THE ARTIST: STE
Yasmin Harake introduces us to yet another artist on the cusp of greatness, STE
I met Stephanie Richa by accident on a stormy night in Achrafieh. I was walking with a friend when we found ourselves outside her poster exhibition, 8 and a third, and it wasn’t long before the two of us were inside, staring at some of the most beautiful and unusual pieces of art I had ever seen. From 9 to 5, Stephanie is an art director, graphic designer and animator at a leading agency in Beirut. After office hours however, she is an incredibly talented visual designer with an eye for patterns - something I’ve guessed from the polka-dot shirt now sitting across the table from me.
“It all started when I was eleven,” she begins. “I noticed that I was very attracted to colours, so I started drawing - I wasn’t the best, but I still wanted to try.” She goes on to tell me that she would find herself sketching in class, and not when she was meant to. “At school I hated math. I used to draw in all my classes.” I smile, since mathematics was never a strong point for me either. “My teachers used to throw my drawings away,” she recalls, laughing. “So afterwards, I would take them out of the trash and keep them.” Now, and at the age of 25, Stephanie is a graphic arts graduate with a much bigger portfolio – one that includes a lot more than just her childhood drawings.
“This was when I knew I wanted to do something with shapes and colours,” she reveals, telling me about her connection to patterns. However, the stigma around art and creativity in the Middle East means it is a field that does not receive much credit. “In Lebanon it isn’t good to be an artist,” Stephanie says flatly. Coming from a family of engineers and lawyers, she even surprised herself with her career choice. “I never knew I would be a graphic designer - even now I’m shocked!” she laughs.
Stephanie went on to pursue her unexpected love for shapes, colours and patterns by enrolling at the University of Balamand, studying Art Graphiques at ALBA in Sin el Fil. When I ask Stephanie what was new to her in terms of methods and techniques taught during her first year, she laughs. “Everything! I used to paint a little, using oils and ink – but it was more of an experimental process for me, to figure out what I really liked.” Stephanie studied advertising during her time at university, and remembers how she would do everything by hand. Her work is now completely digital, and has evolved a great deal since her time as a student. “Sometimes I wish it hadn’t,” she says, thoughtfully. “Looking back, it was amazing to come back home with ink all over my hands.”
It took some time for her to settle into the role of a graphic arts student, with a lot of new information for her to take in. “The first year was really hard,” she admits. “I was scared, and I didn’t understand anything. It wasn’t until my second year that I started to feel more confident, and actually enjoy what I was doing.” Through working with programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator, Stephanie found that she loved everything related to computers – and patterns too. “I started practicing with my eyes. I was trying to see the things that other people couldn’t.” After she had completed a second bachelor’s degree in 2D and 3D animation - and done some exploring in Europe - Stephanie begun working as an art director. Not long had passed when she found herself longing to travel again. After obtaining a scholarship, she flew to Firenze in Italy to do her masters at the Istituto Europeo di Design. “I wanted to travel. I wanted to be exposed to the outside world and experience different cultures,” she tells me. Her journey to Italy was more of a personal exploration, and she found herself somewhat outside of her comfort zone. Being surrounded by people from an array of backgrounds and cultures encouraged Stephanie to speak in different languages and push herself even further. “This is when I noticed I was growing,” she says. Stephanie fell in love with Italy, and was captivated by its beauty and people. Whilst she absorbed everything around her, she always knew she would return to Beirut. “Everything was different, but at the same time I was happy. I really got used to the way of life there, but I always knew I would come back.” She smiles, no doubt remembering her fondness for Italy, and love for her home country. “It’s very important to remember where you come from,” she adds.
As it happens, Italy was not the main factor for Stephanie in terms of inspiration. “Beirut was my only inspiration. All my work was really related to Lebanon. I would travel, but I wouldn’t look for any inspiration.” I want to know more about the influence Beirut has upon her and her work, and her eyes light up as she answers. “It’s the chaos, the sounds, the people,” she says. The hectic way of Lebanese life certainly has an unusual allure about it, and I laugh as Stephanie reveals, “Italy is beautiful, but it’s too peaceful for me!”
Whilst abroad, Stephanie met and worked with renowned illustrator, Jonathan Calugi. “He taught me to be simple, and to concentrate on what I love – to be myself, and not what people want me to be,” she tells me. She remembers how she was always surrounded by art, and not necessarily in the form of paintings or sculptures. “I lived in Florence and it was like living in the city of art. It’s the most beautiful place. It was a dream.” As wonderful as they are, all dreams come to an end and Stephanie acknowledges this. Two years later, she returned to Beirut after recieving the sad news of her father’s passing.
