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In Conversation with Gary Stephens

Who is Gary Stephens?

He is an American artist from Yuma, Arizona. An optimistic and hard working man with a big passion for art making. Someone who loves travel and new cultures, a good listener and friend, a runner and nature enthusiast, a bit of an introvert who loves to live a full life and then get into his studio and make art about it.

Where do you live presently and work?

I moved to South Africa four years ago, and I am currently based in Johannesburg. I have an industrial studio downtown in a very diverse and busy African environment. I see hair braiding, fruit-selling, and crowded streets on my drive to work. I love it. I laugh when people say South Africa is like being in Europe. My studio is definitely in an African neighbourhood. Before moving here, I lived in Florence, Italy for 10 years, so it has been 14 years since I lived in the United States. I don’t really miss the places I move away from. When I make new friends, meet the arts community, and have an art studio, I feel at home.

You were born, educated and spent most of your adult life in the United States. How has this impacted on your work, considering the fact that it examines modern urban African fashion and style?

All my art education and exposure to art happened in the States, I always loved art in grade school, and after two years of university, I transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute, so I could surround myself in an urban life with museums, art galleries and full-time artist friends. There was a famous art movement in San Francisco called Bay Area Figurative painting, and this had a lasting influence on me. They rejected abstract expressionism, the trend of the day, and applied expressionism to figurative painting. They developed a style using strong lights and darks, expressive brushstrokes and dynamic compositions. They left the search for the subject in the finished paintings with drips, unresolved areas and the power of the first instinct. I still study that work which was done in the 50’s and 60’s. The African theme in my work and the fact that I am painting portraits was a casual occurrence, which I have developed and apply my techniques to. Casual in the sense that after just arriving, one day a woman came into my studio with new intricate braid style which I photographed and drew. I liked the drawing, and the new series was born. Four years later my motivations are more clear but the intuitive attractions still remain.

The influence of the African continent bears strongly on much of your work, why is this so?

When I first arrived in South Africa, I did a year long art residency in Cape Town at Great more Art Studios, a Triangle Network member. Before I even had a house, I had a studio and was part of a group of artists from all over Africa and Europe. I really thrived in this creative environment and opened myself to a new place with new inspirations instead of continuing my old subjects. The things that struck me the most were my artist friends and the African people I met, who became my inspiration. At first, as with many foreigners, I had a more stereotypical image of Africa, being attracted to game animals and exotic landscapes. As I lived here, I shifted. Now I want my work to reflect my participation in a modern urban Africa. I have many artist friends and live in a dynamic urban environment.

What is the underlying philosophy behind your art?

I consider my art more documenting and paying homage, than having a philosophy. I try to capture the sense of style and fashion I see living in a diverse African city. To show my subjects in a larger than life way and to record their sense of style. That said, I must admit that I am making choices by what I focus on. I am pointing the viewers’ attention to specific themes. I want to raise the appreciation of beauty in the ordinary, and to record the fashion of this time in Africa. Secondly, I love the act of creating two-dimensional images with light and shadow. Part of my art is just enjoying the traditional issues of composition, mark-making, and colours that constitute painting. I strive to push my myself forward and paint in ways that are modern and fresh.

Please describe your creative process?

I observe, photograph, edit images in the computer, glue fabric flat on canvas, sketch with chalk, paint outlines with acrylic, block in lights and shadows, add contrasting colours in the back ground, step back often and try not to cover up too much pattern, make active brush strokes, and place dark colours next to light to increase contrast and
push the figure forward.

Do you think working from photographs limits your intuitiveness , or renders your portraits impersonal?

No, the contrary. My camera is my sketch book. I capture images that I am impulsively drawn to. I have so many other issues to be creative with, like colour, brush work, light and how to integrate the fabric patterns. There are enough creativity decisions for me. I paint fast and hard. I sort of get into a creative time warp and loose myself. We live in a modern world with new tools like digital cameras; it’s a fantastic part of our age.

