When we visited the Open Studio Night for young patrons and students at London’s Royal Academy of Art in November, we found it difficult to even get inside Mary Stephenson’s studio and peer past the bulk of people blocking the view of two large canvases on the walls. Yet although we could only catch glimpses from behind the wall of viewers, we were instantly intrigued.
You know the feeling when you can only make out details but already feel excited? And then, when you see the whole thing, you find yourself simply puzzled, confused, irritated? It´s a delicious sense of confusion when you realise you’re looking at something never seen before? (Needless to say this is a highly subjective impression).
That just about sums up Miss Stephenson’s surrealistic sceneries of swans, kois, shellfish, spaghetti, lots of cheese and staircases leading into the abyss of nightmarish social settings, complete with cosy-sensual pairings of human and vegetables as well as people trying (?) to consume beverages and immersed in martinis and glasses of red wine.
So, without further ado we present Mary Stephenson!
Royal Academy London
Where were you and when you heard you had been accepted onto the 3-year Postgraduate program at The Royal Academy Schools how did you react?
I was in my studio with my twin sister. I found the acceptance email in my junk mail!
I was in complete shock.
We decided to go for a swim to celebrate and I screamed under the water with excitement!
How does it feel to work alongside the other students in this prestigious and presumably very liberating setting?
I graduated from my BA at The Glasgow School of Art in 2011 so have really missed that integral open discussion you get from being at art school.
For me this has been a huge part of my first term at the RA and I couldn’t be enjoying the conversations more.
Mary Stephenson Photo © Imogen Forte
Lost and found in Madrid
Before you came back to London last year you had spent 2 years in Madrid and then Lisbon. Were you there at that time as an artist-in-residence? Please tell us a bit about this experience living and working for two years in two countries you (most certainly) didn’t speak the language of, and immersing yourself in these different cultures and histories.
Going to Madrid was the ultimate experience for me. It truly shifted my life and practice like no other. The culture and lifestyle were incredibly rich and exciting.
But it was being lost in a city that I didn’t speak the language of that really allowed me to delve deeper into myself, like an inner dialogue. .
This is where the surrealism really arose in my work. Being lost and lonely is immensely fruitful for me.
Your mind wanders to wonderful places when you’re lost I think.
A reason for your narratives in social settings around food and beverages?
Food is a huge influence in my work. I’m intrigued by the way we consume in our lives both physically and emotionally. Moving to Madrid was when food really came into my practise. Its a huge part of their rich culture.
Cathartis in Surrealism
Can you tell us more about your creative process, especially regarding the components of your surreal sceneries and settings.
The paintings usually start with a scene, a stage set if you like.
Once I have the basic outline of a space I begin to bring the characters into the painting.
A bit like directing, the story comes together quite organically and one character will inform another.
Where do your ideas arise from? Or do they just spring to your mind as your work progresses?
The scenes that I create come straight from my head.
I like to think of the canvas as a sorting room for my excess of thoughts.
A place where I can play them out and resolve and stretch thoughts.
How would you like the psychological and social elements you refer to in your work to affect the viewer?
I like to create moments in my paintings that evoke both a feeling of devastation and elation at the same time, these moments are so rich for me and usually bring humour in the work too.
Yes, confusion and anxiousness on subconscious levels it seems, offbeat moments of playfulness, laughing-out-loud, like a ying yang whiplash experience. When I look at some of your works I see the absurdity of life, but also a broad spectrum of our emotions and feelings.
That’s great to hear! Painting for me is a wonderful exercise in playing with all those feelings. I like to think I’m orchestrating or conducting a narrative that pulls, tugs, inflates, discards and tests all of those feelings.
The characters I paint come straight from my head and tend to be depicting an emotion I’m unable to externally express.
It’s incredibly cathartic for me.
Is there a particular person or situation you remember that inspired or motivated you to become an artist?
When I was growing up my mum & dad would let me, and my four siblings draw all over every wall of our family home.
That early engagement and freedom with making large scale work in my everyday life has stayed with me forever.
I imagine most scenarios in my head now in painting form.
Do you consider yourself spiritual, does this feed into your work?
I am open to exploring and understanding all spiritualities from around the world.
Is there a book, author or article you are reading or that stimulates and inspires you?
I’ve always enjoyed reading encyclopedias, particularly illustrated ones when I was little.
I find the chronology of them quite amusing and surreal.
What do you look forward to this year in London?
I’m really excited to be studying at The Royal Academy Schools. New spaces create wonderful internal dialogues for me, and these are exactly what I love in painting.
Being part of an artist community is something I have been yearning for, for a long time. I’m really enjoying the open discussions and freedom to create.
I’m looking forward to exhibiting with other artists in group shows and to being swallowed whole by my new environment!
Follow Mary on her Instagram and read more about the RA Young Patrons program
Author: Esther Harrison