Inspired by the transience of natural objects, Stephanie E. Graham attempts to address the historical and the symbolic in art. Each of her artworks is a pastiche of images, thoughts and ideas, portrayed poetically with detailed drawings and delicate embroidery. “I view the majority of my work as a form of self portrait: a constant layering of the objects, creatures, and places that fascinate me in an effort to order my thoughts and obsessions. It is an attempt to to reconcile the historical with the contemporary, ornamentation with nature, and preservation with decay,” she says.
The inspiration from nature is not limited to the conception of her works. Stephanie E. Graham even incorporates natural materials like beeswax into the making of her mixed media works. In a way, looking at Graham’s work is like peering into a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of objects that may otherwise seem obscure or worthless, but which have obtained a sense of value and perhaps even mystery through their curation by the artist. “The layering of objects and the obsessive repetition of motifs allows me to make different connections either visually or symbolically within the work,” she explains.
What is your creative process like? Do you carefully plan everything or develop the piece as you go?
When I start one of the mixed media pieces I plan out the composition of the embroidery carefully. It is the most time-consuming part of my process and I don’t like to have to go back and re-do anything.
Once the embroidery is done I stretch the canvas over the frame and add the beeswax, paper, etc. The layering of the beeswax sheets, more thread, and paper silhouettes is a much more relaxed process. I add objects, take them away, and put them back in a slightly different position than they started out in. My process is a combination of careful planning and intuitive improvisation.
There is a visible dark side to your works despite the recurrence of natural objects. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
I find decay fascinating. The falling apart and rebuilding that occurs everywhere in nature and history is a process we are all connected to. I think that many beautiful things in nature are made more beautiful because they are temporary – they will not last forever. I have also always been interested in anatomical drawings, particularly the images of veins and bones.
You did an installation using beeswax sheets, vellum, beeswax-dipped paper, and old books. How did this project come to be?
In my thesis year at university, I developed an allergy to oil paints, and therefore, had to find a new medium to work with (or wear a big, uncomfortable mask all day, every day). The project I had been working on was inspired by illuminated manuscripts and botanical illustrations so I decided to take my material inspiration from history as well. I started drawing animals, flowers, insects, etc. on pieces of vellum [Editor’s note: vellum is a smooth material made from a young animal’s skin and is used for writing on or covering books]. I was also using a lot of bee imagery and thus, wanted to incorporate beeswax in some way. There is nothing like that smell! I experimented with dipping different types of paper in the wax to create different levels of transparency. While supply shopping, I once came across thin sheets of beeswax and was thoroughly intrigued. I started drawing directly onto the wax too.
I layered all my different drawings on the gallery walls with seamstress pins and added screen prints and gold and silver leaf directly to the walls. The piece was installed in a few different locations. The size and shape of the gallery dictated the composition, so the installation transformed every time I put it up. It evolved with me and continues to evolve as I use the same process in my new mixed media pieces.
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There is quite a bit of symbolism in your current collection. Could you talk about that?
Many of the images I use as symbols are fairly ambiguous, as they have multiple meanings that have transformed and been lost over time. They have evolved with the work and the process. The symbol/imagery that occurs the most in my art is the bee. I love their productivity and work ethic. In my work, I often choose tasks/techniques that others might describe as arduous and am happy to sit for hours obsessing over the little details. The bees also act like a bridge connecting some of my seemingly unrelated imagery.
You use a wide range of non-conventional materials. Why is that? Do you think conventional materials limit you or is there any contextual reason for the materials you decide to use?
My use of non-conventional materials started in my last year of university with the installation mentioned above. After I took the installation down for the final time I was left with all the drawings on beeswax sheets and vellum. I wanted to incorporate them into ‘permanent’ artworks while also adding more color and texture to the pieces. Embroidery just seemed like a natural choice. I have always loved textiles and fabrics and I really like the idea of taking traditional craft practices that were dismissed for years as merely ‘women’s work’ and using them in contemporary art.
Do you have a favorite among your works? Which one and why?
My favorite mixed media piece is Mapping the Mind, which sold last year. I really struggled with it initially. The bright red ink I used for the bee screen prints is not one of my go-to colors and it threw me off for ages. I hated that piece more than any of the others in the series, but once I got over that horrible and tiring phase (that almost all my pieces seem to have) something clicked and now I absolutely love it. Distance helps!
You’re a huge bookworm. What genre are you into and why? What are you currently reading?
I read a wide variety of genres but my go-to’s are history, biographies, and fantasy. I am currently in the middle of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman and Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore.
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