Your broad oeuvre encompasses, chalk pastels, and acrylics on textiles, charcoal drawings on paper, and photography. What medium are you most comfortable with?

Like most artists, I like experimenting and trying new things. Creativity is searching for answers to visual challenges. I like all media, but every four or five months, I need a change to stay fresh. This changing can go against what the art world and galleries like, since they find it easier when an artist is known for a certain style. I try to find a balance. Consistency and a cohesive body of work contributes strength to an artist’s message. There are differences in the energy each technique requires. My large charcoal drawings are very peaceful and methodical to make. If I work step by step, I arrive with no surprises at the finished piece. It is a meditation. The fabric paintings are opposite. They require bursts of energy and confidence to blast a brush stroke across an image. Sometimes I catch myself holding my breath, afraid to cover too much or loose the expressive quality as I refine the image. I struggle to shift that mind-set and take chances.

O E: When did you start to work with textiles?

December 2011. A few months earlier, I got a book on African textiles and was very attached to the patterns. At first, I drew the fabric patterns and then sketched a portrait on top. It was a much more time – consuming process. A chance comment by a fellow artist made the ‘bell go off’ when he asked, “but are you painting the fabric patterns or painting directly on fabrics?” I went straight to the fabric store that afternoon. It took some experiments to learn to glue the fabric onto canvas and keep it very flat. I do this to add strength and make sure it lasts. When I was in Lagos for the first time in February, 2012, I came home with 26 pieces of ankara, each six yards, bought at the Balogun Market. That was heaven for me and this show is done on the fabric I came home with.

You have worked with textiles such as shwe shwe and the wax fabric, known locally in Nigeria as ankara, what others do you work with, and which are more suitable or adaptable to your work?

Actually, only those, shwe shwe and ankara. I drew and recreated Ghanaian strip weaving patterns, but never painted directly on it. The South African shwe shwe cloth is calmer with subtle monochromatic patterns. The ankara is my big preference. That bold Nigerian pattern helps me get strong rhythms underneath the images. The color range of the fabric dictates the palette of the painting. I purposely bought some fabric outside my comfort zone that forced me to use green for example, a very difficult color for me. I can’t wait to hit the market again on my next
visit to Lagos, since the selection available in Johannesburg is limited.

Part of your process involves ‘achieving’ a fine balance between a calm academic realism of your subjects and the absract passages created by the fabrics. Do the colours and patterns pose technical challenges, and how do you assimilate these influences or solve these problems?

I like the random and accidental in these paintings, the fabric patterns always seem to come in just the right place, a flower on lips, a spiral on cheeks, a rhythm of spirals in the background, It all happens intuitively when I sketch on top of the fabric. The patterns breaking through from behind the faces represent the energy or life force of the subject and activate the images. I slowly cover patterns until the image is recognizable. But the challenge is to know when to stop. Many times I have gone too far and loose that fresh expressive quality. Sometimes, I try to l scrub the paint off and recover the patterns underneath. I keep a wet cloth nearby, and sometimes I wipe off immediately.

There are a number of international artists like Yinka Shonibare who employ these ‘ African’ textiles manufactured in Europe , as a metaphor for the shared and complex history between the West and Africa. Does your work address some of these socio- political issues, and do you share such affinities with these artists?

I Just love the patterns, My attraction to the fabric was more intuitive. Plus, I think I bought the Nigerian – made cloth at the market instead of the more expensive imported one. I read an article about the history of
cloth in West Africa, but that wasn’t my angle. I was so happy just seeing the way people dressed in such colorful clothes when I landed at the Lagos airport. A visual feast for someone like me, so my fabric choices
reflect my attraction to colours and patterns.

Your recent work captures the head wear and hair styles of Africa, his represents a departure from botanical drawings, and other themes of wildlife that you have gained recognition for, what do you hope to communicate with this new body of work?

