If you’re not yet familiar with the work of Stephanie Simpson, she’s a designer, illustrator and part-time lecturer based in Cape Town. Recently, the artist has been working on a series of works that are currently on exhibition at Wellington’s Breytenbach Gallery. The series, a collection of collage works comprises found texts and images, gold leaf, and doodles. The work culminates in a humourous, whimsical, and somewhat poetic body of work.
We spoke to Stephanie as part of Graphic Art Month to find out more about her history with illustration, her imaginary friend, and the process of making collages with found media.
First off, tell us a bit about yourself and your history with graphic art.
I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller so graphic art is a simple and effective method for me to express my stories in. I was an only child for the first nine years of my life so I entertained myself by making comic strips. The first story I made was titled The Wierdoes about Captain Sticko and his crewmembers, The Weirdoes, who were about to crash their flying saucer. I guess I make art to entertain myself.
Can you give us a bit of context to your series of gold leaf and collage works? When did the series first begin?
In 2013 I was invited to take part in the Villanova Festival in Belgium and there I saw, for the first time, the cathedrals from the “olden days” – I had never stood in such an epic piece of architecture that old, so full of gold and natural light. I’d walk down the road and see the religious icons of Mary perched on the corner of buildings, dazzled in gold halos. While I was there, I made a couple of collages in response to what I saw. I only used the scraps of paper I had taken with me and doodles I made around the city to put my collages together. This was my first time to the overseas and when I came back home I noticed how golden the atmosphere is in South Africa (which was a noticeable contrast to the slightly grey light in Europe). I experienced a Western Cape sunset falling behind the mountain as if for the first time. I completed a couple of collages for my Honours portfolio and enjoyed the actual process of crafting the collages so I just carried on making these collages for myself. Towards the end of 2015, I was still at my desk making collages and contacted a couple of local boutiques to host them. Now I make collages for cool, cool shops like Abode, Fabricate and Present Space in Cape Town.
There’s a nice balance between whimsical, poetic pieces, and more humorous pieces in the series. How much do they two speak to each other in your work?
The entire process of making collages is quite whimsical. Recently, I have been working on a series called Thinking about dreaming. Very much influenced by the Dadaists, I enjoy how collage relies on chance – like the chance of that particular image meeting that other particular image creating a brand new picture. I collect old encyclopedias and my process involves playing around until I find a visual solution for an image. I then add text to give the abstract image its meaning. I allow the viewer to create the story behind the collage by connecting the imagery and the text. My collages become like paper readymades, sometimes just needing a slight tweak to tell the story I want them to tell. In between all the serious crafting and thinking about Thinking about dreaming, I find relief in creating collages that are a little silly. I mean, who would turn down the opportunity to turn a medical illustration of conjunctivitis into sarcastic commentary about society today?
What’s your absolute favourite thing about design/illustration and what’s your absolute worst thing about design/illustration?
When crafting collages, I must wait for that perfect moment when the right parts for a certain collage fall down from the heavens. This can be both frustrating and glorious. Sometimes I simply stumble across those right parts by chance while tidying up my desk. Sometimes I sit at my desk and stare at the images for hours, get up, make tea, come back and stare some more, shuffle around some images, um and ah, get up, make more tea, come back and stare, curse the heavens when nothing happens and decide to make a nap on the floor under my desk. While I sleep (still in my pajamas from last night, which by now, is the next night) I have a dream about a bird that sits on my shoulder and whispers the lyrics of a latest Justin Bieber song. Baby, baby, baby. I wake up and think “wtf was that all about!?”, climb back up to my desk where I find my cat licking his balls on my beautiful beautiful soon-to-be artworks. Horrified, I shoo him away and then I see it – the final image perfectly arranged with all the right components in all the right places. Turns out, it’s been there all along (it just took a bit of cat but to fix it).
What’s the story behind your Instagram name ‘Me and Norman’?
Norman is my imaginary friend from the illusive land of Nastraliam. He sits at my side and helps me make creative decisions. I’m the sensible one and he’s responsible for the chaos and a little silliness. With Norman at my side, I am fearless and able to stare a blank page straight in the eye and conquer it!
What does an average day entail for you?
I lecture part time so most days involve trying to “edu-tain” 20 year olds about creativity and critical thinking. But when I’m not motivating and marking, I’m at my desk working on some project. I have a husband who’s a real dork, who likes to be at his desk making music all the time so I find myself at my desk in our little studio most of the time, either collaging, writing stories or trying to draw out those stories. On the weekends, I try and watch at least one movie with a glass of wine and work at my embroidery hoop on the couch with our cat. If you find me out and about at night, please send me home because I’m probably lost.
What’s your earliest memory of making art?
I must’ve been about three years old – I drew with a red wax crayon on the passage wall and my dad gave me a hiding with his vellie shoe. (I wish I could remember what I had drawn with that red wax crayon!) Other than that, I have many memories of drawing under a table at restaurants and family gatherings as a kid.
Name one thing you’d like to change about the graphic art world.
I’d like to see more work that lives in between that realm of fine art and commercial art. I’d like to see more of a collaboration of these two worlds rather that an “either/or” of them – the kind of work that can exist in a serious gallery space and in the form of a cool book in the hand of a punk-ass kid.
What’s next for Stephanie Simpson?
I just started my masters programme this year (big gulp). The medium I’m working in is something completely different to the work here as I’m trying to explore a more colourful style for children’s storybook illustrations. I’m not much of a painter but more of a storyteller, hoping to connect the reader with their long-lost childhood memories by sharing my own. These paintings (as I see them) still run along the same theme as my collages – playing and dreaming. As an illustrator, I’m aware that I exist in all these different realms: as a collage artist, a storyteller, an educator…
Closer on the timeline though, I have a series of collages up at the Breytenbach Gallery in Wellington for their Autumn show entitled Mother Earth, an all female group show. If you’re in Wellington buying beautiful leather shoes or amazingly tasty pies (which is why I always go out that way), go look at art!
Find more by Stephanie on Instagram.
Check out more Graphic Art Month content over here.