The works of painter and sculptor Stephanie Bell May stand out through a unique take on abstraction, an evocative colour spectrum, and traces of political stance. Born and raised in Mexico, Stephanie later moved to the US, where she obtained a Bachelor in Fine Art from Pepperdine University. She did extensive travelling, which illuminated a complex approach to diversity and cultures, incorporated in her art works. Striving to produce art that challenges emotions and activates all senses, the artist uses writing, poetry, and music in her painting practice. She consistently speaks for freedom and justice and is an ardent supporter of equality and human rights.
Stephanie has her art exhibited in Mexico and the US, with recent work done for Mercedes Benz in Los Angeles, and for Rolls-Royce in Pebble Beach, California, and is currently preparing a travelling exhibition. She recently opened her own art school, “The Creative Experience,” which aims at helping people find their artistic voice. We spoke with Stephanie on her artistic practice, the crossroads of politics and art, and the various points of inspiration in her career.
Elena Stanciu: Please tell us about yourself and your art practice. How did you start making art? Are you a painter who does sculpture, or a sculptor who paints?
Stephanie Bell May: I consider myself a professional observer. I grew up in Mexico City and moved to the United States, but I have travelled extensively seeking knowledge, every chance I get. Seeing many cultures have influenced my world views and have contributed to the subject matter in my art. I paint every day and I prepare by blanking my mind and allowing experimentation. I don't have expectations, only ideas about the subject matter or some feelings. I don’t follow a recipe. I just experiment and go with what feels right: I don't think about a piece as being flat or three-dimensional from the beginning. It evolves on the way. A piece in Breasts as Liability for example started out as a painting, but I felt it necessary to add volume and weight, to reference the historical burden on women’s bodies. That painting needed to become a sculpture.
ES: How did you become interested in politics? Was there a particular event that triggered this interest? Some would argue it’s utopic to believe art can produce real change, when it comes to social and political issues. How would you respond?
SBM: There was no particular event that got me interested in politics. My family always discussed politics and religion, and I began observing society to confirm or deny the opinions I heard. I formed my own opinions based on comparing and contrasting. I reached a more nuanced understanding of “truth,” by looking at how other people tell their stories and see the world.
A few years ago, I decided to make inventory of my current beliefs: I erased all that I thought I believed and started from zero. It’s a great exercise in authenticity, essential when making art. I always tell my students to explore their truth and put it in their works. That's the only art there really is: the one with all the layers of comfort and security peeled off. It may be a way of producing change, as change starts with honesty.
ES: You were born and raised in Mexico, and later moved to the US to pursue your studies. Was there something in this early part of your life in Mexico that influenced your art?
SBM: Definitely! It formed my views on democracy and how women are viewed. I was born in the ‘70s in Mexico, a time of “fake” democracy and entrenched corruption. Courageous reporters who spoke out against politicians would end up dead, and people's votes did not count in elections. Coming to the US in the early ‘80s was a huge contrast. I witnessed first-hand what a decent government was supposed to be. Unfortunately, even the United States reached a point of struggling to uphold its historic values.
ES: Where are you based now? Do your surroundings (social/political/religious) impact your current work?
SBM: I currently live in San Diego, California, a beautiful place with many easy-going people and beach-goers. If you want to see Utopia, head out to my favourite beach area in Encinitas, called Swamis. Everyone here is peace-loving; there’s yoga, meditation, and progressive ideals on every corner. It is a hotbed for very spiritually and politically evolved ideas, which have influenced me. I painted a series called Infinite and Absolute Freedom, about personal freedom from societal fears, judgements or ideas about right or wrong.
ES: Your works speak directly to feminist concerns contain a type of abstraction that reminds of the body, the skin, the materiality of what femininity entails. Can you elaborate on this fascination with embodiment?
SBM: The female body is fascinating and sublime. The female figure just flows easily, both as a subject matter and as a shape. I am endlessly intrigued by the intricate influences and oppression women have experienced in history and in today’s societies. I am constantly in search of origins and causes for such oppression. My art and my writing propose questions around the role of monotheistic religions and patriarchy in the systemic oppression of women. There are always more questions than answers, so the arduous journey to transform cultures continues.
ES: Your credo as an artist is closely connected to the idea of freedom/ the fight for freedom which is at the core of humanity’s most notable endeavours. What does this mean to you? How can others use your art in their fight for freedom?
SBM: I am certain that ideals of peace, freedom, equality and fairness are not unreasonable. Some Nordic European countries have created nearly ideal societies, and still live in current Western world constraints. It is possible to have a normal society with laws and capitalism, and still have fairness, equality, and freedom. Democracy and human rights are ideals that need to be cultivated and at times fought for if need be; they’re not for the complacent. We all need to do our part.
My part is to speak, write, paint, vote, and demonstrate peacefully. By rebelling peacefully, by criticising my politicians and institutions about what is not ideal, I am exercising my human rights. I consider my life to have been incredibly privileged, which is why I speak against injustice: to counter the silence of those who have no opportunity to be heard.
ES: Most of your recent works are rather dark, both in tone/ palette and in concept. How did you arrive at this point? Is this pessimism/ loss of hope for freedom/ anger?
SBM: My work has always had a rather dark tone. I’ve always been drawn to those colours; I find them elegant and mystical. It's not because I am morose or moody in character, or a tortured artist. Quite the contrary, I consider myself an eternal optimist.
ES: In recent years, many women from creative fields have come forth to unmask their industries for inequality, abuse, and male-dominated hierarchies. How do you relate to this, as a female in a creative field, historically inclined to favour men?
SBM: All institutions that have little to no diversity become corrupt. Governments, religious or financial institutions, all work better with diversity and transparency. When women make up half of governing bodies or fill leadership roles, there is less corruption and more care for the vulnerable. I find it exhilarating that women are finding their voices and coming forward. It's a sign of change to come and hierarchies to be overturned; the art world is no exception.
Words - Elena Stanciu
Artworks - Stephanie Bell May