The Portrait Artist -Exhibition

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 The Portrait Artist, Stephanie Burton …. now presenting an exhibit of her works at

The Wesley Methodist Church, Chester. Until 19. July

http://www.wesleychester.co.uk/

The portraits are available for viewing daily. An inspirational and poignant view into the faces of the homeless in Chester.

Chester Culture are proud to present an interview  by guest blogger : @shitchester.

The interview first appeared on the blog: http://shitchester.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/welcome-to-the-blog/
“I think I knew I was a painter when I was 6, but I didn’t know I could draw
until I was 14.. I went to art college and found I was just lost because
they didn’t understand my work at all, they tried to get me to do modern art
and things like landscapes. I once did a packet of biscuits that I’d eaten..
that was my one concession to still life.” She say that she “didn’t really
know why I didn’t fit in.. it was in the early 80s and computers had just
come in and photoshop, and everyone was going “what’s the point of painting
from life, you can just take a photo and photoshop it” ” She then took up
teaching but got fed up going to school. Then she had her children: “that
took lots of time, then one day, I just woke up in the morning and I thought
“now I’ll do it!” ” Prior to this Stephanie did painting in between her job
and family commitments, but when her sons were at secondary school she
resolved to go professional.

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Last year Stephanie ran her first exhibition. “The idea was to get a bit of
practice in.” She got a lot of people to sit for her for free in exchange
for their portrait. Stephanie showed me a folder containing most of the
portraits and spoke fondly of all of her subjects , for example the “fierce
looking” biker gang member Woody. “I went up to him in the street, and asked
“please can I paint you?” and he replied angrily “Who are you!!?” He got in
his car and drove away.. but then he phoned me back, and when he saw his
painting, he cried, because of joy.” Other subjects included “Nez, a local
burlesque photographer, he burst into song every 5 seconds, John an ex
copper- he was hung in the tourist office staring people down, the town
crier David Mitchell, and Linda -thats a lady I met in Tesco in Broughton!”
Due to the cost of exhibition space she approached local shops, who agreed
to display a portrait for free as part of the “face in the window” treasure
hunt. The idea was for the public to visit each shop, get the name of the
person pictured, and enter into the competition, in the process generating
some footfall for the businesses involved. “It was a success in that I
learned a lot of things very quickly, I learned that I had too many
portraits for people to find – 24! But I made lots of friends and contacts
in town”

A young mother with pram interrupted our chat to arrange a portrait sitting.

“Two weeks after that , we transferred the exhibition to Funky aardvarks,
and that was a lot of fun meeting lots of people. During that time I just
got this idea to go and paint the homeless.” The idea was stuck in Stephanie’s
head and wouldn’t go away, so she went and knocked on the door of the Harold
Tomlins day centre on Grosvenor Road, “I was scared, big black door, no
windows, no nothing”. She thought to herself “please don’t answer”, but they
did, and as soon as they started speaking, she thought “please dont say
yes!” But she’s glad they did say yes.

“The main reason I did it was because its one of the biggest challenges that
a portrait artist can do, to paint people on the edge of destitution, kindly
and sympathetically and lovingly. I’m the only artist as far as I know in
the whole of the UK who’s ever painted homeless people from life. Most
people take a photo and then go and paint at home. Most people in fact don’t
approach the homeless, they don’t speak to them. I couldn’t have done this
project without CATH (Chester aid to the homeless), they put me in a safe
environment and protected me. All of the paintings were done in the centre..
it wasn’t entirely without risk. First of all the homeless were really
suspicious of me, and everyone was too busy to be painted, they didn’t want
to know. Once they saw me painting they realised I was actually alright and
quite good at it and I wasn’t going to steal their soul”

“I ask people to look me right in the eyes, because the eyes are the windows
of the soul and you can get a lot from that. Someone looking at you in the
eyes, they can’t hide. And I thought it would be hard for the homeless but
they’re not afraid. I suppose if you’ve been on the street there’s not much
left to be afraid of”

