Interview: Stephanie McCollough on Collage, Pop-Up Books, and Calling Yourself an Artist

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When I interview artists and creatives, I love hearing about the balance between their day jobs and what they do in their own time, in that space they have for themselves to create what they want to create. Stephanie McCollough is a graphic designer who spends her free-time creating emotive and personal art that is complicated, layered, and deals with movement and form. We had a chat about what she does research-wise to get herself inspired to create, dancing in the kitchen (!), and trying out new classes and mediums as a way to keep those creative juices doing what they do. I hope you find Stephanie's enthusiasm as contagious as I do!

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Magic & Musings:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Stephanie! First of all, for any readers who don’t know your background, do you want to tell me a little bit about yourself and where you are today?

Stephanie McCollough:
Sure! And thanks again for the invitation to participate!

I’m currently supporting myself as a graphic designer, and in my off time I make work that deals with emotive and expressive gesture. Specifically, I’ve been making abstract pop-up studies, as well as minimal dance pieces (mostly in my kitchen, ha!). I think in both of these mediums I’m trying to get at an expression of emotionally complex, layered, and authentic moments through minimal movement and form.

I guess I can best be categorized as an enthusiast that manifests that energy through an artistic practice. I’m always excited about something; excited, and fascinated, and can get quite obsessed with any number of things: crows, puppets, the skeletal system…and then I suppose I explore those things with a focus on their emotionally expressive possibilities. Buh, that sounds pretty theoretical, huh? For instance, right now I’m working on some abstract pop-up collages of crows: how might a form that is not literally an image of a crow move and feel ‘crow-ish’ and what could that make a viewer feel?


Magic & Musings:
That sounds really interesting! I love that concept, and I think you've captured it really well in the above image of the crow.
When did you first get into art and design? What first drew you to the field? Did you study it formally or come across it as a hobby?

Stephanie McCollough:
I have always made things, from the time I was very young. I never thought I was very good at it, I just always had the compulsion to glue stuff to other stuff, or color, or arrange, or cut paper, or anything really. I did study design formally eventually at Pacific Northwest College of Art, but only after several false starts in other eras of my life with other subjects (started as a music education major out of high school, eventually ended up getting a BA in English before I went to art school). I came to design and my art practice after I tried and failed at a few other things. I was thinking, okay, when I’m eighty, what is the thing I will regret not doing the most, and I found that the honest answer to that question was art; being an artist; acknowledging that I’m an artist. So I thought, well, let's see what happens. I found that once I started formally studying art and design, I finally hit my stride as an engaged, focused student, and I gave myself permission to throw myself into it fully because it felt so authentic. Honestly I focused on design because I wanted to come out of school (with a second bachelors…) with a good job trajectory, but I also was lucky enough to have gone to a school that encouraged interdisciplinary inquiry and there was lots of cross pollination between departments and cohorts. I’m very grateful that I can support myself as a designer in my day job where I get to work with talented creative people towards common communication goals, and then I go home and I get to make my weird exploratory stuff on my own.

Magic & Musings:
Did you have to find yourself overcoming any hurdles regarding your confidence when you first started advertising your designs?

Stephanie McCollough:
Oh ABSOLUTELY. I will probably always have trouble promoting my work. I definitely deal with impostor syndrome and wonder if my work could possibly mean anything to anyone other than me and blah blah blah… I know a lot of people -- very talented people -- who struggle with that. And that’s okay. But it does seem that the more authentic I am with my work the more I’m like, well, this thing I just made is a true and precise representation of that feeling or notion that I was attempting to articulate in this moment and that makes it easier to put out into the world. Maybe because it takes away the pressure for it to be ‘good’ or for ‘people to like it’ and rather puts the emphasis on ‘does it feel right’.

A post shared by Stephanie McCollough (@stoophanoo) on

Magic & Musings:
Of all of your work, what are you the proudest of and why?

Stephanie McCollough:
I’m proud of the fact that I make anything at all with some sense of organization and informed process because for so long I was very disorganized and haphazard about what I made. I think I’m proudest of what I’m working on these days. I just came through a long stretch of being really sick of my aesthetic, and uninspired by my past work, and generally very critical of myself. But I pushed through, and things took a turn a couple weeks ago. I suddenly have more ideas than I know what to do with (which has never been my style) and I want to spend all my free time in the studio. This will be a lesson to me in the future that the blocks on inspiration are not permanent if one is diligent in pushing one’s edges.

