Rylan Steele : Ave Maria

Rylan Steele is an established artist teaching as a tenure track faculty in photography at Columbus State University. Rylan received an A.S. in Photographic Technology from the Southeastern Center for Photographic Studies at DBCC, a B.F.A. in Photography from Florida International University and a M.F.A in Photography from the University of Georgia. Rylan is currently working on a new group of photographs that explore Ave Maria, a catholic inspired community in a remote area of southern Florida. These photographs are an investigation of the infrastructure that supports the founders’ utopian vision. In October of this year, we published Rylan’s first monograph, Ave Maria with writing from Nora Wendl. Today we dive deeper into this curious subject matter and learn more about Rylan’s process for making the work.

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The story behind this body of work is really fascinating. Can you give a summary to those who aren’t aware of the subject matter?

The work in this book comes from a large body of work I made over a five-year period in Ave Maria, Florida. Ave Maria is a catholic community that was founded and funded by Tom Monaghan, the founder and former owner of Dominoes Pizza. Raised in an orphanage following the death of his father Tom Monaghan recommitted himself to Catholicism after reading the texts of C.S. Lewis. He started this community in Florida after he ran into some land use issues with the university he was building in Michigan. These photographs are about this place specifically, but also about isolation (both physical and philosophical) and how we define community.

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What initially led you to this subject matter?

I started this project after exploring different new communities that had been developed in Florida since the 60’s. Florida interests me because it represents the discovery of the new world, paradise, newness and is simultaneously a miserable swamp. The communities I photographed included Seaside, Celebration and the Villages all of which had already been completed. What drew me back to Ave Maria was not only the fact that it was still in progress, (in fact it was founded at the height of the most recent economic recession) but that it is so complicated. It was started with a utopian idea but because of its slow growth it will probably never live up to the ideal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a success for the people that live there.

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Did your own religious beliefs play a roll in creating this work?

I’m curious about religion. I don’t believe in God. I love that religion can serve to support and unify a community, I love that a belief in God can help people navigate life, but think that obviously those things can also be incredibly divisive. I feel more religious when I’m in Ave Maria, I find connections with the landscape and ideas of God and I have attended mass there regularly. So yes, my religion plays a roll. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the search for some connection with the world around me, I pursue the connection and a deeper level of understanding through photography.

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How do the people in the community feel about you and the pictures you are making?

I’m not sure how the people in the community feel. I’ve had limited contact with the public there, it isn’t personal against them, my roaming around the landscape is self guided, its best when its not burdened with other people’s ideas of what the photographs should look like. The most contact I’ve had is with a man who seems supportive of my work, but also wants me to represent the community his way. The photography is accurate, but also my view of the community, I hope the people there appreciate the work in many ways it is for them.

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Do you think you will give a copy of the book to Tom Monaghan?

I’ve tried to make contact with Tom Monaghan; I haven’t had any luck. I’m happy to send him a copy of the book, but really before I do that I want him to know how I feel about this place that he has created. I started photographing the place because it was weird, but that it became so much more layered and interesting. He turned a small loan into a billion dollar company, he created a town for people of faith, he has given money to all sorts of non-profit organizations. If I were being more pessimistic I could talk about the role of his ego in this, but I’d rather not. He and I would probably not agree on a lot of things, we probably would not be good friends, but his commitment to religion and building a place of refuge fascinates me.

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Is the project finished now that the book is out?

Yes, its finished. But no it is not finished. I want to have an exhibition in Ave Maria, I want a chance to present the work to the public there, to answer any questions they might have of my intentions or the finished work. I can’t imagine I’ll make another book of work there, but I’m still interested to see how the place evolves over time.

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Why is this book important to add to my library? 

You should own this because you should be interested in how communities develop and function. Its important for all of us to try and understand how we interact in the places they live, whether they be newly constructed towns of established communities. The object of the book functions as more than the individual photographs, the sequence is important, the selection is critical and just to make sure this book would become something unique I worked with Nora Wendl to create poems inspired by the photographs. While the photographs are not staged, the photograph have been selected to create a poetic response to place and ideas of utopia. We wanted to use the text in the book to illuminate ideas that are present in the photographs but nearly impossible to grasp in the initially viewer or without some contextual information. We were interested in the idea that photographs typically present the facts and poems typically present the lyrical elements and how we could use the sequence and edit of the book to play with and subvert the expected.


To purchase a copy of Rylan’s book, Ave Maria, visit the shop! Since you enjoyed the interview, you might also enjoy 25% off a copy with the discount code : MARIA

To view more of Rylan’s work, visit his website!