Upon her return to Lebanon, Stephanie realised something. “I thought to myself, okay. I’m going to do something that represents myself. Not the person I was, or the person I want to be, but the person I am now.” This is something that resonates
“In Lebanon, art is a painting No – art can be anything. ”
with her throughout her day-to-day life. Working at an advertising agency means one is limited when it comes to expressing themselves, because the image they portray is that of the brand, and not of them. “I love advertising,” she says. “But at the same time, I want to be myself. My own work acts as an outlet for me, and that’s important.”
I continue by asking her about other destinations she has in mind for future expeditions. She pauses, and says, “I would like to go back to Holland. The design over there is really nice, and you can be who you want to be.” The idea of identity is clearly significant to Stephanie, as she is evidently someone carefully crafting her own. I ask her if this is something she conveys through her artwork, because they seem somewhat personal, as though they are each telling a different story. “Exactly,” she replies.
I ask about her recent exhibition, 8 and a third (the one I encountered unexpectedly) and enquire as to why she gave it such an unusual name. “8 and a third was about eight sets of three posters, and there was one poster that didn’t belong to a set – so that was the third.” Her exhibition’s name is a reflection of the way she perceives Lebanon itself, in that there are imperfections and not everything fits neatly into a certain category. Stephanie had previously said in regards to her exhibition, ‘Lebanon exhumes a visual noise which I love to interpret through playful compositions.’ I want to know exactly what she means by ‘visual noise’ and her answer is one I won’t forget. “If you look around you,” she says as she gestures outside, “everything is so chaotic. Even if you aren’t looking at something, there is a sound coming from it. There is sound everywhere.” I scribble this down as quickly as I can so as not to forget anything, because her feelings toward the city and its chaos resonate with mine. Stephanie appreciates the little flaws and defects that others might find distracting or frustrating, and I find this to be a refreshing outlook on the country. “For me, the visual noise shows how things are not perfect,” she adds. “Lebanon has its own sound.” Discussing a recent exhibition in Dubai where Stephanie showcased her posters, she tells me that interestingly enough, the majority of visitors who made purchases were Lebanese. I ask her about the feedback she receives from her clients, and she replies, “a lot of people will come and tell me that my exhibition was great, and some won’t. You have to take everything into consideration.” She continues by explaining that she appreciates what her buyers have to say and takes their comments on board, but there comes a point when she has to draw a line and stay true to herself. “You hear things like, ‘I love your work, but it would be better if it’s bigger, smaller, or on fabric’ – and then you just have to stop listening.”
So does she change her style upon receiving such feedback? “I don’t want to please anyone, it’s about making my own product,” she says. “I want to have something that represents me.” This is further emphasised by the way she distributes her products, as she prefers to print a number of each poster rather than sell each design as a single piece. “People ask me why I print a lot of copies rather than selling an original piece for a lot of money. For me, it isn’t about selling. My dream is for people to have a nice piece of art in their homes; one that represents them, and represents me at the same time.”
Stephanie reveals that she has noticed people in Lebanon do not always tend to view art in an open-minded way. “People don’t always understand that graphic design is art, too,” she tells me. With graphic design becoming more innovative all the time, designers also have to become more creative and open to new ideas. “In Lebanon, art is a painting,” she says. “No – art can be anything.” Art has always been subjective, and people often disagree when it comes to defining it in general. “I think graffiti is art. How people dress, how people sing, or talk. How someone behaves can be described as art,” she concludes. Because Stephanie is still young, I’m intrigued to know what she would say to aspiring graphic designers in the country. “Just do it,” she smiles. “And don’t be scared!”
Given that she has spent so much time traveling and exploring, we discuss the importance of experiencing other countries and cultures, especially for young people in Lebanon. “I think travelling is very important. I’m addicted to it now,” she laughs. She encourages everyone to travel at some point in their lives, expressing how being outside of our comfort zones is crucial to our development, both socially and personally. “Every time you go away, you come back with another perception of things. Staying in one place will only limit you – you finish work and maybe go and have a drink afterwards. It becomes a routine,” she says. Before we say goodbye, I want to know how Stephanie describes her role as a visual artist in one word, and I can’t help but laugh at her answer. “Schizophrenic,” she responds with almost no hesitation at all. “People say you should hold on to your identity but at the moment I am still growing, and I’m learning new things all the time.”
“I sta rted practicing with my eyes. I was trying to see the things that other people can’t see. ”