Exhibition details here- https://www.blackboxbelfast.com/event/exhibition-deconstruct
This May we have been so happy to have print maker HeraldBLACK// Stephen Dow. We wanted to find out more about Stephen’s art practice and the ideas and inspiration behind the work. In addition to the images Stephen selected for our Instagram takeover, we got to ask a few questions, you can read the answers below in this short interview. Thank you Stephen for being our first ‘virtual’ exhibiting artist and sharing your beautiful work with us
What’s your background?
I graduated from The Belfast School of Art in 1997 from the BA (Hons) Combined Studies course. It was a broad degree where you could select two main areas of study, mine were printed textiles and textile craft so I had a good understanding of both practices but not a specialism.
I moved to Dublin immediately after college, my first job was for John Rocha as print assistant where I was delighted to work with the wonderfully talented print designer Lou Brennan. It was a fantastic insight in to the process of sampling & printing to catwalk and production, the progression route after this may have been to set up as a freelance designer but I wasn’t self confident enough then to embark on that. It was the era before social media & smart phones, the internet was evolving and e-commerce was in it’s infancy. There weren’t the same tools available as there are now, the time wasn’t right for me then.
I drifted in to retail as many graduates do and ended up working in home accessories merchandising for Habitat & The Conran Shop for over 10 years. This was a more valuable experience than I realised at the time as it equipped me with skills and insight for setting up my creative business heraldblack in 2014.
Are there key themes in your work? What are they, how do you explore them?
Architectural, botanical and figurative elements have influenced my work at different times. I’m obsessive about one element for months and months then have to move to something else which can seem to be the opposite of the previous.
Since college days I’ve always used photos as a starting point of my research. My first art college grant was spent on a Pentax camera (a 35mm film one, it was pre-digital days…& pre-student loan days too). Now I use my phone camera to make ‘visual notes’ of the things that interest me. I’ll make sketches and collages from the photos and usually these will be developed in to prints.
My recent work, ‘(de)construct’, is clearly architecturally based as it is my response to the 1970s Brutalist extension to the Ulster Museum by architect Francis Pym. I have to admit to being obsessed by this building, it featured in my work in 2019 too.
In 2018 a lot of my work was botanical, both drawn and monoprinted. Perhaps that’s a throwback to my screen print days at college, I can see how some of the prints could become a fashion or interiors textile. A good textile print is a very considered, planned and engineered piece of art, it has to be beautifully balanced and work in all directions. It’s a skilled piece of design.
My degree show work was more figurative and inspired by literature, particularly Francois Mauriac’s novel ‘Therese Desqueyroux’. This was also a starting point for ‘Tears I Bled’, a series of prints & collages for The Brooklyn Art Library.
How has your practice developed or changed over time?
Having initially studied textile screen printing I am now involved with printmaking so I’ve changed from prints on fabric to ones on paper instead. Although the principles are similar there were a lot of new techniques I had the opportunity to learn.
Before I decided to return to printing after years of working in retail I enrolled with Shadwell Print Studio in East London. They offer classes as well as studio time so I had the chance to practice a variety of print techniques; wood cut, drypoint, collagraph before finding that monoprinting was the one for me. Even under the umbrella term ‘monoprint’ there are numerous possibilities so I expect my style will continue to evolve.
When I first started selling at markets I had monoprints & a small range of cards. I knew I needed a lower price point item to get some sales and the cards matched this criteria but I always thought the prints would be the main part of my business. As the variety of prints increased so did the card range and I spotted an opportunity to wholesale these, to have them stocked in shops across the country. After all, they are like a business card or advertisement of my work.
My merchandising experience came in very useful now as I previously dealt with wholesale & retail pricing, margin, invoicing, credit & delivery terms so I knew what information I needed to supply to retail buyers to make the process as efficient as possible. I now have stockists in the UK, EU and USA and while I never envisaged becoming a card wholesaler it is an important part of my business as it helps fund my printmaking practice.
Social media has been incorporated in to the way I work too. I take a lot of photos with my phone and have used Instagram for many years. For me it acted as a visual diary, an extension of my notebooks, a place I could record things of interest. That soon developed in to documenting my making process as not everyone knows what a monoprint is or how it is made. Photographs of the stages help explain it perfectly and gets people engaged with the work I’m making. I sell prints via my website as well as at markets. Online selling can be so anonymous and detached but social media helps bridge that, it allows a connection and a dialogue to take place so I find it an extremely useful tool to interact with those interested in my work.
What work or processes do you most enjoying doing?
The print studio is my favourite sanctuary, a place for focus, for following processes but also then exploring and adapting them to find your way of working. I really enjoy the unexpectedness of monoprinting. It’s usually the accidental marks that happen which become the best feature of a print, the bit you didn’t plan nor influence.
The making process is quite a solitary one so I do enjoy doing art fairs, getting the opportunity to talk to people about the work, seeing reaction and generally having a chat with anyone who stops at the stall. In the same way I quite like posting about work on Instagram, it reaches an audience and encourages engagement.
Who or what are your biggest influences?
That’s always a tricky question as there are certainly people I admire and can easily identify as an influence but then there are all those subconscious ones too which I haven’t acknowledged yet.
The work of American artist Robert Rauschenberg was what made me want to pursue screen printing. I also really loved the graphic work of David Carson & Amy Guip as a student. I suppose it was the collaging & layering of images that attracted me to their work.
Eadward Muybridge’s studies of locomotion & movement still captivate me today. They look like a contact sheet, it is the notion of sequence and slight variation from one frame to the next that fascinates me. Perhaps that is why I make a series of monoprints, each one is different but I use the same components in a different configuration so they relate to but have evolved from one another.
I’m obsessed with Francis Bacon. His paintings are brutal & beautiful. When I lived in Dublin my bus would terminate beside the Hugh Lane Gallery. His studio is installed there, I’d frequently make a pilgrimage to it.
Have you had any responses to your work that were particularly memorable, or not what you expected?
It was a very pleasant surprise when Pringle of Scotland contacted me, expressing interest in my prints. The Head of Menswear had spotted my work on Instagram as some pieces fitted with the orientation of their Spring Summer 2018 collection. One of my monoprints was digitally printed on to fine gauge knitwear and seeing the piece on vogue.com was an immensely proud moment.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A friend told me ‘it’s about momentum’. Getting where you want to be is a journey that may not go exactly as planned but as long as there is progress, no matter how small, it’s still progress. I’ve learned not to get too distracted when things have not advanced at the pace I expected or when discussions of commissions & collaborations go quiet. It is likely that something has been learned during the process anyway, I prefer to focus on that. Also take in to account the connection that has been made, I’ve been surprised how paths can cross again years later.