Discovering a passion can be an enlightening experience, especially when you find it by complete accident. Tracy Lee Stum had been an artist her whole life, but it wasn’t until mid-career that she found her calling in 3D pavement art.
Born in rural Pennsylvania, she gravitated towards art starting at age three and would only want to draw and paint as a child. With the support of her parents, she was enrolled in private art classes at the age of ten. She continued her studies through high school and eventually obtained her BFA in Painting and Drawing from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Later, she worked as an art director in New York, followed by producing scenic paintings and murals in LA, and finally discovered street painting at the age of thirty-six, in the middle of her art career. To date, she’s been painting and drawing on pavements for twenty-one years!
Stum had been painting Italian trompe-l’œil (3D illusionary) murals for the Venetian and Caesars Palace casinos in Las Vegas when she discovered the art of street painting. She was first introduced to it by accident with a friend at the Santa Barbara I Madonnari festival. It was there she knew she had to try it out on her own. The following year, she joined the festival as a participant and realized her skill at drawing with pastels on the ground: “I fell in love with the performance aspect of the medium and knew I wanted to make unique compositions that were from my imagination”. She became familiar with the works of other famous 3D painters including Kurt Wenner and Manfred Stader and began making her own designs. These initial creations weren’t without their failures, but those same failures helped her to resolve the technical challenges at hand. She also consulted with mathematics professors who specialized in geometry to assist in understanding the rules of anamorphism: “Once I had a clearer understanding of those rules, I began letting my imagination go and consciously worked to create contemporary content in my work”.
Further developing her 3D street art was a natural, organic evolution for Stum. She took up street painting as a hobby at regional festivals, then put up a website with the help of a friend for commissions. Not long after, they obtained their first paying project: “That was pretty exciting since I was just doing the work because I loved it, not concerning myself with any sort of business plan”. After receiving more and more commissions as the years passed, she began to phase out her mural painting to fully focus on street painting projects, which she found to be a lot of fun: “I remember I saying to myself just before this happened ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could do this full time as a career?‘”. Eventually, she was approached by her current management team who had helped her direct and grow her art business for the last ten years. She’s even taken on the role of management in her own organization: “I was used to managing teams of artists on the mural projects so doing the same in my street painting business was natural. I have trained quite a few young artists now working in the art form over the last decade and have had the tremendous pleasure of working with many talented and wonderful colleagues through my larger projects”. Street artists are a happy and special breed, she says: “I find that [they] are the coolest art people you will meet anywhere”.
Stum’s first branded piece was also her first commissioned piece. She had been contracted by Cycle World magazine to make huge chalk drawing for them at the World Superbike Races in Monterrey, California. As a big motorcycle enthusiast, the project was an exciting jump into space and came with a lot of exciting perks. The painting itself showcased five of the top-ranked racers charging out of the pavement towards the viewers.
Stum’s creative process begins with a rough design idea, usually sketched out within a couple of minutes. From there it takes a day or two to create the finished rendered composition. She also makes sure to get on a call with the client to review their project: “I usually like a few days to digest info from a brand or client about their intentions for the art so I can get a feel for how best to create the image”. Once the comp design is finished, she begins the drawing or painting work: “If it’s a live piece it usually takes 2 to 3 days on site to complete a standard 12′ x 15′ image. If it’s a print piece, I create the work in studio on the wall, not on the ground, then photograph it and digitize the file for print”. Her team of artists work seamlessly to get each type of project done with efficiency and accuracy, and while she’s designed and created paintings in under a week, she prefers to have a few weeks to “play around and make sure the design is the best possible solution for [her] client”.
As a hands-on artist, Stum prefers to draw and sketch when beginning each project. Most preliminary designs begin with pencil, pen, and/or marker sketches for the sake of immediacy. Quick thumbnails of each concept help establish a direction for the piece. In the past, she had made fully detailed gouache paintings but has since stopped due to their time-consuming nature. Thanks to the efficiency of her studio, several projects are usually underway at once, providing an avenue for faster production. She also makes built scale models to help her test out new or more complex design ideas. When it comes to software, she tends to primarily use Adobe Photoshop herself, but her team members use Illustrator and Cinema 4D as well. In the past she had used Maya to build some imagined worlds during the design phase, but hasn’t been doing so as much anymore: “Additionally I use video, photography and site plans to help me gather all the info I need to make sure the art is perfect for each project”.