Magic & Musings:
This is a question I like to ask purely because of the variety of answers I get! I’m really interested in how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to? 

Stephanie McCollough:
My absolute ideal is having a whole day of uninterrupted time (which is a reallll luxury for anyone) where I have no obligations in the evening, and no chores to do, and I can work my way slowly into a very focused zone for a long time. I start out by doing some research of some kind (watching videos of crows being smart on Youtube, looking at antique illustrations of the skeletal system on Tumblr, reading esoteric essays on puppetry, etc etc etc) and I get into a state of excitement about the world around me which makes me want to make work that is sometimes in response to what I just researched, or sometimes unrelated. Once I move from research mode into making mode I can work for hours. But! I don’t often set up my schedule in a way that allows that kind of immersion. I’m trying to get better at that. I have also been getting better at just making myself put in a couple hours at the end of the day. I’m especially able to do that if I leave projects out on my desk in an inviting manner and not in chaos.

Magic & Musings:
What do you do if you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively?

Stephanie McCollough:
Having just been through that, I can tell you what specifically worked recently! I did a couple of things. I took a trip…nothing big, but I just got out of my routine for a while and made sure to take extra time to enjoy travel (the train really does it for me) so that I could relax in transit. And I took a class...this time it was a week-long intensive workshop. It happened to be on pop-up techniques, which is what I’m interested in, but I think any environment where you can get out of your usual and into a place of exploration where nothing is precious and everything is kind of an exercise and playful, then things will start to come together. Also, I talk to other artist friends about frustration, and things I’m interested in and things I have been thinking about. I always walk away from conversations like that with more ideas and motivation than I could ever come up with on my own.

Magic & Musings:
What are some things you like to do in your spare time when you’re not working?

Stephanie McCollough:
I love to dance…I’ve been studying flamenco for a while, and my husband and I dance tango. I like the expressiveness that dancing allows that is in the moment and body-based, and I’ve noticed that the more I dance the more free and interesting my visual work gets.

I also watch a lot of stand-up comedy and documentaries on Netflix. And every show about cooking! And I belong to a great book club, which gets me to read much more than I would normally on my own. I love to read, but I’m a slow reader so it is easy to just take several months to make my way through one book. But my book club (aside from being an important group of friends to me) gets me out of my own head and habits and stretches my brain.

Magic & Musings:
What tools do you use to design?

Stephanie McCollough:
At my day job I almost exclusively use InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. I use those in my personal work too, but I also do a lot of hand-rendered stuff: painting and then cutting up the paintings and collaging them back together, cut and folded paper, and lately I’ve been experimenting with more photo-based collage stuff and scanning things I've done physically to manipulate digitally and then print out and work with physically again. I’ve also done some work with clay that I was excited about.


Magic & Musings:
If there was one thing you could want to say to the world if you knew everyone was listening, what would it be and why?

Stephanie McCollough:
Trust your body. Trust that your body is solid in space and can give you all the information you need in the moment to navigate your world. Emotions and thoughts live in our bodies, not only our heads, and physical presence and movement are essential, whatever that looks like for you.

Magic & Musings:
What tools do you use to keep yourself organised?

Stephanie McCollough:
Calendar events with many alarms attached and lots of lists. Lists of lists. Sometimes I even put time estimates next to my to-do list items, which I recognize as a little excessive, but I’m a naturally disorganised person and that is something that eases a lot of anxiety. 

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out working in this field?

Stephanie McCollough:
In design: focus on typographic sophistication. I think if a designer understands how to use type, they are incredibly valuable.

In general art practice: It is sometimes very important to make things that are not precious. That is actually advice I got from a teacher towards the end of art school that I could have used from the beginning. I was dealing with a big block on a huge project, and he said “you need to get into the studio for the two days and make a bunch of stuff that you are going to throw away.” And that did it. I learned way more from all the things I tried and didn’t work than the things I tried that I was happy with. Playfulness and exploration are ways to turn off that critical voice that gets in the way of all our best ideas.

Magic & Musings:
Onto a fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song? 

Stephanie McCollough:
Yes!
Book: Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.


Album: Snowpoet by Snowpoet

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work? 

Stephanie McCollough:
Thanks so much for reaching out to me! And since my website is painfully out of date, the best way to find me is Instagram: @stoophanoo. :)

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