The Bite of a Crocodyke and Queering Orange Juice
interview by marina may and laura schilli
Janie Stamm, artist, activist, and late 80’s baby born in Miami Beach, Florida, has a clever way of tricking you into very useful information.
Her work is a repository for ideas rooted in the lesser known, sometimes heavy, social and ecological histories of South Florida, but she presents it with an element of kitsch that is immediately tantalizing and unabashedly vibrant. We were able to speak with her about her latest work, swimming with a crocodile named Casper, how to queer orange juice, South Florida safety tips, and that phase in life where turning jean shorts into purses was literally everything.
Marina May: Are you an Aries or a Taurus?
Janie Stamm: I’m a Taurus… I’m right at the beginning of Taurus.
MM: A cusp… Do you identify more as an Aries or a Taurus?
JS: I am a Taurus, like TO the max.
MM: Probably one of the first things I wanted to talk about was a general overview of your practice. I know that your world lies at the intersection of queer identity and ecological activism, so if you could speak more about how those two things intersect for you…
JS: I’m from Florida. I grew up in the heart of the everglades and was surrounded by all things nature. I really wasn’t too much of a people person, so I spent a lot of time outdoors and with animals. Volunteering at animal shelters – blah blah blah – I moved out of the state, went to undergrad in Georgia, then moved to Chicago and then when I was 24 I was like “Oh my god… I’m gay!” -- like what the hell how did I not realize my whole life?! – then I came here.
I’ve always been an activist my whole life. I’ve always felt compelled by climate change and then coming out as queer, queer issues, staying on top of that… and I was like how can I connect those things? I feel like the two are unfortunately perfect for each other, because they both experience significant amounts of loss and erasure. So I’m trying to figure out how to navigate that field. At the moment I’m looking at Florida specifically, because that’s what I know best. I’m trying to uncover the queer history that I never knew, while trying to keep Florida’s nature in mind in the face of climate change. Yeah so… I get to watch my home go underwater over the course of my lifetime – and it’s not just my home – but home for a lot of other people and a lot of other creatures. I want to preserve these little histories and tell these stories because they are both equally important and not enough light gets shined on them.
MM: What have you found in the histories you’re trying to preserve?
JS: Specifically relating to where I grew up in South Florida – and the same goes for major cities around the country – gentrification has pushed queer people out of their neighborhoods that they’ve established, and they’ve been forced to move further out of the city. Finding safe places in similar ways to endangered species and habitats. In south Florida people came and just bulldozed the everglades they tried to drain the everglades, murdered millions of birds, millions of other creatures, poisoned the water and the land, and these things are forced to find new places to live wherever they can. So I started noticing this trend, like the two, struggling to exist. I feel like with queer people… we know where the places are… but people outside of those communities don’t. And I feel like the same is similar for nature. If you’re not a nature-y person, and you’re living in the city, how are you to know what’s going on? How are you to feel that connection?
MM: There are a lot of things that strike me about your work. But one of the first things that I notice is your color palette. What would you say influences your decisions with color?
JS: Definitely Florida. The kitschy, eclectic, souviner-y side of Florida. FOR sure. Like I said before I was born in Miami Beach, and obviously everything, all of the pastel of the art deco buildings, the neon, everything is hot pink or orange or green, like in your face obnoxious colors. When I choose my colors I almost want it feel a theme park in a way.
MM: You do, you create really intricate environments. Crocodiles are an ever-present motif in your work. How did you come to realize the significance of the crocodile for you?
JS: South Florida is a super unique place when it comes to the natural world. Because I believe it’s the only place where crocodiles and alligators co-exist.
MM: Wait, seriously?
JS: Yeah! So alligators live primarily in fresh water and crocodiles live primarily in salt water, so there’s an interesting point in brackish water where they actually kind of roam together. But I’ve always been fascinated by the two, and snakes, because in the animal world they’re kind of othered – similar to queer people – how people tend to fear them without wanting to understand. And rightfully so, they are remnants of the dinosaurs, evolution hasn’t touched them much, except pretty much their size. But I’ve been drawn to them pretty much since I was a kid because no one really liked them so I was like “I’ll like them!! This is weird!!” and since then it’s become and obsession. I think they’re beautiful creatures.
The first time I saw a crocodile in the wild, I couldn’t believe it. I think it was about 12 feet long. I was sitting in the everglades on a dock and it just popped out of the water. It was absolutely terrifying looking because it’s just pointy faces and gnarly teeth and they’re kind of a greenish-grayish color. Pretty wild looking.
MM: How old were you?
