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Nerds of Mizzou

Professor Jo Stealey weaves her love of fibers into a nationally respected program

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: March 23, 2009
Jo Stealey

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  1. Professor Jo Stealey, one of the nation’s best-known fiber artists, incorporates a love of nature into her work. The rustic setting of her home outside Columbia provides both inspiration and materials for projects.
  2. “Forest” (2008) – This installation of 21 treelike forms and 300 paper rocks is about environmental issues. Photo by Lloyd Grotjan.
  3. “Artifact” (2008) – The words of this piece are drawn with kozo fiber threads, made out of the inner bark of the mulberry tree. They depict thoughts about the role of “art” in our lives. Photo by Lloyd Grotjan.
  4. “The Guardians” (2000) – These are the guardians of the underworld. This is the companion piece with “From Here to Beyond.”
  5. “From Here to Beyond” (2000) – A series of paper boat structures on a bed of handmade paper rocks. These boats are metaphoric for the boats that lead one to the underworld. This is the companion piece to “The Guardians.”
  6. “In the Middle of the Road” (2002) – This cast paper and kozo drawing is based on a poem of the same name by Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
  7. “Cycles” (2008) – Processed leaves, silk organdy, gold leaf and stitching. This piece is part of a series about environmental issues. Photo by Lloyd Grotjan.
  8. “Vortex” (2007) – Vessel. Photo by Peter Anger.
  9. “Love Poem” (2007) – Mixed-media handmade book. Photo by Peter Anger.
  10. “Unbroken Thread” (2007) – Installation about the connection between the physical and non-physical planes. Photo by Peter Anger.

There’s a lot cooking in Professor Jo Stealey’s academic kitchen, and it isn’t food. Amid shiny stainless-steel counters, appliances and cooking pots, students receive direction from an artist who is becoming a legend in fiber arts.

The classes meet in a former industrial kitchen that served Hatch Hall before the residential facility was remodeled. Stealey’s students prepare paper pulp in a walk-in cooler and use a microwave oven to dye fibers. They work at steel preparation counters and store their gear in shiny refrigerators and freezers lined against the walls.

The unusual and surprisingly functional environment houses a nationally respected fiber arts program that Stealey has taken from simmer to sizzle.

“Jo is known nationwide in the fiber community. She’s a fiber geek,” says graduate student Nicole Ottwell.

Thirteen years ago, Stealey started a successful series of workshops in Columbia by bringing in big-name artists to expand a burgeoning local fiber-arts community. Established artists and former students — who refer to themselves as Jo’s Groupies — return for the annual workshops. “Now Jo’s the big name,” says artist Jennifer Wax, director of the 2009 fall event.   

Big name is correct. Stealey shows her works throughout the United States and internationally in juried and invitation-only exhibitions at prestigious venues. In 2008 that included seven national and three international exhibits.

Among her many distinguished honors: an exhibit at Snyderman-Works Gallery in Philadelphia, Pa., which selects only top artists worldwide; lectures and workshops presented through the international Surface Design Association; and an invited lecture and exhibit at the International Exposition of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art.

Fiber of her being

Stealey, BS ’72 art, MEd ’87, PhD ’93 art education, grew up on a Missouri dairy farm where female family members expressed themselves with fibers, as seamstresses or tailors and through knitting or needlepoint. It was women’s work that produced useable art.  

In the late 1960s, Stealey became a potter and weaver, before discovering basketry and papermaking in the early 1980s. She always has loved functional clay forms and traditional textiles, particularly baskets. By blending those interests, she developed a stunning handmade-paper vessel series that has become the hallmark of her work.

Time suspends and minutes slip into hours for Stealey when she’s creating. “It’s like meditation,” she says. Stealey experiments with ways to visually depict aspects of her experiences and her philosophy of life, so each piece becomes a window into what she thinks, dreams and sees. 

“No matter what the source of inspiration or conceptual issues that drive the work, I am searching for a visceral response that touches a place within us where no words exist to describe our emotion,” she says.

Viewers find influences of ancient ritual objects and traditions and of Mexican culture in her stunning art. For five years, Stealey designed jewelry, clothing and embroidery in a small studio in Mexico, and her everyday experiences there still shape her work. 

Common threads

Jo Stealey in the studio

Stealey is constantly working on new projects. Along with a classroom workshop and a home studio, she keeps this studio in town.

In class as her students work, Stealey walks around to check their progress and offer suggestions. “She sets up a community here that embraces you,” Ottwell says. “No idea is ever bad; it can only be expanded.”

Stealey, who began teaching at MU in 1992, suspects that her students tire of hearing her say that fiber is the “connective tissue” of all media.

She’s wrong. The students thrive on Stealey’s fiber fixation. “If I ever arrived at class tired, I would quickly be brought to life again with her energy and determination,” says fiber artist Jenny Dowd of Jackson Hole, Wyo. “The other way too; I was usually exhausted when leaving class.” 

It seems normal to fiber-arts students that a serious luncheon conversation with Stealey might center on the restaurant’s tablecloth. “No matter where you are with her, she finds something related to fiber. She never stops teaching,” Ottwell says.  

Students and peers describe Stealey as beyond perfectionistic, with an ability to recall titles, movements, exhibitions and pieces in her field. Wax says she has an amazing depth of knowledge and near-photographic memory.

Artist Leandra Spangler agrees. “Whenever we start talking about something — a photo in a magazine, a sculpture, an exhibit — Jo can name the influences that remind her of how this piece came about. ‘Do you remember the sculpture we saw in Kansas City 15 years ago?’ she may ask. I say, ‘Oh, yeah’ and go home and look it up.”

See “The Forest” through the trees 

Nature is a constant companion to Stealey, who walks among trees, plants and wildlife nearly every day, gathering materials that find their way into her studio as inspiration and sometimes into the art she produces.

Stealey and her husband, Peter La Vaute, an environmental consultant, live near Franklin, Mo., on 45 acres with pristine views of rolling hills, valleys, woodlands and the meandering Missouri River. It’s all pretty normal — except they live in a fiber house made of straw.

Hidden as insulation in the extra-deep, stucco walls of their home are 250 straw bales. The couple attended a seminar on constructing straw-bale houses a few years ago and became hooked on the green concept of building. It suits their environment.

Like many of her works, one of Stealey’s newest creations springs from her love of nature. “The Forest” — an installation of 24 trees and 300 rocks — consumed hundreds of work hours. Stealey shaped the trees of river willow and covered them with overbeaten hand-made flax and abaca paper; the tree forms appear alive and in various stages of life and decay. The rocks of various sizes and colors are a mix of flax, abaca and other plant materials.

“It is my intention that viewers walk through the forest in order to envelope themselves in the environment and ponder the role of nature in our lives,” she says. 

“The Forest” continues to evolve — reflecting, perhaps, a woodland’s constant state of change and indicating the growth of an artist.

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Reader feedback

  • It was great to read about my former classmate, Jo Stealey, and to see how far she has come with her art over the years. I'm glad for the scores of students who have and will benefit from her talent and expertise.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012