Build A Boyfriend: Q&A with Mary Stephenson

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In an attempt to blur the line between fantasy and reality, London-based artist Mary Stephenson creates life-like props for her art pieces. She then then photographs herself or her subjects within the elaborate sets, emulating real life circumstances that one might see represented through snapshots in photo albums, or on social media.

Her work explores themes of delusion, parody, and make-believe, promising for an adventurous and hopefully self-reflective experience for viewers. Stephenson sat down with BTRtoday to discuss her process, influences, and why daydreams are sometimes better than reality.

BTRtoday: When did you first become interested in creating art?

Mary Stephenson (MS): When we were little, my mom would let us draw all over the walls of our house. Every inch was covered in multicolored pencil scribbles and drawings of funny characters and things.

We also spent every weekend in free art galleries around London. I am one of five children, and my mom always said that it was a refuge for her to take us to an art gallery. This was her favorite thing to do together. The first thing I created would have been these living room murals–this was my world, I lived in my own drawings.

BTRtoday: Tell us about your piece “My Man.”

MS: “My Man” is a new series of self portraits in which I’m exploring the staging and theatre in and around relationships.

BTRtoday: Have you ever become emotionally attached to a figure you created?

MS: Fortunately, I haven’t become too attached to the men in my portraits! They are meant to appear fairly redundant and vacant. The portraits are more about how I place myself within these idealized anticipations for relationships. The men are placeholders within my expectations for myself.

BTRtoday: What does “My Man” say about love?

MS: “My Man” explores the roles within romantic relationships, the hopes you have for
yourself and how someone else can control or affect that. I’m intrigued by the link between our internalized hopes for our lives and the relationship to the physical staging and structure of the actual reality of our existence.

How do other people play a role? How closely can we ever construct our idealized fantasies, or are we constantly straggling behind them? I think love is when someone makes these ambitions and expectations more possible.

BTRtoday: How did you get the idea for “Paper Portraits,” and what are you trying to convey through them?

MS: I’ve always painted but came to a point where the dimension of my work felt limited. My sculptural portraits embrace a playful desire to get inside the staging of paintings, enacting a childhood fantasy of mine to inhabit my favorite works of art.

As a little girl, I particularly loved Degas’ Dancers. I always thought, “Why can’t I jump on to that stage?” I imagined dancing along glistening oil paint filled floors and hiding behind long draped curtains, peering out across the auditorium in my beautiful crisp white tutu embellished with flowers. These works started as a process in which I was trying to live out and explore these dreams.

I am also heavily influenced by Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors.” Two men are surrounded by carefully picked items–each one depicting an area of knowledge, music, the arts–things that build up a picture of their lives and the personas they want to convey. I always felt like I could literally step into this picture.

In my portraits, I construct whole tableaux and narratives of my imagined life–the food and drink, the clothes, the furnishings, the mood and the music. I think to a certain extent we are all performing. Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the food we eat or the places we hang out, these components make up a sort of stage in which we perform and play.

BTRtoday: It seems pretty whimsical to create lifelike objects out of paper, and then place real-life people in these settings. What is that experience like for you and your subjects?

MS: I find it confusing and captivating, and I think my subjects do too. There’s an element of escapism. I can escape to a place that is 100 percent mine.

BTRtoday: Do you ever wish you could create your own world and live inside of it? Do your works of art allow you to do that in some capacity?

MS: Absolutely! I have a wonderful armchair and stool in my studio that is made from cardboard and hand painted. I like to sit in it and draw new ideas. When you can’t find that thing in the shops that you really want, why not just make it yourself out of paper? It’s very economical!

BTRtoday: How do you feel after you complete a piece of work?

MS: I feel very overwhelmed when I finish a piece of work. I tend to go into a sort of mourning period I guess. Creating highly controlled and idealized settings that encompass a huge amount of hope–they’re like extended, tangible dreams and thoughts that inevitably have to be taken down. There’s just not enough room in my studio to keep them all going, sadly!

BTRtoday: What emotions does the act of creating your pieces evoke for you?

I think control plays a huge role within my work. Being able to create and inhabit a place that’s totally mine makes me feel safe. There’s a reassurance there.

BTRtoday: What advice would you give to somebody who is interested in creating artwork, but feels that they are not skilled or original enough to do so?

I would tell them to forget about being skilled or original. Making artwork is about exploring and making sense of the world around us. If you get tied up in the idea of what art is, you’ll never create something new or affecting.

Recently, I went to the Picasso museum in Paris. The most inspiring thing I took away from it was how varied his work was. He made so much stuff! So diverse in styles and skills. It felt like he just played with every idea in his mind. Learning from every ugly, funny, beautiful, awkward and wonderful painting that he made.

BTRtoday: What is your favorite thing about your work?

My favorite thing about my work is that it lets me create my own worlds–mad, fantastical and colorful. The work allows me to explore and externalize my thoughts in a playful and fun way. It’s very easy to lose sense of yourself in this world, and regaining some control is hugely empowering.