JS: This was actually pretty recent. Like I’d seen them in zoos and everything, but I’d say it was probably four years ago that I saw one in the wild. Actually last year a crocodile surface on the beach I would go to all time with my family, Hollywood Beach, and I guess it swam up the coast, because they tend to stay further down to the tip. It was just hanging out on the beach… lurkin’.
MM: What is protocol when you see a crocodile???
JS: STAY AWAY! Basically when you go swimming in Florida, don’t swim in any water where you can’t see through the body of water. Do not go swimming Florida Bay whatever you do because if the crocodiles don’t get you, it’ll be the sharks.
MM: I’m never going to Florida, I’m so sorry. I am LITERALLY never going to Florida.
(Editor’s Note: Marina went to Florida a month after this interview)
JS: We also have cute creatures called manatees.
MM: I do love a good manatee.
JS: They pop up everywhere too. If you see a crocodile in the wild, the main thing is to keep your distance. Crocodiles and alligators, during the day, are pretty slow moving because they want to absorb as much sunlight as possible, then they’re really active at night. I would recommend, ya know, just being aware of your surroundings, and then if you do encounter one… head the other way…
Laura Schilli: How was it for you when you encountered one? Did it seem threatening, did it seem majestic?
JS: It was a little bit of everything because it was like “this thing could potentially kill me, if it wanted.” I mean I wasn’t getting in the water with it, but it was this amazing creature that I have complete respect for, and it’s just doing it’s own thing. It doesn’t want to attack me… crocodiles typically don’t attack things that are larger than their head because they can’t swallow it. Same with alligators. I fully respect them.
Well… I did a thing that that a lot of people said was really stupid… This past time I went home I went swimming with an alligator.
MM: WHAT! No.
JS: In a very controlled setting! It wasn’t like I jumped in the water, because that would be really dumb. That’s when you get fucked up. It was with an alligator rescue. And it was with one specific alligator that has been undergoing husbandry training for about 10 years.
MM: What is that?
JS: it’s when you familiarize an animal with a person and teach it commands or form a bond, communication, all that stuff. I watched the alligator respond to it’s name like a dog, and I was like “No way…”
MM:… What… was its name?
JS: Its name was Casper.
MM: Get out!!! That’s so good!
LS: So cute!!!
JS: He was, I think, about 8 feet long. But it was so incredible swimming in the water with him. It was a dream come true for me.
LS: Did he interact with you?
JS: No, it was a totally hands-off experience. But I was wearing a weighted belt, so I could sit at the bottom of the pool. I was laying down and he swam over me, and I was like “Woah.” They don’t use their legs, it’s all tail.
LS: Can I ask how your experience, hanging with these alligators in Florida has influenced your practice? What’s it been like since you’ve been back?
JS: I feel totally re-energized. I actually brought this alligator home with me [a near lifesize paper mache alligator], and when I went to swim with the alligator, I was like “Hey, I make a lot of alligator art, and I was wondering if I could take a picture with this next to an alligator?” Seeing my alligator next to a real alligator, was just… beyond words. Obviously, they looked very different, but I was like “Yep, I’m doing the right thing.” The real alligator could’ve cared less. But I was like “Couldn’t you just bite the tail, so it can be a collaborative piece???”
MM: You wanna collab Casper? You and me?
JS: It’ll be big! We’ll be stars! I brought it to the everglades, right where the everglades meets the ocean on Florida Bay, and just photographed it while the sun was setting, and I was just like “Oh my god, my art needs to be in the wild.” I never realized how much it was designed to be in nature. It never crossed my mind until I saw it out there. So just keeping in mind that my work, maybe its place isn’t necessarily to be viewed on a gallery wall, maybe its place is nature. I’ve been thinking about that relationship, and how I can possibly explore avenues there.
I did start a mini project while I was back home, that doesn’t have to do with alligators. I was at the beach with my mom and we were staying at this little hotel, and the sun was setting and I was just walking along as the tide was going out. I was just doodling in the sand with a stick and I was like “Omg I’m going to start writing messages… How do I queer the beach?” And you know gay beaches exist, but why can’t the whole beach be gay? Or for everyone? So, I started writing little things like “gay beach” or “lonely little queer,” and then I wrote “beach reserved for Friends of Dorothy.” Which, if you were to ask somebody in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, if you were a Friend of Dorothy, that’s code for asking if you’re gay, in order to protect yourself so you wouldn’t get beaten up or killed. I kind of liked the idea of the impermanence of it. Because moments later the ocean would come and wipe it away, but it existed for a moment in time and I saw it. So I documented all of these messages, and I’m translating them into little embroidery pieces, which I would like to turn into a book of some kind.
