art buildings at App State, art students have been moved to an “old and allegedly haunted dorm,” but they reiterated that “overall, App State and Boone is a wonderful community.” After graduating, they want to move to Chicago or New York to “freeze [their] butt off and meet really cool people!” After a couple of years of working, they want to go to graduate school and one day become a professor of art. They also want to do outreach work through their pieces, and maybe be in some galleries or museums.

To other people who want to pursue art, Stoneback said, “It’s very easy to compare yourself and your work to others, especially in academic settings because your work is being placed next to peers and fellow artists and critiqued. There will always be people that tell you they don’t like what you’ve created, but that doesn’t matter. It is okay, and honestly, best case scenario, make art selfishly – like make work for yourself – because that’s when it’s most successful. Just don’t be a jerk, and do whatever you want. I’ve learned that selfishness, to a degree, is not a bad thing at all, especially when it comes to art.”