When she’s not practicing her harp, tending horses on a farm near Asheville, North Carolina, or reading up on therapeutic astrology, Stephanie Pharr, one of the few promising young performance artists in Atlanta, is looking for ways creativity can uncover personal truths.
This precocious 26-year-old — refreshingly thoughtful and perhaps even unaware of her raw talent — conjures up enigmatic, symbolic worlds of her own invention, which she seamlessly blurs with daily life. As evident in the mesmerizing “Performing Safely,” a work in tandem with artist Sandra-Lee Phipps, the lithe and ethereal Pharr balances steadfast concentration with childlike imagination, creating an effect that is as whimsical as it is otherworldly.
It takes most art school graduates years to slough off the theoretical art world residue that accumulates after hours spent critiquing, churning out artist statements and relentless self-evaluating. But Pharr, who earned a BFA in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta in 2010, somehow managed to emerge unscathed: just three years later, she seems to be fully tapping into her innermost reservoirs of self-knowledge and expression.
As with many photographers turned performers, Pharr’s earliest performances grew out of a practice of photographing herself as subject matter. Supported by professors who recognized her talent early on, she began developing her personal, conceptually anchored work.
She is drawn to artists, mostly women, who make unself-conscious work born out of an immediate relationship to their personal experiences. As for those who influence her — Sophie Calle, Claude Cahun and Atlanta’s Kiki Blood — human vulnerability is a driving force, purposefully channeled as it intersects with Pharr’s experiences, both in her past and while she’s performing.
Until this year, you might not have noticed Pharr unless you were an avid follower of the now-dismantled Back Pockets, Atlanta’s neo-punkster theatrical musical group led by the exuberant Emily Kempf. The Back Pockets were an unusual combination of eccentric dream-rock mixed with highly ritualized performance art, often steeped in pseudo-religious, art-historical or literary iconography.
To the wild energy of the Back Pockets’ music, Pharr and her collaborators presented surprisingly robust theatrical performances, fueling the shows with strangely pulsating energy. At their knockout performance at “Love Like a Devil’s Handshake,” an impromptu evening of performance at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in 2011, Pharr and artist Orion Crook emerged before a captivated audience as an eerily composed Adam-and-Eve-meet-“American Gothic” duo who ultimately shed their prescribed roles in a frenzy of existential chaos.
Pharr spent her childhood in motion, seldom remaining in the same city, state or country — Virginia, Kansas, Germany and finally Georgia — for longer than two years. Always the new kid, she reacted as many children would. “I went inside of myself,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time in my head, and I think that has a lot to do with how I express myself now with my work.”
In response to the constant upheaval and change in her youth, Pharr challenges her aversion to sameness by choreographing endurance pieces built on repetition, which, along with her unwavering concentration, induce a meditative state that helps her enter and ultimately become engulfed in the performance.
This deep internality, one of her strengths, fuels performances with an intensity and conviction rare among performers her age. “I perform until I’m not performing anymore,” she says.
She considers performance an opportunity to be transparent onstage. Her work is more about tapping into a deeper version of herself than about creating a character — not an easy task before a live audience.
Pharr utilizes her part-time job figure modeling for drawing classes at Georgia State University — which might seem a mindless but difficult exercise in being still — to cultivate concentration and emotional presence in the context of the vulnerability that comes with posing nude. “It’s an exercise for the bigger exercise,” she explains of the difficulty of remaining connected to your audience. “Sometimes you hit a wall, but then you work through all these things.
“It’s like therapy for me, but it’s an exchange, so [the students] also get something too. They’re not just learning to draw a figure, but they’re learning how to ‘feel’ the figure emotionally. Some of the students really pick up on what you’re putting out there in their drawings.”
Pharr’s most recent piece, “Performing Safely,” was a major breakthrough, exposing to the larger Atlanta community her ability to spellbind audiences. Photographer Sandra-Lee Phipps, one of her former mentors, conceived the performance as part of “Safe,” Phipps’ exhibition at Whitespace gallery in June, as a way to bring to life her hauntingly exquisite figural landscapes.
Whereas Phipps’ photographs illuminate questions of vulnerability and exposure within ominous landscapes, the environment constructed for Pharr’s performance was one of warmth and safety. Equipping her with a handful of materials — a ladder, a wooden bucket and a blue poncho she donned but that exposed her naked figure — Phipps let Pharr freely explore the enchanted realm of candlelit altars Phipps had constructed just outside the gallery.
Pacing the fairy-tale-esque back yard of Whitespace owner Susan Bridges’ property, Pharr remained fully absorbed in a deeply layered cycle of sacramental behaviors. Intermittently engaging with a relic-covered altar in a nearby garden or following an Archimedean spiral path to the imaginary center of all things, she silently communed with gods of an unknown universe. This otherworldly performance catapulted the show into a completely transformed realm of ritual and magic.
Pharr is now working on a collaboration inspired by Womanhouse, the 1970s feminist installation and performance space organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, with Atlanta artist Martha Whittington, another professor-mentor, and dancer Onur Topal. The show, which will include 13 other female artists, is expected to debut this fall.
Pharr engages her work intuitively without the need to perpetually ask questions along the way. “I can’t really say that I know what I’m doing,” she says. “I certainly have intention, but sometimes I don’t know why or how; it’s just important that I be present.”