You mention that women inspire you? Could you elaborate on this? Any specific women?

When I was researching material for my dissertation a few years ago entitled ‘Women’s Work: Why are different values attached to work performed inside and outside the home’, one woman really stood out for me. Her name is Bobby Baker, a performance artist who produced a powerful 22 min video called ‘Kitchen Show’ 1991 [more information here].

In the video she parodies the female domestic role as she carries out thirteen mundane and bizarre tasks ranging from making tea and peeling vegetables to throwing pears at kitchen cupboard or crawling around the garden on all fours. Every action is followed by an adorning ritual, for example a wooden spoon tied in her hair, a spinach leaf secured with a nappy pin to her white overcoat, a ripe pear placed in her breast pocket. Her voice is calm, measured, reasonable, her language poetic and thoughtful. She clearly revels is some of the exquisite details of her kitchen world but under the veneer you sense a struggle with the constraints of motherhood and housewifeliness upon her life. The self-adorning markers provide a way of helping her to cope with the invisible nature of the domestic role where often there is no permanent record of her labour and activity.

I admire Bobby Baker for her ability to be herself. Her performances are funny, insightful and slightly uncomfortable to watch. However her vulnerability and intimacies are her strength and she conveys heaps in each of her performances which force us to challenge our own constructed boundaries especially as women. She says that on becoming a mother, she felt she had to forfeit her right to be seen as an artist ‘an independent individual with the freedom of self-expression’ as this did not tally with the traditional view of a mother. She has, however, found a way, as have many other artists who are mothers. Motherhood itself becomes part of our stories and I have found it to be a rich seam too. It has inspired me to create my apron and over glove range that records an autobiographical ‘to do’ list, as well as paintings that reveal the powerful emotions of pregnancy and individual portraits of my children.

apron main square 10x10cmglove text 10x10cm

What are your thoughts on the mainstream representation of women in the art world?

People used to say that it was hard for women to be seen in the art world but I don’t know if that’s still true. So far this year, I think I’ve been to more exhibitions by women than men e.g. Marlene Dumas, Sonia Delauney, Gillian Ayres and Prunella Clough versus Richard Diebenkorn and The Two Roberts, aka Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. I am mostly interested in painting and colour so I’ll try to see any exhibition that grabs my attention in that department and don’t consciously latch onto those by women. Having said that, the biographical notes accompanying exhibitions fascinate me as they usually describe the personal circumstances of the artists and I am naturally more inclined to relate to the stories of the women – their families, where they lived, their struggles and pleasures.

The Fisherman's House, Manaus Promarker pen painting on 350 gsm Hahnemuhle paper.

The Fisherman’s House, Manaus
Promarker pen painting
on 350 gsm Hahnemuhle paper.

Talking about stories of the women, could you elaborate on your childhood a little more?

My maternal great, great grandfather was an explorer and trader who travelled the world and settled in Brazil and my paternal grandfather moved from England to work as a chemist on the corn beef farms in Argentina. My parents met and married in Rio, moved to Recife and later lived in Sao Paulo. I was born in Recife in 1961. It was an idyllic place to grow up. Our house was at the end of an unmade road where chickens, goats and cows wandered about and at weekends we would drive through the sugar plantations (sucking on a freshly cut sugar cane stems) to the white empty palm-fringed beaches to paddle, swim, barbecue and dig big holes to sit in. When I returned to one of those beaches forty years later I was so incredibly happy, filled with a sense of home and belonging – just thinking about it gives me a very good feeling. Some of my other favourite things as a child included playing with my tortoise and budgies, roller-skating around the house and playing dolls. I feel very lucky to have had such a lovely early childhood. We moved to England when I was nearly eleven. It was the middle of winter when we arrived, during a coal-miner’s strike with regular black-outs, so things couldn’t be much more different to the country I had left behind! Still, it was exciting and the pattern of daily life changed completely as we started going to a boarding school. Generally I liked school but have mixed memories of the ‘free time’. Playing tennis until nearly 10pm in the summer and midnight feasts were fun but winter weekend afternoons could be desperately boring.  I still don’t much like winter as I’m clearly not designed to withstand the cold, but I’ve learnt to compensate with crumpets, tasty casserole dinners, lit fires, candles and good TV dramas!

Do you revisit Brazil a lot?

