Fruit, Female Sexuality and Instagram Trolls: In Conversation With Artist Stephanie Sarley

The female voice is finally being heard. #METOO, #TIMESUP, women are taking back their bodies and shattering the glass ceiling and Oakland-based artist Stephanie Sarley has unapologetically inserted herself into the conversation with her provocative fruit art video series that has taken Instagram by storm. Although the platform itself has tried to censor her work, even going as far as disabling her account, Stephanie continues to use fruit as an expression of sexuality, seeing the humor in its depiction, and begging the question, “can fruit be porn?”

We had the opportunity to catch up with Stephanie to talk feminism, sexuality, censorship, and her upcoming exhibit at The San Diego Art Institute.

Art Zealous: For our readers who are not familiar with your work, tell us about what you do and how you got started?

Stephanie Sarley: I’m a multimedia fine artist best known for my fruit art video series and photographs Cream Cup and Grapefruit. Art has always been a part of my life. Coming from Berkeley and a family of artists in the Bay Area, they would routinely take me to San Francisco museums, and I would “draw from the masters” as my mom always said. My grandpa was also a big part of my artistic growth, he was a wonderful artist. My father is a storyboard artist who worked on a lot of big Hollywood movies, and my mom directed a “Women in a Film” festival that gained notoriety in the late 80’s.

By the time I was a pre-teen I already knew I was an artist. I was always going to punk shows and local galleries. I really excelled in art classes and moved on as an adult to have many mentors and apprenticeships in printmaking and stone sculpture. I also dabbled in tattoo arts for a little while. I studied intaglio and etching for years at Laney College, Oakland which is a hidden gem of a school. Later, I began working in digital arts.

A few years after I studied printmaking I self-published a coloring book, Dick Dog and Friends, with San Francisco’s legendary Last Gasp. I started my Instagram account to gain traction for my new book and [to get] exposure for my work. I wanted to open up new channels for myself and tap into the limitless possibilities of the internet.

AZ: What inspired you to express sexuality through food and how do you select the foods you work with?

SS: The process of selecting the foods for my pieces is one of the most enjoyable parts, I even incorporate it into my work with my shopping video compilations! I go around to markets and grocery stores looking for the ripest or the strangest shaped fruits and veggies, I’ll collect them at home. Sometimes I already know what I want to do to a fruit or veggie, but sometimes the expressions really come to me while I’m filming, and it comes out more interesting that way. Some pieces are more planned like my Mango Slit piece or the Cream Cup like food sculptures.

What inspired using my sexuality in my work, besides my knack for seeing humor in sexuality, is the lack of representation of women in art and everywhere. Domesticity and different stereotypical archetypes of woman inspire me. The myth of the forbidden fruit and the association of food and femininity historically [also inspires me]. Fruits and veggies also have an uncanny resemblance to the human form. The absurdity of fetishization in all its ridiculousness is referenced a lot in my works, also with my surrealistic ink pieces and fruit art videos and photography.

AZ:  Would you say your work is an expression of your sexuality?

SS: Not particularly, but to some degree my work is very personal.  A lot of it is inspired by things I’ve seen and learned or that interest me or I’ll use a sexual theme to convey an idea. When I’m making a lemon squirt or fisting a pumpkin that doesn’t mean I’m all about fisting. I guess in those terms, no, it’s not a direct expression of my sexuality. I treat my artistic process very strategically sometimes by asking myself, “How can I work with this fruit to manipulate its textures to do what I want?” “How do these textures work together, how does this ooze or squirt to make this pop open in this certain way to portray a concept?”

AZ: Talk to us about the female gaze. Art has long been dominated by the fetishism and sexualization of women, where do you see your work in the conversation?

SS: Yes, art has long been dominated by men, for men, painting idealistic nudes with “muses.” The female gaze for me is seeking to obtain a space for myself to express my power and femininity without shame however that is, even if it’s different. My standards don’t have to be defined by what the socio-normative ways people think a woman should be. It’s about paving your own identity in spaces dominated by toxic masculinity and false ideals. I work to challenge the concept of the muse and the perception of women’s sexuality. Now it’s the woman who creates the art, who is the art too. In parodying porn clickbait culture and female archetypes with many of my fruit art videos, I’m reclaiming an authentic representation of my womanhood and female sexuality from the objectification of women and the male gaze.