It has been a very interesting experience changing my subject matter and engaging with a more contemporary issue. The great part is that with people as my inspiration, a walk to the grocery store or waiting in a line, turned into ways I get inspiration and enjoy urban style. This was a big shift because instead of needing to go out in nature for inspiration, I could be inspired by a friend in my gym class or a cashier in a shop. It’s been a great way to engage with the culture I live in. I discovered that in African culture, the way your wear your hair or hat is very important. It makes a statement about who you are. By focusing on braided hair in South Africa and making it monumental in scale, I took the ordinary and made the viewers open their eyes and notice. My fabric paintings are the same. Hats and head scarves are things people see every day and may take for granted. I bring them into the art gallery and
try to make viewers see them in a fresh way, and notice how they are a special part of African culture.

Some of your works on paper are divided into equal segments and folded in undulating wave patterns. They were initially thought to imitate the African tradition of donning braids, but have appeared in earlier work adressing other subjects as foliage and fauna. How do they impact on your art?

Yes, I pleat the paper with long vertical folds. This is a way of fracturing the images and causing them to shift as the viewer changes angle. I also add string systems in front, and this increases the optical effect of shimmering and vibration. A key element for all my work is a sense of energy and movement that adds a contemporary aspect. The
folding does require working with paper , but I haven’t yet figured how to do it with my paintings on fabric. As with most of my creative ideas, the folding started as a small experiment and now seven years later, it is a big part of my work. I was making a watercolor at the beach trying to capture the way the light was dancing on the water so I folded the paper and loved the result. This led to larger experiments. I learned the hard way that the image pulls in 25%
after you fold it. My first image turned, out too skinny, so now I use Photoshop to stretch the image before drawing, In that way, it returns to normal proportions.

Most of your recent work consists of powerful portraits, are they all people you have met, and where?

I definitely like it best when they are friends. This is how I got started, and it feels closer to my heart, since the art reflects someone I have a relationship with. As time went by, I started taking photos in public concerts and sporting events. Remember as an introvert, I am a bit shy but occasionally, do go to people to ask if I can take their picture. The reward is that some end up becoming friends and come to my shows to see the art they inspired.

How do you select your subjects, what features are you drawn to, and what interests you the most?

I have yet to hire models or stage the images; so they are people that cross my path or photos taken with friends. The people are so inspiring and creative with their dress, so there is plenty of inspiration. Any hat or scarf with stripes or busy patterns is a big attraction. The light is also very important since strong light and shadow is how I build the forms. My years living in Italy made me pay more attention to fashion, sunglasses, and how people dress. Not in a snobbish way, like which brands, but just noticing and appreciating the choices people make in how they present themselves in public. A cool guy with a striped hat and sunglasses in bright sunlight would be a hit with me, as well as woman on a motorcycle taxi without her helmet because she does not want to crush her gele.

Is there a reason your sitters are almost never depicted in full frontal view, and avoid a confronting direct gaze?

Yes, that is a conscious choice though I am slowly starting to do some frontal portraits. It started by paying homage to a certain style; the tradition of braiding, the rakish way a hat sits. The faces of my subjects got in the way of this. My works are not meant to be portraits. There is a shift that happens when a viewer looks at a frontal portrait. The relationship to the art depends on how you feel about the face and what emotions it emits. I try to control the viewer’s attention and focus on the style. Same with the ankara paintings. I want the viewer to enjoy the
iconic strength of a woman in a head scarf, not the specific woman, but the scarf as the actual subject.

Your work addressing the hairstyles of Africa is vaguely reminiscent of the photography of Nigerian artist, Okhai J.D. Ojeikere, what other artists do you feel an affinity for?

I had already done four braid drawings when I found a book on Okhai Ojeikere. I was so excited and immediately bought the book. I hope one day to meet him and to see some of the actual, specifically Nigerian styles of braiding and wrapping in Lagos. What an amazing body of work he did documenting the hairstyles for generations to come. I have tried to follow in his tradition, showing urban people of my day with their contemporary jewelry and accessories. I think I got into Gallery Momo, my gallery in Johannesburg because the gallerist loved Okhai
Ojeikere’s work and saw a similarity in my drawings. I used a different technique by folding the images, but the documenting and appreciation for beauty are the same. The Fauve painters, especially Andre Derain and Matisse with their wild color are ongoing heroes of mine. More recently, the American painter Chuck Close, with his exploration of huge portraits in a variety of techniques. I aspire to make my African paintings in the tradition of Andy Warhol’s iconic pop culture portraits. The British artist, Peter Doig is also a great painter for me with his busy loose figures and sense of light.