The first trip back took place in 2004 when my husband was invited to an international climate change conference in Salvador and I realised this was a golden opportunity for me to go and see Brazil again. It was amazing. As soon as we landed and stepped outside the terminal building, I was hit by an overwhelming feeling of ‘being home’. We were only standing in the smelly car park at that point, but all my senses immediately registered the familiar smells, heat, sounds and lamp posts even!  I loved eating rice and beans and cheesy bread balls, the friendly open character of Brazilians, the climate (of course!) and tentatively using my very rusty Portuguese again. We decided to return with the family the following year to visit Rio, Manaus, Brasilia and Iguacu Falls. On our third trip a couple of years later we visited the places where I used to live, both in Recife and Sao Paulo. I found this incredibly satisfying. Many places were still very recognisable though the once empty beaches in Recife were now strung with apartment blocks and armed security was very visible in some areas in Sao Paulo. There was a lovely moment when we visited my old British School, St Pauls – we had been looking at a display of old photographs on the wall and lo and behold there was a Y3 class photo with me in it! To find physical evidence decades later of my attendance aged seven was quite bizarre. Our fourth and most recent trip was to the Pantanal and Ouro Preto region. There is so much to see in Brazil.  We love to travel and I don’t think we’ve finished exploring the country yet!

Kokeshi Doll & Fruit

Kokeshi Doll & Fruit

Where in the world would you say is the most inspiring place for you now, as an artist?

Gosh that’s a difficult question to answer as I know what a magpie I am, collecting ideas from all over the place including London museums, galleries, and magazines. However it’s the personal experience of a different culture that is so attractive and stays in your mind. As well as Brazil, South East Asia has quite a hold on my imagination having lived in Indonesia for five years and travelled in the region quite a lot. I’ve also taken inspiration from Sweden where I discovered the beautiful floral textiles of Josef Frank and combined this with an idea from Japan after seeing an old Japanese print at the British Library which spawned my Pattern style. With such an eclectic approach to inspiration, focus and decision-making can be difficult but I love the idea of fusing and layering influences to give a rich texture to the work. This year I hope to visit Sri Lanka and am looking forward to seeing what ideas I can bring back from there.

How important do you believe exploration and experimentation to be in art?

When I first started painting twenty years ago, I was rather thrown when it became apparent that my tutor had no intention of giving us any instruction on how to approach the task nor how to use the materials. He just looked at us with a ‘my lips are sealed’ motion and so we were left entirely to our own devices. A bit of panic set in, but it taught me to just have a go and get on with it. Throughout my art school years it’s always been about training our eyes to see and our minds to think and evaluate rather than practical skills, which left the door open for any type of experimentation. I am hugely grateful to one tutor, though, who gave me a priceless lesson on ‘how to mix colours’. There’s a simple method that can be taught and what painter wouldn’t want to learn that? So experimenting and exploration are hugely important to generate new ideas. It’s also important though to know when to stop experimenting and commit to completing a project with the knowledge and skills that you have at that point.

Floral Cups & Coffee Pot

Floral Cups & Coffee Pot

Do you pursue other forms of expression outside of your art work?

Yes, music is an area that gives me a sense of expression and reflection. At school we had a very talented choir mistress who was a perfectionist, so she was quite terrifying at times, but I felt very proud to belong to the choir all the same. We sang in a lunchtime concert at Westminster Abbey once and also at the Royal Festival Hall, as well as at daily chapel services and on Sundays. I still sing every Sunday at my local church and have also joined a local community choir. As for instruments, I picked up basic guitar late in my teens and a few years ago realised a long-held desire to learn to play the piano. I started as a complete beginner and am hovering around the Grade One and Two level. It’s a hard instrument, however when I have learnt a new piece, I feel ridiculously pleased! Unfortunately it’s all too easy to unlearn that piece without very regular practice so I’m not progressing very quickly! I’m more inclined to sit at the piano once the evenings draw in from September onwards.

Do you believe this has an impact on the work you produce?

