Artist Hannah Stacey: “I don’t think I ever lost that sense of childish pleasure at having your hands caked with paint”
November 3, 2015
I first met Hannah at a competition she’d entered (and won) at White Cloth Gallery. Since then, I should own up to slightly obsessing about a couple of her works. We met up and discussed, well, quite a few things–amongst them, her leaving London for the charms of Leeds, the influence of religion on her work, and her current inspiration. Hannah has gone on to win other awards, been artist-in-residence at East St Arts and exhibited many times in Leeds, London, and New York. Here we get a small glimpse into the mind of Hannah Stacey.
Such a massive question! I love to tell stories and being hands-on with whatever work I am doing, so illustration fits this perfectly. I don’t think I ever lost that sense of childish pleasure at having your hands caked with paint at the end of the day, and I think this is linked to a very primal sense of satisfaction you get when you have strived to make something physical, something you can smell and feel as an end product.
How important is the creation of narrative?
Very. If I don’t have a character to connect to I lose a lot of my motivation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that character has to be visibly present in the illustration, it could even be the person or people behind the commission whose story I am telling. In the recent wallpaper I created for Analogue Studios I spent a lot of time with the guys in that studio and loved their sense of humour and energy they bring to their work, so it was important to relate their different personalities in the texture and feel of the different motifs I designed for them.
Is it important that people understand the narrative you’re attempting to create?
It is flattering if someone can see my intended story first time round, but if I am honest I get a bigger kick when someone sees a story all of their own, so I try to leave it pretty open ended, with a few options of storylines going. I once had a customer enquire about a print she had just bought from of me, asking about it’s backstory, and when I told her about it she actually argued back, saying I was wrong, and her own story was better! Some might find that strange, but I loved it, she had created such a strong connection to my work that she couldn’t accept any other.
You’ve mentioned previously the presence you feel while observing certain characters. Can you tell me more about that, and how those characters make it into your art?
I have a golden rule when choosing photographs to use in my work. The person involved must dominate their own image, they must have this sense of purpose, and seem to know who they are. They can be funny or serious or animated or still, it only matters that they have personality and have taken control of their own image, otherwise how can I create a story around them?
In the past we’ve discussed your concerns around the homogenisation of culture.
I think we were discussing the way in which today’s high levels of connection and instant communication online is starting to override geographical boundaries. Different cultures which were once so unique from each other are now merging incredibly quickly and the results in art and in music can be incredibly exhilarating and innovative. However, I often worry that the flip-side of this is a damaging sense of urgency. We are so keen to have the next big thing right now that what we may get is something akin to a child with ten pots of different coloured poster paints, tipping them all out onto a play mat and smushing them together until all you have is a pool of brown.
How much did religion shape you?
I would say probably quite a lot, but I am still finding out the full extent as I grow older! My Dad was a vicar for 22 years, and from the moment I could read I was brought to the front of church in my best puff-sleeved dress every Sunday to read the lesson, so I suppose it is pretty ingrained in me tell stories.
In what sense do you see a similarity between creative and religious pursuits?
I personally find them incredibly similar. Temples of worship and temples of art are equally the most intimate and yet public of places. To have your own extremely personal experiences with the subject and know that others around you are also doing the same. They are also the places where science and logic most obviously provide the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’. I think both art and religion can develop your emotional understanding of the world in ways that more formal and traditional education often sidelines.
You’ve been helping your sister this week. Do you work in similar ways?
Joy and I both tell stories and are both interested in visual arts, but that is where the similarity really ends. While I tell fictional stories Joy is interested in real ones, so this week I have been helping build an exhibition for her in Camden that brings together artists from former Ottoman territories that all use art as a form of political protest to violence. We thrive on our differences and bounce off each other very well when stuck for ideas. It was a conscious decision as teenagers that we should both study very different art subjects (for me textiles, and Joy photography) as we can both get quite competitive and it was more important that we remain friends!
You’ve moved to Barcelona. Why Barcelona, why now, and what do you hope it to feel like there?
So many reasons! To name a few: I hate the cold, I love Spanish culture, and I believe everyone should challenge themselves at least once in their lifetime to live on their own in a new culture for a while. I also have this very romantic dream of sitting out on a filigree iron fenced balcony from my flat on a Saturday morning in a long tshirt eating pastries and drinking coffee and I want to make it happen. Despite the fact that I hate coffee.
So many people head to London, you left. Why was that?
Leeds won me over! I went for my Degree interview on my own – I’d never visited Leeds before and as it was a 5 hour journey each way I decided to pay for a Travel Lodge overnight. That evening was nerve-racking, I was worried about my interview the next day, and also really aware that for the first time in my life I was in a completely strange city where I knew absolutely no one. I called Joy who told me in no uncertain terms to grow a pair, get a taxi to the nearest student pub and go meet someone. I ended up in Dry Dock, talking with photography students all night and they were so lovely! I was completely charmed by how friendly Leeds is, which was a welcome culture shock at the time coming from London.
What’s inspiring you now?
I have been watching a lot of films by Jan Švankmajer recently, and it’s making me itch to create another stop-motion animation. The last time I made one was simply because East Street Arts gave me the opportunity in their artist residency to see if I could, and now I know I can there is a lot I would do differently and more ambitiously, given a second chance.