“They are the hurting side of society and they need healing” The Portrait Artist

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.

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“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”

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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”

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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”

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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.

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

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6 comments

  1. i primarily live in Uganda these day`s ,every day I`m confronted with shocking poverty and yet Chester and the UK are prosperous, good Health care, social services and affordable housing could be provided it`s just a case of having the political commitment to provide those services, the fact that that will is seemingly not there makes the life experiences documented in this art exhibition all the more shaming

  2. Statement regarding censorship allegation

    Cheshire West and Chester Council today (Thursday) strongly denied allegations of ‘censorship’ by local artist.

    A Cheshire West and Chester Council spokesman said: “We are baffled at Stephanie Burton’s claims that her film on homelessness has somehow been censored by this authority.

    “We understand that the artist made no contact with either ourselves or our homeless service provider whilst making the film.

    “Consequently, some scenes were inaccurate, offensive and totally misrepresented the service provided in this borough.

    “But the only person who could or would have had the right to remove aspects of the film was the artist herself.

    “In fact, her edited version – minus scenes which would have been wholly inappropriate to be viewed the many children who use the library daily – is currently showing as planned.”

    • You should be utterly ashamed of yourself for stating “some scenes were inaccurate, offensive and totally misrepresented”. This scene was based on input from the homeless. It is their opinion of the safe seat which Stephanie depicts. The mature and responsible way for Cheshire West and Chester Council to respond to this film is to initiative a positive dialogue with the homeless and perhaps Roodee House. Acknowledge that whilst the safe seat is an initiative with good intentions, it is, unfortunately not fit for purpose and alternatives should be looked at. A best-endeavours to try and improve the initiative. Instead we have this rather damning response which is absolutely unfair on Stephanie. Not a good move at all folks…

      • Calm down, Bob. The council have mentioned that “Consequently, some of the scenes were inaccurate, offensive and totally misrepresented the service of provided in this borough.” – it would be of interest to know which ‘some’ of those scenes are misrepresented? I realise that the council have not been very forthcoming in their comments in highlighting the scenes that they consider inaccurate and should be given the opportunity here to add further response to this and I for one, I am curious in this matter.

  3. I am the artist who made the film. My film is an artistic representation of the comments that the homeless people of Chester have made to me in the year I have known them. They have given me written permission to use their words and experiences, and it’s possible to view them speaking those words on my You tube account:

    My film is fictional but it contains universal truths about homelessness. The homeless have 2 choices, they can sleep rough or access the safe seat. I had to represent the safe seat in the film, and had to give a brief explanation of what a safe seat was, as the general public did not know what it was. I have said nothing offensive about it.

    I would like it to be known that before I filmed the safe seat scene I visited the staff in Roodee House to ask permission to see the safe seat so that I could represent it properly. I also asked if I could film in there with my actors. They refused both requests, so I have never actually seen the safe seat. The homeless tell me they are told to stay in the seat all night and are not allowed to sleep on the floor.
    My film shows someone trying to sleep in a chair all night. In the morning they are poked with a mop by a cleaning lady. This is a joke character; the film is a comedy and has the approval of the homeless themselves. It states on my website that the seat and the lady are not representative of the furniture or council staff.

    My film is not accurate in one sense. It only shows one person in one seat in one room. I have been informed that there are 6 people in 6 seats in a room less than 260ft square.

    The first I heard of the Council’s problem with my film is the venues (Wesley Centre and Library) phoning me up to say that FENW had contacted them and were unhappy about the safe seat scene. I phoned John Marsland from FENW that very day, several times and I left my telephone number but got no reply. I then emailed him asking him what the problem was with my film. He has never answered my question.
    I cut the safe seat scene out because the Wesley Centre and the Library would not show the film, after FENW had contacted them, unless I cut the safe seat scene out.

    I am angry that the Wesley Centre and the Library have been hassled like this as they are really kind people and do a great job for the public. I cut the scene of someone weeing on a homeless person (you can see the bottom of someone’s legs and water coming down, nothing else) out of respect for diners at the Wesley and older people at the library. There is nothing intrinsically offensive about my film! The only offensive thing is, that if it is true what the homeless tell me, that they are sleeping upright in chairs every night, now that is offensive to me.

    FENW are employed by the Council to run the safe seat provision. In their one email to me, FENW stated that they have known about my film for months. The safe seat scene has been online for months and months. They have never complained about it before and have never contacted me about it. I would have welcomed the chance to discuss it and I am really easy to contact. If you google “Stephanie Burton portrait artist” my website is the first one to come up on google and my contact details are on the website! Instead, FENW just went straight to the Wesley Centre and the Library. Why did they pick right now, just as my exhibition starts, to get offended and cause trouble?

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