20 oil paintings were started, 5 were completed, because “people come and
go.. some went to prison, some disappeared, some of them just didn’t fancy
it that day” Of the project she says “most of it was getting to know them
and being accepted” Brief paragraphs underneath the pencil drawings on
display provide some background information on the lives of those pictured.
I asked Stephanie how big a problem homelessness was in Chester given the
controversial location of the Richmond court centre. “If you’re talking
about tourism, its a difficult problem ,and its not something people want to
see.. its uncomfortable, you’re here for a day out and you’re on holiday and
someone comes up to you begging.. I don’t agree with the begging side of it.
If you go to India you’re going to get begged at really badly.. This is
nothing. Why do you think that coming to Chester, you’re not going to find a
beggar? What makes you think Chester is so special?… Chester is special..I
chose to come and live here (She is originally from London) .. I came to
visit when I was 20, I stood and looked up at the clock and I just fell in
love with it…I was homeless when I was 18 so I have complete empathy with
these people and feel very strongly that they have to be looked after. They
are the hurting side of society and they need healing.. what actually has to
be done I have no idea because I’m not a social worker”

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“As time went on I realised two things. One, that being homeless is awful,
they don’t want to be homeless, and the other thing is that they don’t have
a voice in society” Stephanie decided to produce a film depicting a day in
the life of 5 homeless people. “They told me all their anecdotes, about what
life is like, things like being wee-ed on (deleted scene available online),
there’s somebody being attacked by a cat.. They go round Chester and cause
havoc and the end of the film is about loneliness” She says that she tried
hard to add elements of humour to the video, while tackling a controversial
and awful topic. Stephanie’s website states that the council have censored
part of the video due to a controversy regarding the “safe seat” where the
council “provides seats for the homeless to sleep in as emergency
accommodation…The homeless people tell Stephanie they find it hard to sleep
in a seat and this is affecting their health”
(http://www.theportraitartist.net/) The council say that the homeless
emergency accommodation “is not reliant on beds” and a council spokesperson
was quoted last year as saying “The principles behind safe seats rest on a
careful balance between the provision of a time-limited service that does
not create dependency and allows professional staff to assess an individual
for more permanent arrangements”
(http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/rough-sleepers-chester-tell-story-5114880)

The full video is available on Stephanie’s website.

“You’ve got to have a sense of humour, If you haven’t got a sense of humour,
you might as well shoot yourself in the head, otherwise what’s the point!”
she laughs vivaciously. I asked Stephanie about the letter from Prince
Williams office which she proudly displays; ” I think he’s great HRH. I saw
a photo of him once, with his mum, she had taken him out one night to show
him what it was like to be homeless. She really believed in showing her sons
what was going on in the world. I remember him with a woolly hat on trying
to sleep under a cardboard box. I invited him to the premiere because he
knows about the homeless and supports charities. I had these grand visions
of him coming in a helicopter, landing in the amphitheatre… but of course he
wasn’t able to come. It was a nice little dream, but I did get a nice
letter”

We closed with some general thoughts about her life and involvement in the
Midsummer parade. She currently works as a maths tutor for gifted children
with special needs, as well as writing maths textbooks. She is a big fan of
@Shitchester and describes it as the “funniest thing since I nearly knocked
over a drunk Gavin Henson in the middle of  Pepper Street!” Of the Midsummer
Watch parade she says ” I painted Russell Kirk last year and he asked me to
get involved.. I demanded that I be a pirate because I didn’t want to be
anything else. I screamed my head off at the crowds, the trouble is when the
pirate ship stops you have to be careful what you say! I did threaten to cut
people’s heads off and eat children, they loved it! It was 2 days running
and it was exhausting, but now I can get through the barriers on Northgate
street without saying a word!” she laughs.dsc_13081

Face in the Street runs until 19th July and Stephanie will be there every
week day 10am -2pm, a pencil portrait costs £9 with 25% going to CATH.

You can read more at www.theportraitartist.net/ and www.cath.org.uk

written by: @shitchester.wordpress.com

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