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Stray Steeves

One Halifax street artist is blurring the lines between art and activism

by Katie Toth

The stray kitties have been stuck in Philadalphia (here), Austin, and San Fransisco, as well as Halifax.
The stray kitties have been stuck in Philadalphia (here), Austin, and San Fransisco, as well as Halifax.
Stray Steeves
Stray Steeves
Stray Steeves

Jei Jei Steeves is a Halifax artist whose stickers of stray kittens have been popping around the city's streets to say things like "Your lopsided breasts are really beautiful," "I support the troops but I don't support the war," and  "I don't like the way you're looking at my tits."

As a fine artist, her work has also emphasized the possibilities of the female form. Steeve's paintings revision the woman's body with a surreal eye, bringing power back into the hands of the viewed, rather than the viewer. With a portfolio like hers, Steeves' work could undoubtedly be classified not only as feminist, but as kick-ass. 

We took some time to talk with Steeves about how a quiet Halifax institution was born, what's next, and how sexuality and activism play a role in her creative work.  

KT: You make stray kitties on tote bags, plates and stickers—how did that get started?

JS: It started as a deep interest and love affair with street art. I wanted to participate, but wasn't really that keen on spray paint. I liked wheat pastings, but sometimes those would demand too much time when I wanted a small message to be in a high-traffic area. It just seemed a much better route to make vinyl stickers.

So I bought a role of adhesive-backed vinyl paper and started drawing the kitties on it. And it was well-received, people were excited—I wasn't anonymous by any means, my tag is 'jei', so everybody kind of knows it's me—not to mention my affinity for cats and stray cats in especially, so (laughs) it was out in the open.

I often have social anxieties, as we all do. So I don't say what I need to say to people when I need to say it. And I was in a few instances in the past couple years where I didn't stick up for a friend. I really felt like I should have should have stood up and said something in public.

So this was a step: start saying things. Then it became sort of a diary. And now it's a soapbox.

Is it ever a feminist soapbox?

Hell yes! I didn't intend on it necessarily being that, but it seems that a lot of the things I make are feminist. It could be because I make art when I'm mad? (laughs)

Whether I try to or not, it just ends up being there. It's just the nature of being a woman: you have things that you need to talk about.

You also [volunteer] at the Dalhousie Women's Centre.


And you mentioned that when you got started that you didn't expect to do that—

No, no.

So you haven't always had positive experiences with feminism...

I had found some really closed-minded feminists early on in life, and just couldn't believe that they were influencing the generation of tomorrow. And so I was like, "fuck this!" (laughs). If this is what it is to be a part of the club, I'm not part of the club. I mean, forget it. I interact with a lot of phenomenal people without, you know, the help of a centre or organisation and there's no judgement there, so I don't know what the fuck this is about.

So was it a specific centre that you had a problem with?

That was a specific Centre! It was the [Antigonish Women's Centre] in Antigonish Nova Scotia, and I had been introduced to its negativity by the way they were dealing with raunch culture in Saint Francis Xavier University dorms.

(Representatives from the Antigonish Women's Centre allegedly told residence students not to dress in a provocative way because it made the students sluts, said Steeves.)

I thought it was pretty pathetic because that is the first time that young adults are out and about on their own.

These were big movers and shakers that were supposed to be a source of community, comfort, non-judgement, telling them that the clothing they were wearing—or not wearing—was making them sluts, and telling them that if they dressed like that, trouble would come their way, and it's their fault.

Luckily, all the super-awesome women in the dorm stood up and said, "listen, that's not how we see it, so we're not interested in your message." And they walked out. And I thought...that was wicked. And then I was like, well fuck it, maybe we don't need Women's Centres...if all of these first year undergrads...at least know how to deal with the different factions within feminism...

But then I was welcomed into this—and I've got to say, I wasn't walking in with total comfort, I was trepidatious—but the Dalhousie University Women's Centre invited me in as a [volunteer] and that was awesome. (Laughs) That changed everything, you know?


