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.”