I think most of us, given the choice would love a studio-shed at the bottom of the garden. Portrait artist Steph Bird, built hers as a place to paint and draw. But also, it has become a space for some of her 'significant' and beautiful objects, which are starting to inform her work.
SB: We built this shed over a week about four or five years ago. We had to fell a tree to get it in so it wasn’t an instant process. But its absolutely brilliant – I love my shed.
"It's not just a work space. It's my refuge. A place to hide and be myself."
AB: So, apart from your tools, like brushes and your palette, what were the first things you put in here?
SB: I’ve moved house a lot, and for years and years I used to carry everything around with me, like hundreds of books and I am very very attached to objects. I have great emotional connections with things. But because I had moved so much I started to get tired of that whole process with boxes and packing. So I really cut down and the things that I have left are things that have a great personal history. And when I got my shed it seemed like the most natural place to put them.
"Its my space and no one else has to like it. Whereas in the home you are compromising."
AB: Do you think as an artist its important to create a workspace that isn’t a compromise?
SB: I think it's a privilege. And of course with my paid work there is always somesort of compromise. But yes, it does help me to relax and think about my own work. Although sometimes I do want to chuck it all out and then think 'right, now what’s in my head?'
AB: So as well as the commissions you work on your own projects as well?
SB: Yes, I didn’t for a long time, but recently I’ve started some work. I’m not sure where its going – but that’s a big pleasure. It’s a big thing ‘allowing myself’ the time to do that.
AB: Is that fulfilling?
SB: Definitely – although its frustrating. You know what its like – if you paint or draw anything you go through an emotional rollercoaster and generally I don’t mind that. Although I wouldn’t say that when I’m in the dark bits of it. I suppose it feels like a bit of a journey.
AB: If something is going wrong do you bin it or try and work through it and turn it around?
SB: That’s an interesting question – obviously if it’s a commission I have to keep going! With my own work that’s more difficult. I’ve always kept things thinking that I will come back to them, but in reality – I never have. A friend showed me this amazing project called, 'Tales of the Unfinishable: Investigating the Incomplete' which happens to be about textiles. They ask people to submit things they can’t finish and the stories behind them. It’s absolutely fascinating, some of them are really funny, some are heartbreaking and some are quite dark. But the people are so grateful to have them taken off their hands – because they don’t want to keep it – but can't throw it away.
AB: What a brilliant idea and now all those projects have an end.
SB: I have a friend that leaves his paintings for years and comes back intermittently. Even when a painting looks 'bad' he embraces that part of the process entirely.
AB: But imagine if you kept everything?
SB: Oh I know, I have boxes and boxes with stuff in them everywhere.
AB: I think most people would agree that portraiture is one of the most difficult disciplines, and painting children, particularly other people's children must be so difficult.
SB: I just really love it. I’m not very good with words. I stumble over words a lot – but I find a lot on people’s faces that interest me. I like to see how emotions come and go and I think painting from life is a lovely thing.
AB: Who are your influences?
SB: I love Freud. I like Jenny Saville.
AB: They are both artists that explore the ‘fleshy-ness’ quality of oils.
SB: Yes there is a definite 3 dimensional quality. If you look at a Freud I love the way that the paint is broken. He is so brilliant. How does he know how to do that? And they’re not as instant as they look. I went to a big exhibition of his in Paris a few years ago and I just couldn’t look at the still life paintings as they made me so cross. He would have a massive canvas and choose to paint the wall outside his studio that had a vine on it and he would paint all the little leaves. And I just thought how could you do that? It would drive me insane.
I think it's because you don’t get a lot of time, and when you do snatch some it feels so valuable and I’m certainly not going to spend it painting 5,000 leaves! But then you can see how his accomplishment as a painter has come through hours and hours and hours of working.
AB: Yes I think he did paint every single day and there is a story about the benefits supervisor model. She went on holiday and got a bit of a tan and he was livid and said he couldn’t paint her for 6 weeks until her skin tone returned. So he was obviously incredibly particular about mixing his colours and I think he may have mixed every brush stroke separately. Which is all incredibly time consuming.
SB: Yes, I do that, virtually every brush stroke is a separate colour.
AB: Rather than mixing on the canvas?
SB: Yes at the beginning it's about shadow and shape but the further it evolves I try and mix each stroke separately. My degree was 3 dimensional design and that has informed my painting in terms of creating planes. I find drawing a bit laboured and I prefer paint as its more ‘splat’. I like to colour mix. Recently I've noticed certain artists who have very beautiful palettes. They’re so considered, they obviously don’t waste much paint! Mine are just a mess and I can never come back and find a colour I used 10 minutes ago because its been obliterated by something else that I’ve mixed.
AB: But I think that is something you do or you don’t do and if you force yourself - you may find you lose part of your signature. I would also say you’re much more of a colourist than Freud and Saville.
SB: They have more subtlety. The palette doesn’t have much, but the breadth within it is breathtaking. My paintings tend to have everything in them – maybe if I progressed as a painter I’d be able to get that subtlety. I really love the delicacy of some artists paint mixing.
AB: Lets talk about scale – does being in here limit you to certain size of canvas?
SB: Not really, I just haven’t been painting very big recently. The only thing I really struggle in here with is the light. Sometimes it comes through the back of the canvas so I have to block it off. And the light changes throughout the day. It’s south facing, so its not ideal. But I’m not going to complain.
AB: So, is that the only thing you would change? If it faced the other way?