MM: That’s a really good segue into my next question. You work a lot with embroidery and textiles. I may be off base, but I feel like there is a moment in reclaiming embroidery and reclaiming, especially for people that identify as female, working in a more traditionally feminine medium. Is that something that you’re thinking about?
JS: Oh absolutely! My grandma taught me how to sew when I was a little kid. She was the one that introduced me to the act of making a crafting. So I would keep up with sewing. I would make stuffed animals and presents for my friends. I went through a phase in 9th grade where I turned jean shorts into purses… and my parents still have them unfortunately. I was doing that into high school, but then when I got to college I was like “This isn’t real art. I’m not doing this anymore.” And I completely stopped. I think I went 8 or 9 years without sewing before I realized that I needed to go back to making things. I really enjoy making things by hand. I never really used a sewing machine that much. I liked doing individual stitching and seeing an exposed stitch and detail, using felt, super accessible materials.
Then when I got here, I was in kind of a weird place, because I didn’t know what in my practice I wanted to focus on. Then I started sewing again and was like “Oh my god this IS real art.” Craft matters. Craft is just as important. Craftspeople are important. The tradition of passing down the act of sewing is priceless. It really is. It’s something that’s so traditional, and in every single culture. Passing down that knowledge. I feel lucky that my grandma was the one to show me how to do it, and I hope I can do the same for others. Maybe not necessarily my future generations, but other kids, other people who are interested in learning. I’m very much about going back to women’s work.
JS: The piece I’m making now is going to be a quilt. It’s definitely in that same realm of matriarchal arts. I don’t know if that’s a real thing.
MM: That’s a class at Hogwarts, matriarchal arts. How are the crocodiles constructed?
JS: These are paper mache. I’m in this super intense craft kick now. I feel like I don’t see as much of it in museums and galleries as I’d like to, but when I do see it, I’m like “Yes! This is what I’m itching for.” I love getting dirty and doing something so simple -- It’s taught at a very young age – and seeing what I can do with it. I’m actually going to be teaching at a summer camp in Michigan. I’m going to be teaching kids how to make large scale paper mache animals.
MM: How did you find that?!
JS: They found me! Through Instagram! I didn’t know that happened!
MM: That’s how I got my job… haha
JS: It’s crazy right?
MM: In addition to being multifaceted, it feels like they’re also very fun.
JS: I know! And the great thing about using paper mache and felt and beads and sewing, I love how tactile my work can be. I always encourage people, especially kids, when they come into my studio or see my work in the wild, to please touch this. Feel it. Because I know there’s sometimes that wall in those art spaces, and understandably so, but I was people to form a different connection with my art.
MM: I think particularly your piece with the velour backing, with the lips and orange on it, I noticed that was something that I wanted to touch… actively…
JS: That’s something when I display it, I’m like… touch this… I put this fabric for a reason.
MM: It’s so striking! And seductive. I think that works so well with your imagery. Everything you use is tactile. Even that juicy orange up there, that’s this beautiful pom.
JS: I learn through touch. And if these materials get dirty it’s not the end of the world, if they get messed up, it becomes part of the story, the history of the piece.
MM: It’s interesting too because, again, your work is dealing with recorded histories and things that are ephemeral and fleeting. Having those marks and interactions is a record of that. Which is… very cool.
LS: I can’t help but think that the materials that you use to make the reptiles, paper mache and fabric in the mouths… it’s almost like you’re representing it as this friendly creature. Even your drawings, the snakes, they just look like these sweet, friendly creatures. Some of them have a glimmer in their eyes, and a smile that you can see.
JS: Yeah, going back to talking about othering. I don’t see them as other. I see them as existing and doing exactly as nature is telling them to do and they’re not born evil. I want to people to see them the way I see them – in this friendly, almost like cutesy, fun, type of way.
MM: About the harness orange… can you talk a little bit about the use of the harness?
JS: The collar that I’m wearing right now is the collar that “started it all.” It’s by this amazing, queer designer out of Chicago, whose name is Nat – online goes by glitternatkink. So it’s a locally made, femme-owned business. I bought the collar a couple years ago and I had never really purchased anything like this, and when I put it on, I felt like a whole new person. It energized me and made me feel super confident.