AZ: Your work has been censored and plagiarized. What did it feel like to have your account taken down by Instagram and how do you feel about people copying your work?

SS: Yeah, not having the best time with it. I also have a lot of actual copyright infringements I deal with too often, on the daily, and a few right now even. I go through the DMCA process with takedown forms. I deal with celebrity accounts or brands trying to make money or exploit my material. I had to get a lawyer. The plagiarism can be really infuriating if the person or artist copying me is in a large position of privilege, which has happened to me, but they’re copying me, so I always hope that the right people are in the know about what’s up when they see it. If it’s fan art or just an imitator, it can be fun. I get a lot of students and artists sighting my work as inspiration for their new art. I also get videos and photos sent to me all the time that are hilarious.

AZ: You’ve been targeted by Instagram bullies. Have these experiences impacted your work?

SS: There are so many trolls. I get memed a lot and it has definitely shaped the conversation around my work. I try to not let the trolls get to me too much, I just block them if they bother me. Some of the comments are pretty entertaining.

AZ: Your work recalls artists like Judy Chicago, Betty Tompkins, and Peter Kaaden – what artists have inspired your work? Would you call yourself a vagina artist?

SS: Not just a vagina artist, but with my fruit art videos and photography series along with my previous works Orcunts and Crotch Monsters, I can see why it might seem that way. I have explored many different themes and spent most of my artistic development not depicting vulva imagery that I feel the title might understate my range of mediums, styles, and subject matters. I drew mostly grotesque portraiture and surrealism before 2013. Most of my work is not made public for exhibition. Currently, I’m focusing on vagina art and it’s really important for me to represent that in my work.

AZ: You are not exclusively a video artist, can you tell us more about the mediums you’ve explored throughout your career.

SSYes, I’ve worked in many mediums. Graphite is probably one of my favorites and is the bulk of my early work. I still draw in my sketchbooks filling them up every season. I also have worked in gouache, and was briefly a tattoo artist. I worked in intaglio and some lithography. I spent many years working with a teacher/ mentor at Laney College, and also learned portraiture and dabbled in ceramics. At that time I took up an apprenticeship with a well-known stone sculptor and carved a classical portrait of Homer while helping him detail his capitals for finishing. Soon after, I took up digital arts and worked on a nice digital tablet producing a large series of handmade digital paintings. I also studied animation and GIF making along with transparencies and 3D rendering. I then went on to video art and photography.

AZ: You are a self-taught artist, do you feel like you struggled to get your footing in the art world and when do you feel your career took off?

SS: I don’t call myself a self-taught artist considering I grew up studying art, had apprenticeships, mentorships, and art schooling. It’s not always possible for artists to go to a prestigious art school. There are alternative routes to get your art seen and represented properly and the internet is a great but unconventional place for that. My career started to take off more around 2016 when the public and press started to pay attention to my work with the censorship and meanings behind it.

AZ: You have been shown in two museums and have an upcoming show at the San Diego Art Institute, how does it make you feel to be recognized and exhibit in a traditional institution?

SS: It feels great! It validates the impact my art made and means the world to me. I grew up wishing my art would be recognized by museum institutions and now it’s happening and I couldn’t be happier about that. All three of the exhibitions resonate with my work uniquely. The Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig’s Virtual Normality is about feminism, digital staging, and the term “post social media art.” The Museum Jan Cunen’s exhibition, We Are Food, is about regional gastronomy, sustainability, anti-food waste, and the art of food and still lifes. The San Diego Art Institute is having a show called Tendrement, [exploring] nostalgia, prolonged avoidance, familiarity and discomfort through uncensored ideas.

AZ: What does National Women’s Month mean to you, more importantly, what does feminism mean to you?

SS: Women’s Month means examining how far we’ve come, but more importantly how far we have to go. Sometimes the day feels subjugating because women are half the population and a day feels trivializing somewhat. But it has an important historical context that shouldn’t be forgotten. Feminism is a powerful movement that is transformative and intersectional that I’m proud to be a part of.

AZ: How can people collect your work? Is it for sale?

SS: Yes, my work is for sale when I’m exhibiting at galleries or I take inquiries for consideration. I do commissions and license my work.

Be sure to follow Stephanie on Instagram.


all images // courtesy of the artist