SB: Yes. I love this space.... What’s your studio like?
AB: My studio is the attic. So I can only stand up in the middle. My easel can only go to a certain height because of it. But there is an end wall and I think I can throw some stuff at that. But again, I’m not complaining. I’m really interested about how the space is going to affect my work. In my case, I need that studio, but I also need some stimulation.
SB: Yes, you can’t create out of nothing. That was my problem for years as a mum of young children. There was nothing going in. I was always creative so always took the opportunity to make something – like the kids dressing up costumes I always took really seriously and became a bit obsessive over, because I needed that creativity. And then I reached a point when I realised I was incredibly frustrated that I had nothing to paint and couldn’t think of anything to paint. It’s only recently now that my youngest child is 8 that I’m finding things in my head to paint again.
AB: That’s very interesting. I have a friend who says that for her, having and looking after young children was like being in a cultural coma.
SB: Yes that’s a good way of describing it.
AB: And now the kids are a bit older we have this need to feed ourselves with all this stimulation again. What are the places you like to go to and visit for inspiration?
SB: One of my favourite things to do is just go for a wander and look at everything. It’s a very emotional process. We’ve had masses and masses of bereavement in our family over the last 8 years and everybody is touched by that at our age. But it really has taught me to take pleasure from simple moments. You get to a point in your life when you feel your own mortality and you think about what is it that makes my life good. For me it was visual beauty. Moments of visual beauty that can be anything and you can see them everywhere.
"I remember very clearly one memory, that I come back to a lot. I was in my teens in a coach going over the Westway and someone leant out of a window of one of those towerblocks and let go of a whole stack of A4 paper. It just exploded for a second in the air and then just as quickly it was gone. It has just stayed in my head. Just one of those moments when you see something visually incredible."
Those are things that inspire me, they may not feed directly into my painting but they’re always there bubbling away.
AB: And they give you pleasure. Are you interested in The Sublime as a genre?
SB: Yes I get that. I know what you mean. It’s the moments that make me feel great. I’m not religious at all, but there are moments when humans create something so wonderful, like a ballet, or a piece of music or a painting – or even a moment when someone does something spontaneously wonderful.
AB: Yes, I was always embarrassed that I liked to create something beautiful. Coming from a conceptual art background I always felt that I lacked the intellectual rigour or self-torture that 'proper' art should be about. So it has taken me a long time to accept the fact that’s its ok to aspire to beauty in art. And I how we create something that transcends the earthly and the human. I find that an utterly compelling and attractive space.
SB: I guess they are the moments when you see the real beauty in having a life to live. And they are the ones you should take notice of. I don’t know if I’ll ever paint them. But I think the work I’m starting to do now is certainly more emotional. I want to work with significant objects. It's always been important for me – and I’ve started to talk to people about which objects they carry with them through life. I’d like to start incorporating those things into my portraits.
AB: In a way, that’s an indirect portrait isn’t it? The stuff we keep and how we arrange them - it's part of us as individuals.
SB: Yes, it sounds really over blown. But I almost feel I have a physical reaction to objects. That they have an energy and when I touch them I can feel it. Sometimes it drives me insane. When I go round peoples houses I’m always looking and asking about the objects. I find it exhausting but fascinating. Lately I’ve been asking people what is their most treasured object. It’s a really difficult question.
AB: So what’s your most treasured object then?
SB: I can’t answer that! And it would change. But right now this minute I’d say it was that whirligig windmill that my father made for me. But you know – that could change. There is nothing in here that makes me unhappy, because this is my space. But in the house there are multiple things that make me feel not great, that I’d rather get rid of. So what I have created in this studio is a space with very positive feelings.
AB: I should imagine that your portraits certainly become 'treasured possessions' and they are a beautiful way to immortilise the sitter for future generations.
SB: I knew a portrait painter and he was commissioned to restore a portrait which had gone peculiar around the mouth. The sitter’s wife had been kissing the portrait every night before she went to sleep. I loved that. That must be something that is linked into my work.
AB: So, do you like the idea that something has been created for one purpose but we change it through our ownership.
SB: Yes, there is a Japanese term. “wabi-sabi" that means value that is added through time and use. It has a connection through making objects more beautiful and how aging is a beautiful thing and should be embraced.
AB: That’s beautiful - that’s my new favourite word. So, does that mean a painting or portrait can be too perfect?.
SB: Yes there is definitely a point that a painting becomes too overworked for me and you lose that nuance of the viewer working something out for themself. There has been a trend in recent years with photographic style portraits and although they are amazing , it doesn’t give you anything emotional does it? And that’s where I am – I try and get some emotion into it by it not being perfect and the viewer is given some room for interpretation.
AB: And now, you are looking to develop your work with your interest in these 'significant objects'?
SB: Yes, it’s personal and a route I’m looking at. I do find it necessary to have some respite from other stuff that's going on and want to work on my own projects.
AB: So you find it takes your mind off life’s stressful stuff?
SB: And it helps you forget the passing of time. Whether it is painting, drawing or making things. Actually, my immediate go to – is making anything. I tend to make things and give them away. It’s made and then it moves on.
AB: So its meditative?
SB: Yes it helps me to feel relaxed making things.
"I must say something that is really important. When I got my shed, initially I had this kind of compulsion that I must do something. But eventually I found out that it is just as useful to sit and do nothing. You can't launch yourself into the creative process without pausing."
AB: That seems like the perfect place to stop doesn't it?