JS: This is a little segue… so in Florida, the orange has a really… fucked up history. Orange juice has this really dark homophobic past. In the 70s, Florida orange juice commission – I believe that’s what it’s called, slightly different name, I think – hired this person name Anita Bryan, and she was this beauty queen and Christian singer, and she became the face of Florida orange juice. In the 70s Miami-Dade county passed legislation that was absolutely way ahead of its time and would basically protect its LGBT workers from discrimination. Anita Bryan who was very conservative was like “No, no, no… this can’t be. This is bad.” She started this organization called Save Our Children and went around saying “All gay people are the devil, and we’re gonna indoctrinate your children and turn them queer!” and all this disgusting stuff. She traveled the country with the same thing, and the state of Florida never really acknowledged that any of that happened. Eventually she was let go by the orange juice growers, but her hate had absolutely just ripped through the country. Anywhere with any type of legislation – that was gone. I believe it wasn’t until the late 90’s when Miami-Dade was able to enact a similar legislation that would protect it’s workers. It was twenty plus years of the rippling after effects.
I’ve been in this mindset of “How do I queer orange juice?” kind of talking about queering the beach. How do I queer orange juice and make it for everyone? I wanted it to be super inclusive. So I’m just like… I’m just going to make orange juice really gay. I started putting the collar I was wearing from Nat on these oranges, and just kinked it up a bit. Ya know? I had people ask me all the time, like what is this, what does this mean? And then I get to tell people about Anita Bryan – I do my spiel – and then people find out information that they never knew before! She was a big figure in Florida, but outside of that, and outside of the gay community, not a lot of people from my generation know who she is.
MM: I absolutely had no idea about any of that history. None.
JS: It’s challenging sometimes with my work, because it’s so rooted in research and history and I can’t present a four million page book with every piece I make. But if I get the opportunity to explain, I am more than happy to share that information.
MM: Right, I think that’s super important because at least in my opinion, the art that sticks with me for years, is art that transmits or enacts some kind of social change. It might not be something evident, it might not be Glen Ligon’s America backwards, but it’s something that’s a signifier that I can think of and sit with, then go back and understand more.
JS: Absolutely! One of the things I do with my work -- because I know a lot of this history some people might find boring, but I think it’s pretty heavy stuff – I try to lure people in with the bright colors, with familiar imagery, Florida symbology. Oranges, alligators, crocodiles, palm trees, ultra-brights, using green carpeting. Usually they’ll come over and then if they want to know more I can further explain.
MM: With this piece too, I was kind of looking at it, and I was thinking about – and it’s interesting to hear you talk about the very specific historical precedent for it – because I was getting, obviously kink, but I was getting this forbidden knowledge, an encasement, a protection by virtue of the mosquito net. You’re preventing information from getting somewhere or there’s a barrier.
JS: This mosquito net piece and this jacket right here, were inspired by this horrific pamphlet I found the state of Florida produced in the early 60s. It was a survey of homosexuality in the state and it was all this language that was collected by legislators, priests, police officers, talking about “what the gays do” and in the back of it is a listing of all of the crimes gays commit, but also the code words that the gay community used – a lot of which I had never heard of, and a lot which are down right offensive. This idea of language penetrating people and the idea of protecting queerness from… that garbage.
MM: It’s interesting coming in with not as much of a familiarity, seeing work that’s accessible and multidimensional. It’s tantalizing, the fruit is tantalizing in and of itself. The color choice draws you in, and then you’re suckered in to this knowledge.
JS: You’re in my little world… There’s one other thing that I wanted to talk about. I find that it’s very important, at least for me to talk about, because I hope that somebody can hear it. Before I came to grad school, I had stopped making art for three years. I was very depressed and working as an artist assistant and then just totally crashed. I did that right after school and it destroyed me. But I think it’s important for me to talk about acknowledging that it’s okay not to make art all the time. It was actually the snakes that pulled me out of my funk.
MM: Really! Do tell.
JS: I was really… just broken that I couldn’t make art. Everything I was making just felt really forced. So I was like, what if I just did a drawing a day to hold myself accountable? I’ve always loved drawing snakes, since I was in high school. I’ll just do a snake a day, that’s pretty easy. Then it turned into this ultra healing project. After I was done, I had two notebooks that are just full of snake drawings and it just opened my world up and I applied to grad school… and here I am! It really changed my life.
MM: How did you decide that pursing a career in art, or furthering it, was something you were going to do?
JS: I’ve always been a collector and a maker. Since forever. This is just my studio, but my house is very curated. Almost like a museum. I love the idea of creating, creating spaces and by pursing higher education and my career in the arts – I allowed myself a moment of validation. It’s okay to do exactly what I want. Like with the sewing, with the paper mache. I don’t have to do it a specific way. I can cater this to my needs and make it exactly how I want. There are literally no rules.
MM: And if someone tells you there’s a rule you can tell them to fuck off.
LS: I want to close this by having you tell listeners and readers where they can find you!
My Instagram is glitterpuppies
If you want to send me an email it’s email@example.com … very creative when it comes to naming things.