This is your first exhibition in Nigeria, what do the works represent, and what do you hope to achieve from their collective impact?

I am quite pleased and curious to see if the paintings connect with the Nigerian art community. I hope my unique way of seeing contributes positively to the Nigerian art scene and helps Nigerians celebrate the beauty I see in Lagos. If my work inspires young Nigerian artists, I will be very happy. The last time I was here, I hired a driver to visit approximately twenty art galleries. I wanted to be inspired by Nigerian art. Hopefully, my ties with Lagos will remain, and I will be able to return to create art here ina workshop or residency.

The work presented in the exhibition appears to be titled along three broad classifications; the predominant colour or pattern/design of the fabric, as in Red and Green Leaves; the name or occupation of the sitters, as in Veronica and Teddy Facing Forward; and the focus on a particular item of clothing, as in The White Hat with Spirals, and The Chequered Hat. However Primavera Hip Hop seems to fall outside this line of reasoning, what informs the titles of your works?

For years, I have opted for simple descriptive titles to my work. Not very poetic, but easy to use when referring to specific canvases. ‘The Primavera Hip Hop’ title was an exception. I don’t know the model but the angle he wore
his hat made me think he was very cool. The Italian word ‘primavera’ means spring and references a famous painting by Botticelli where flowers magically fill the canvas. So this is actually also a descriptive term for the young man
surrounded by flower petals in his flood of golden light.

Can you please explain the inspiration behind the series of photographs, Twelve World Cup Caps?

The series of photos, Twelve World Cup Caps was taken in Cape Town during the 2010 FIFA World Cup at the beginning of developing my new African subjects. I was inside the fan park where thousands of viewers watched the matches on a huge screen TV. It was a great vibe, and I snapped the shots while the guys were watching the match. There were so many cameras that day, and it was so crowded, it was natural. I did not feel like I was invading their privacy. It documents the hat fashion, which I had been paying attention to each day while driving to my studio. The specifically African way of wearing hats, rolling them, folding them and setting them at an angle. I was already drawing the women with braids and wanted a way to approach male subjects as well. The hat patterns and colors, became monumental when I focused on them and made them large–scale. South Africans have fun reflecting on this piece and the associations it has for their various life experiences. It marked a shift in how I viewed my photography. More than just being important as references for my drawings, the photos could stand alone as contemporary individual photos with a power of their own. The whole group is one piece which captures something the individual pieces don’t have.

You have been involved in some charitable work, can you share some of these experiences with us, and your opinion of how art can contribute positively in shaping society?

Making art together with people is one of my favorite things. I love that feeling when people are working together and time goes away, not even talking, just sharing creative energy together. It is a bonding experience. Only after arriving in Africa, did I learn of the Triangle Network, a system of art centres around the continent and world where artists can go to create art, network, get new inspiration and the opportunity to expand their artistic lives. By the way, Lagos has CCA Lagos, a Triangle Network centre, where I got to give a lecture and meet Lagos artists. I hope to one day attend a workshop there. In Cape Town, I organized a community project at Greatmore Art Studios making a ceramic mosaic on the front steps. All the artists worked together, learning to make ceramic mosaics and creating a lasting improvement to the centre. I have also done some private mentoring to teenaged artists by just having them create their work in my studio a few hours a week, showing them a few drawing skills and exposing them to the issues of my life as a full- time artist. I’m not sure it was actually charitable work because I got back more than I gave. I made several drawings of one of the students, and we are still friends. The other became very good at drawing, and I actually hired him to help me complete a huge commission for a hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Hopefully, those young men will be able to take care of themselves by living from art as I have been lucky enough to do.

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