Yeah! So now I feel a lot more inclined to stick my toes in the water when it comes to organisations and groups and stuff like that, because the Dal Women's Centre has no boundaries, no limitations, no judgement. That's really rare and really important.

Do you feel like that's going to affect your art at all?

Most definitely... between [the support I've received from Halifax sex shop Venus Envy] and the Women's Centre, I'll finally have enough of a base foundation of information and references and community and support that I'll feel like I can talk about the big issues. Sometimes when you're just by yourself you don't want to throw it all out there. But when you know you have some really intelligent well spoken hard working individuals that support you, that's kind of like, okay let's do this. Let's start a war. Game on! (Laughs) It makes a big difference.

I've been told that over the years that a lot of my work has been about women's sexuality, and that was never the intention. When I look back at it, though, I'm like, Oh God, yeah, I guess it is. But it wasn't risqué enough, and I always felt that. It's time to amp it up.

It's cool that you say that it's time to amp it up because to me street art is such a radical, amped-up act. It's technically not legal...

Well, I mean, I'm the safest of the street artists. To be perfectly frank, sticker people shouldn't lay claim to the bravery of the hardcore artists who use paint and acrylic and big massive posters. Because I can stick and run.

But the amount of people who get excited about these really simple line drawings is encouraging, and it just makes me want to raid more dangerous places. You know, with bigger stickers, and ones that say more dangerous things.

And soon we're going to start a few new campaigns, and that's really exciting. The little stray kitties are little war kitties!

Not in a bad way. In a peace way. But in a "don't fuck with us" way.

Where's your favourite place to have been stuck?

Oh! There's some good ones! Um, in front of the Catholic bookstore on the mailbox. It wasn't necessarily a stray kitty drawing, but it was in that vein. It was a little bit more—just to irk some people. And it was a big curvaceous naked lady. She was having a really good time, too. It didn't last long, but it was fun. 

You say a lot of your art is about women's sexuality. You've talked about your more salacious street art and support you've received from Venus Envy for your erotic work. When it comes to your more sexy art, you've also described yourself before as 'making porn...'

Yeah, sometimes! I did do a big erotica collection for somebody, and my mom terms it porn, and I've always been open to other people who want it, because sometimes the porny stuff you see these days just isn't far fetched enough? I don't mean not kinky enough, I just mean not far fetched enough. And so sometimes I get bored. It's kind of cool to see a really fast sketch with not a lot going on—but you get it, you see the hotness in the image, you know? I really like that stuff, and I really like making it. And I think it's really healthy to have out there. You've got to balance all the crazy shit that's out there!

I don't think that I really want to be slotted into the porn industry. Despite the fact that I'm a user and abuser, it's not where I want to belong...there's just too many issues to get into with the porn industry. We'll just say I make kinky drawings sometimes.

It is really interesting though that instead of saying you make kinky drawings or erotica or some art-world word, you do use the word porn... I'm wondering, is that reclaiming the word or bringing it back?

Man, I'd love to. It's just—there's so much of it to fight!

I just would like to start slowly inching towards weird depictions of sex that don't include slotting individuals into certain kinds of characters. There's just a little bit too much of some kinds of porn and not enough of others...but there's this amazing website that's technically porno that's all just women masturbating! Just her, doing what she's doing, and that's beautiful!

At first I just thought, maybe this just speaks to me because I'm a woman. So I sent this some of my guy friends...and it became all of their favourites.

So it's not a matter of fact that we like shitty porn. It's just there, it's easy to make, and we're all horny all the time.

So let's start putting cooler things out. Shit's got to get real. Or unreal, whatever it takes...

Maybe some day I'll start really taking the word 'porn'. Maybe I just need to make more. And then I'll be okay.

Any advice for young women?

Yes. Watch Battlestar Galactica.

Steeves'  kitties are available at Argyle Fine Art in Halifax, or through her shop on EtsyThey also have a blog, and so does she.

Originally posted at nopomo.wordpress.com.

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