Bioneers Interview | Artist Joel Dean Stockdill is a brilliant and creative innovator...

Artist Joel Dean Stockdill is a brilliant and creative innovator whose work will be featured on the #Bioneers2017 grounds. We sat down with him to discuss his history, latest projects, and visions for the future.

Who are you? How would you describe yourself?

I am a human undergoing a personal revolution.

What does revolution mean to you?

In the most basic sense of the word, a complete upheaval. A complete core shift change to the way I engage with the world. To be more specific, it’s like the process of going through a near death experience, and all the things that led up to that. Engaging my life from that day forward in a different manner – a personal apocalypse in a very real way. It meant rebuilding this sense of who I was, and getting to reclaim what felt like, with the new insights, the me I wanted to be. The me I never had the space or courage to be before.

Where are you from? Where do you work?

Born in Minot North Dakota, 1982. I work wherever I find (or seek) myself.

Where do you call home? 

In 2015 I renounced a sense of permanent location. Previously I held studio space on Treasure Island (bldg180)(World Headquarters) for 8 years. My family lives mainly in Colorado and my documents address me there.

How has renouncing a permanent sense of location impacted who you are today? The art you’re producing, the way you interact with the world?

I was traveling so much that the space I was occupying in SF was, at one point, just completely unnecessary. More than that, what I really discovered, was that the more I started traveling/working out of a suitcase with battery operated tools or finding the necessary elements as I went (in the same way I approach materials for my pieces), I realized it was all excess. Leaving the Bay was a profound jumping off point.

When you leave a house/studio, even if you have a subletter or are figuring out how to make ends meet/you’re not being financially drawn from, there’s an energetic draw. You have an agreement with that place. I always felt this place drawing me back, thoughts or energy or the idea of needing to be back maintaining it. And I did! You take on responsibility in a place – the mail is piling up somewhere. The absence of you is a something, somewhere. That just started to not make sense at all to me. So, I threw myself into a new unknown, a new abyss.

What I found immediately is once I lost that draw from places expecting my energy, I was released in a huge way. It made different space available, and that sense of home was found in other ways – I was forced to find it where I was. It’s been huge. The sense of what community is to me has shifted drastically through that process.

I’m not traveling as a tourist for any of this. I’m with a production company, or a community spending on a project. With that style of travel you’re involved in a network, in something different. Because we’re always pushing to do reclaimed artwork, finding materials/hanging out in scrapyards, we’re not traveling the way other people do. We’re labor class travelers, picking junk up on the streets! The global world has such a different relationship with material. In Nairobi, there are entire districts and towns that are collecting, refinishing, remaking “junk” into useful things – it’s not just a kitschy thing people do. It’s an old industry, a whole section of the world. This is the idea – trash is a resource, not just an artistic message we’re sending.

When/how did you begin your journey as an artist?

Birth. My life has always been a pursuit of creative expression. As an adult my practice of sculpture developed when 3 friends and I embarked on a lease of warehouse/gallery space at the age of 23 in Breckenridge, CO at the 4/5 gallery.

My history as an artist is based in performance art, in theatre and song, it was my first outlet. I always drew and sketched and made little weird assemblages, but until I had real building skills I didn’t build big sculptures. Traveling performers doing theatre made their way to North Dakota when I was a kid and it changed my life big time. It’s part of what inspired me to bring this art back to the community.

Why do you use these particular mediums/canvases? 

Referring to my sculptural use of primarily found waste and repurposed material – I find that all material carries an energy or a story, and that the stories told by new or factory/industrial/consumer materials are bland and boring by comparison. There are infinite benefits beyond this simple energetic difference.


Could you speak more on this energy and story telling? How and where do you find these materials? How do you know which is right for the conversation?

My family comes from low income, and my dad was a woodworker/carpenter. He loved refinishing old furniture, going to yard sales, buying junk, and transforming it. I saw his appreciation for those materials and for these old hardwoods he couldn’t afford to buy new. He knew their value, appreciated their craftsmanship, and put all his energy and love into stripping the paint and those years away. As a kid I always had that waft of furniture stripper in my house, and I guess that sort of sticks around in your brain as an idea.

To build large scale wooden structures, you need really good quality lumber, and massive quantities of it. I had to use creative ways to find these materials, and one of them was scaffolding planks. Giant companies building sky rises have massive amounts of scaffolding in the yards, old wooden planks from a couple decades back that, in their day, were the strongest material available. They were the heartwood without any knots or bows that were waked on for a hundred thousand days by a hundred thousand laborers, sweating for their families and for themselves. All that energy, all those footsteps, are in that wood. Like any envisionist speaking through natural materials, they have a life, an energy, and we embed them with our own thoughts when we work with them. These scaffolding planks have kept thousands of people afloat in the air while they were building massive structures. There’s a magic and a story to each of those boards, what they’ve been through, and what they’ve experienced from a tree to that.  All it takes is reaching out to people, and reimagining our materials differently.