Yes, sometimes it does. Last year I began a new series of acrylic paintings based on cine film that my mother had taken of a Brazilian street carnival around 1960. I captured stills from the scenes of costumed dancers jigging about and decided that in order to paint these energetic figures as fluidly as possible, I would need to practically dance myself as I painted! So I put on some favourite Brazilian music and this helped me get into the spirit of the paintings. Nowadays, any video clip would capture the sounds too but these clips were over fifty years old. For me, making music has many parallels with making art. Whatever you create repays you through your ears and eyes. Sometimes the result is good but often it lacks something and you need to keep going back to it again and again until you’re satisfied. When it all comes together in a way that surpasses your expectations, that is a very sweet moment.

Where would you most like to visit in the future?

There’s a very long wish list! I am naturally attracted to warm tropical regions and this year we are heading to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, which is very exciting. I would also love to return to Indonesia to rekindle the memories of our five years living there in the 90’s. However, more remote countries like Mongolia or northern Scandinavia also look interesting. My perceptions were altered when we spent a few days in the Faroe Islands last year and I didn’t think I would enjoy it (preferring to travel south) but it was fantastic – a simpler, quieter existence dependent on wool and salmon and the weather. The scenery was breathtaking and family picnics on spongy turf beside clear waterfalls made it very memorable – we even caught the sun.

What drew you to art and travel in the first place?

Travelling to new places is very stimulating. You experience unfamiliar landscapes, smells, sounds and customs which open your senses. There are often differences in aesthetics too which can jar or excite. I think artists are visually absorbent, drinking in as much as they can when travelling and wanting to capture and retain details to enjoy for a long time afterwards. I use photography or sketches to help me remember the places that I want to store in my mind. For example, the pattern style painting ‘The Fisherman’s House’ is drawn from a photo I took in Brazil. Our boatman stopped at this beautiful blue house surrounded by a vegetable garden to pick up a fish for dinner that night – it was so large that two men were needed to carry it in a bucket to the boat. We were moored there for just a few minutes but I love the memory and turned it into a pattern drawing. This process of transformation involved spending many hours noticing and recording the shapes and colours and then adding my own design elements to bring it to life with pattern. Not only has this firmly secured the place in my memory, it has also turned that fleeting encounter into something a bit more extraordinary. I believe artists have always done that. In 1879 William Morris wrote ‘I have seen a many wonders, and have good memory for them’. We have no doubt of this when we consider how prolific he was throughout his creative career.

Can you share your process with us from conception to completion? 

When painting, I always work on two or three at the same time as it’s very easy to get bogged down in the detail if you concentrate on just one at the early stages. I use big brushes and sticks of charcoal to start to divide up the space. Once you have something down on the canvas, it’s easier to progress to the next stage. I think every artist has their favourite motifs and mine are ovals and circles interspersed with straight lines that can be diagonal, horizontal or vertical. I aim for a variety of marks, thick and thin lines, busy detailed areas and restful quiet areas. Once there is a lot of ground painting on the canvas, I start to define the shapes into the themes, such as an interior scene or still life. I draw the shapes out roughly in charcoal, adding more colour, often removing it again as I don’t like it, trying another etc. This second half of the painting involves a lot of edits – adding, blending, erasing, re-drawing, re-painting. This is the struggle period of the work – it can go very well one day and very badly on another. However, even paintings that are not quite working can be pulled into shape given enough patience and perseverance. The whole process can take several days or even months. One of my favourite recent paintings ‘Breakfast in St Tropez’ that has just sold on its first outing from the studio, was a painting that had remained unresolved for a quite a long time in the studio but I had another go with it and found that the key to finishing it involved simplifying it slightly and introducing a couple of new colours. It’s not always easy to figure out what needs doing but these significant changes, when added to the hours I had already invested in it, resulted in a beautifully balanced composition that finally sings!

Stephanie's Studio

Stephanie’s Studio

Finally, do you have any projects or artwork that you’re currently working on, or planning for the future that you’d like to tell us about?

Preparations are in full flow for my next exhibition at the Urban Art Fair in Brixton on 11-12 July. This is a popular weekend street fair and attracts a very colourful crowd of browsers and buyers. I look forward to showing four-five new acrylic paintings that are nearing completion. The autumn will be spent building a new collection of vibrant paintings for a solo show at the Fountain Gallery near Hampton Court early in 2016, whilst keeping an eye on other exhibiting opportunities in galleries or new art fairs. I’m going to concentrate on the themes of still lifes, chairs and interiors, in bold but loose compositions with lots of colour and line, as this seems to have become one of my distinguishing features and I’m very happy about that.

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