Stum has had some complex projects under her belt, both with regard to painting and engineering. She helped produce a wonderfully illusionary commercial for the Honda CRV in 2013: “Chris Palmer, the director of the commercial, asked me to consult on a number of illusions which forced me to thing in a non-linear way to find appropriate visual solutions for each vignette I as given”.
Another one of her more complex productions was a 3D ATS/Cadillac campaign which used AR (Augmented Reality) on five different art installations across the nation: “That required working with the AR team to design pieces that could be finished in a short time frame on site, then mapping the art for the AR component to go live the following day”. AR was still fairly new at the time, and Stum’s team were early pioneers of its usage with street art.
The most challenging part of creating her works, she says, is the physicality and the environments she works in: “It’s a fairly challenging way to make art, being on the ground most of the time. You have to stay in shape for this type of work. My chiropractor loves me because I see him regularly! The environments can also be harsh with weather and climate playing a big factor in the success of the live on site paintings”. Throughout it all, she stays inspired during the creation of each piece by looking forward to the painting and drawing portion, something she likens to saving the best for last: “I take every step deliberately to understand how to make the work the best it can be within the parameters you are working with. I try to learn something new from each work, whether its technical or creative”. She also feels the need to engage in other activities to balance out her work life, something she finds to be important for her health: “After doing this for 20+ years I periodically approach burnout, but then I will take some time off with a trip abroad, take up a new hobby or just stop for a while to recharge my batteries”.
Stum decided to share her art with the world out of appreciation for the artform itself. From the time she had her first website up and running in 1999, she had the desire to get people to know about this unique art form that she’d fallen in love with. At the time, 3D street art was a very small fringe practice that not too many people knew about, and only a few festivals existed around the world to celebrate it. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when the Internet became widely available for the first time that it began to spread and become a part of the public consciousness. Now there are street art festivals in hundreds of communities around the world and a large influx of younger artists diving into the world of 3D art. Stum also loves to speak with others about her thoughts, concepts, and methods in hopes of them better understanding how an artist engages with their creativity, as well as sparking an interest in connecting with their own creativity: “I believe that the public arena of street painting in general prepped me for global participation. When you get used to drawing in the public space, you realize that the exchange of energy from viewer to artist is an integral part of the performance experience”.
Stum takes great joy in seeing the public embrace and interact with her finished works. To her, they feel fully realized once the public takes ownership of the art and plays with it the way she intended. Everyone has a different experience with her pieces, and she finds it interesting to see these differences from person to person: “The surprise they experience, the delight, the joy, the humor – these are all feelings or qualities that I hope to evoke with my works. If viewers appreciate my works through these qualities, then I feel I have succeeded in my own creative intentions”.
Art holds a major significance in Ms. Stum’s life: “Drawing / art is a natural extension of who I am as a person. I have a skill, need and desire to make visual expressions. 3D street painting allows me to blend all those traits within myself into one cohesive creative practice”. She believes that artists don’t really have much of a choice on their path, as they must create the things that help you express your visions, observations, ideas, feelings, or impulses: “Art is a way of life – it drives you forward, it brings understanding, it nurtures, it confounds, it reveals, it demands, it pulls and it pushes. It shapes who you are inside and incredibly, who you are inside comes forth in the most authentic way”.
When it comes to her advice to other aspiring artists, Stum believes there’s no need for nervousness as art is one’s own personal journey of creative exploration: “Being relaxed actually helps you develop more quickly in skill and in imagination. Ask yourself, who are you making art for? Are you making art for yourself? Are making art to share something with the world? Or do you make it for sheer enjoyment? Each answer is valid and correct for YOU”. She suggests starting with a basic drawing class to get used to the feeling of making images. The skill needed to develop good draftsmanship takes time, so don’t get discouraged: “Keep practicing. Take classes, be open to everything, find mentors, heroes and role models to study with. Be a student of life. Allow yourself the freedom to explore, play and experiment”. Lastly, she says, know that to seriously pursue art requires a lot of commitment, dedication, practice, and sometimes, sacrifices. All that time and effort will pay off, however, so adapt a mantra of perseverance, and above all, have fun!
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