This post is from 2014. sadly Steph died on the 1st Feb 2017. RIP
I met up with Stephanie Burton on the second day of her exhibition at the Wesley Methodist Church on St John Street.
“I think I knew I was a painter when I was 6, but I didnt know I could draw until I was 14.. I went to art college and found I was just lost because they didnt understand my work at all, trying to get me to do modern art and thinsg like landscapes. I once did a packet of biscuits that I’d eaten.. that was my one concesssion to still life.” She say that she “didnt really know what was going on.. it was in the early 80s and computers had just come in and computer images, and everyone was going “whats the point of painting from life, you can just take a photo and photoshop it” ” She then took up teaching but also “got lost”. Then she had her children: “that went on for a bit, 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.
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 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,, 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, an ex copper- he was hung in the tourist office glaring at people, the town crier David Mitchell, thats a lady I met in Tesco!” Due to the cost of exhibition space she approached local shops who agreed to display a portrait 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! But I made lots of friends and contacts in town”
A young mother with pram interupted our chat to arrange a portrait sitting.
“Two weeks after that , we had the exhibition in Funky aardvark, and that was a lot of fun just 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 wouldnt go away, so she went and knockedon the door of the Harold Tomlins day centre on Grosvenor road, “big black door, no windows, no nothing”. She thought to herself “please dont 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 whos ever painted homeless people from life. Most people take a photo and then you go home. Most people in fact dont approach the homeless, they dont speak to them. I couldnt 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 wasnt entirely without risk. First of all they were really suspicious, and everyone was too busy to be painted, they didnt want to know. Once they saw me painting they realised I was actually alright and quite good at it and I wasnt 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 theres 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 didnt 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 dont 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”
“As time went on I realised two things.One, that being homeless is awful, they dont want to be homeless, and the other thing is that they dont 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), theres 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 accomodation…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 emergency accomodation “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 havent got a sense of humour, you might as well shoot yourself in the head, otherwise whats 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 wooly 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 druk Gavin Henson on Pepper Street!” Of the 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 didnt 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 sayong a word!” she laughs.
Face in the Street runs until 19th July and Stephanie will be there every day 10-2, a pencil portrait costs £9 with 25% going to CATH.