For an innovative law clerk-turned-artist, there was little trial and error necessary
Stacey Mandell is a fast learner. In 2017, the 54-year-old Boca Raton resident picked up a paintbrush for the first time in her life. Two years later, she was fresh off her first solo gallery exhibition in Miami.
The show, which ran for three months at Hialeah Art Gallery at Miami-Dade College, featured more than a dozen pieces completed over this fruitful period. Most of them are examples of word art, but not in the literal tradition. Mandell’s paintings “speak” primarily in Gregg Shorthand, an elegant form of abbreviated writing that has lost its utility with the development of the Dictaphone, the word processor, the audio recorder, the smartphone.
For instance, her 9.5-by-16-foot “To Our Younger Self” is a collection of positive affirmations painted entirely in the loping, buxom swirls of Gregg Shorthand, all running together like a crazy mathematician’s sprawling equation. Translated in person by Mandell, they say things like, “make goodness attractive” and “act before thought” and “I believe in you,” but for most people admiring the forms, they may as well be gazing at Sanskrit.
“I wanted to put it all out there, subliminally, just to make you feel good,” she says.
It’s easy to feel good in Mandell’s presence, because she radiates what she preaches in her work. She laughs heartily and often, and wears self-made shirts featuring uplifting shorthand characters. Her hairstyle, a cheery, ombré flow of premature grey into a signature purple, could be in a salon catalog.
Though she is new to the contemporary art world, Mandell had been thinking about creating art with shorthand forms for 20 years. She learned the style after college, in her native Illinois, when she found a job in the clerical field. At her peak, she could write 160 words per minute. She continued to employ shorthand as a legal secretary in the 1980s, and throughout her tenure in law school.
Mandell became a law clerk, a solid and lucrative career that lasted until the mid-2010s, when Mandell’s husband, Lenny, an associate dean at her law school, was struck with a host of maladies. The couple moved to the more hospitable climate of Boca Raton, where Mandell became Lenny’s full- time caregiver and, concurrently, an artist.
She took a class in abstract art at the Boca Raton Museum Art School, always with the intent to infuse the work with shorthand diction.
“My instructor’s job was to essentially get rid of the structure of whatever’s going on in my brain,” she says. “As an attorney you’re very structured, and think linearly. With abstract, you want to just be able to express emotions with form, with color, with texture, and different kinds of surfaces. … That’s what she really helped me figure out.”
Mandell has already begun evolving, creating word paintings in Spanish and Braille. She has even integrated figurative forms related to writing, like the oversized, painted steno pad that has served as a canvas-atop-a-canvas for a number of evocative works.
“I thought about bringing people together—common experiences, shared experiences,” she says. “It’s easy to see we have a division in this country. For some reason, society likes one or the other—Republican or Democrat. Winner or loser. That’s not how I think or how I feel. I love the nuances, the in-between.
“One of the things I said in my artist statement is that we have more in common than we think,” she adds. “For me, it was always, ‘we’re all feeling a little bit closer because we went to this exhibit together. Even though we don’t know each other, we experienced it.’ I love that.”
Art is a visual language and Stacey Mandell’s art is language made visible, art that speaks to you. Stacey Mandell’s art lives in the pantheon of great word artists, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha, Tracey Emin, and like some of those, her ideas and aesthetic flows across several media from paintings to installations. This is work that is deep and multi-layered. But if you never get past the surface, you’ll have a very pleasurable visual experience. The pictures are wonderfully composed, balanced in color and form, clear and bold. You can tell there is more going on, that each detail is highly considered and composed. There is most definitely an order and logic to this. As you explore deeper, you discover that there is a narrative and now you get to re- discover the work all over again.
The central concept isn’t contained by the surface or borders of the wall or the canvas; that is the portal that draws you into a story, an idea, a moment of history or an expression of mind and emotion that cannot be contained just within words or pictures. She touches on important issues of the human condition, and her work is overwhelmingly positive. In her large wall installation, If Love is the Sun, Gratitude is the Moon, the red form in the middle is the central theme: “The world is linked together by love and gratitude.” Above the form for “linked” is the piece, Sun; below the form for “linked” is the piece, Moon. Sun has a background of maple trees (a symbol of love) with the sun breaking through the trees; Moon has a background of the moon.
Interestingly, for a visual artist that uses words in the form of shorthand, she also sometimes incorporates the actual utilitarian object, the shorthand pad. In This is not a blank Steno Pad, the artist writes:
“It is blank, but not blank. This steno pad represents a history, a point in time, a way of life, a culture, an everyday object, a universal object, but also an object that unites everyone in that we all have used a pad from time to time. It represents technology; it is blank because of technology, no one uses it for its intended purpose anymore. It represents the beautiful art of stenography, the art of writing in shorthand; and it represents the dying art of a beautiful, phonetic language. And all of the other representations that you and everyone else can think of are in this piece.
After I painted the steno pad, I was going to write (in shorthand, of course) life lessons for everyone. But every time I thought about writing on it, I stopped. I could not bring myself to write on this one—my first. I finally realized this one meant more than anything I could express with shorthand.”
Like many great artists, this her second act; the business career path behind her, she arrived as an artist as a fully formed, experienced person with a strong desire to create and communicate. And wow, did she hit the ground running! A strong work ethic combined with a fiery motivation and inspiration have propelled her in just a couple of years from a novice to an accomplished artist who has already been in numerous exhibitions and has received strong critical attention.