Bay Bridge steel is a perfect example. There are thousands upon thousands of scrap steel yards all across California that have comparable steel any of these artists who are now working with Bay Bridge steel could have gotten at any time, but suddenly there’s a piece of history available to make art with. People get it – this isn’t a strange concept! The material has a story, and it goes down to every level. Whether you think it or not, an aluminum can has a story – it came out of our earth. There’s a whole world behind every piece of our waste. We think we value them by recycling them, but we’re just selling off the responsibility of refining it to someone who’s willing to put energy into it. It’s a complex thing and it goes pretty deep. But in a simpler sense, everything has a story.

Do you work alone? In collaboration?

Both. Although much of my practice is learning the dance of collaboration and teamwork. (For the record, autocorrect interpreted the above phrase ‘learning the dance of collaboration’ as “leading the ancestors.” This seems relevant to the question. And reminds me of the old idea that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.)

Working within groups, most of these animals are built in a matter of weeks and are massive undertakings. Reworking these materials takes many many hands and hours! I’m so indebted to my incredible crew who are sacrificing usually their life, time, skin, and blood because they believe in this or want to engage, learn, or for whatever reason. I can’t do it myself and that’s the beautiful thing. It forces me to be a teacher, to be learning constantly how to create/collaborate better, to be a better lead, boss, and partner.

Tell us about your process. Where do you find inspiration?

My process varies wildly depending on the project- my architectural work would for instance involves much different means than say….Wild Life.

Wild Life is an ongoing exploration of process which conjures native, animal forms using discarded material found locally. This is a cycle rooted in intuitive or freestyle sculpture – meaning I’ll draw inspiration from every possible source in the moment of creation. The vantage point of this style of figurative work gives all sourced material suddenly a context of ‘BODY’; meaning that shovels become ears quite simply in the mind. Sinks become eye sockets and pot lids-pupils. Strong thick material becomes bone and tendon. Thin light sheets become muscle.


I let each piece develop from the experience of visiting the land. I try not to make any agreements or sketches, or decide what animal to build until I arrive on the land and let the experience inform it. That means engaging with the people there, hearing about what local animals are at risk or endangered or old species that are extinct. There are stories everywhere you go, and there are different lands that have a strong presence of a certain animal that I would want to pay homage to. Some countries I didn’t know the species so I’d research, but if I was familiar with the animal already, I would do my best to not ever look at photos or do google searches. The idea is that it’s my connection/relationship with the animal, and how it shows itself to me. It’s a way of relearning how to speak to the natural environment again. It’s a month long building process, an intuitive message, a month long way to say thank you. I develop circumstances that let me give the responsibility of design to them. They tell me how they want to look.

At the 2017 Bioneers Conference, one of the topics we’ll be exploring is the role of art in the social imagination. What role do you think art plays in “the birth of a new civilization”?

Art will descend from the pedestal and gallery to reclaim its home in the heart of every community. Connecting humans to each other, to the land/elements/natural world, including our collective material waste products. Using all the related senses (visual art, music, theater, story etc…) to process the traumas and triumphs of this connection locally.

How does your work engage in these global conversations?

As directly and as diversely as possible. For instance:

The Trace was born of the experience of recognizing my own distaste for continuing to invest energy into parties and/or highly privileged environments. The Trace is bringing the process discussed in the wildlife cycle to engage human interaction specific to each place. The basic metaphor of re valuing our waste ripples out into every aspect of this work, working with (crew) members of each community that have been cast aside or carry social traumas is a major element meant to offer an intuitive creative healing process, and simply provide fun creative opportunities/perspectives and skills to those who might not see all their options or strengths.

I am also producing a new series of talks with artists and dreamers to connect people in my broad global community who have incredible and diverse voices. The basic concept is to explore the question: how can art possibly change anything? The answer to this question burns in the hearts of myself and the people whose voices I wish to provide a forum for, speaking to specific ways people have been affected by creativity, and connecting them to people in each community that deal with similar issues/challenges from different perspectives.

The series is currently being produced with the help of the Shasta County Arts Council in Redding, CA, and will air on public access tv/internet content that will grow and expand as this project advances. The idea is to not only bring these ideas to each community, but to highlight each project as a small piece of a bigger picture.

There’s also a larger vision to create a physical location, an outpost, a space in each place that would live on to provide jobs collecting/restoring raw materials for building art and/or community needs, tool libraries, for cross pollinating skills (specifically local crafts or long held traditions), workshops and public engagement spaces, trash currencies, basic emergency preparedness resources, and ‘ARTIST’ residencies.

Is there anything folks can do to support?

It’s still expanding this idea of intuitive process – I want these connections and bookings to happen from communities we’re all connected to, whether it’s me, my crew, or someone we know in another part of the country who knows of a beautiful way this could play out in their community. This is grassroots. I want to keep it grounded in the moment, but the way people can help has been beautifully explained on The Trace’s website. We’d love to hear anyone’s comments. I love feedback, and I know a lot of these things are happening in other ways in other communities.

Keeping it simple, close to the earth is a key element. At least in this first iteration.

Where can people find your art?

I have animals/sculpture still roaming in Portugal, London, Victoria Aus, Chon Buri Thailand, Dublin Ireland, Nairobi Kenya, Florida, Redding…


What do you want the Bioneers community to know about you?

I am very much looking forward to the interactions with you all and to LISTEN. And learn from what you all have to share!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

All this unraveling is, at its core, simply the letting go of solving the/any Great Mystery, and learning to become involved in it.

Honor, love, and gratitude.