THE ARTIST: STE

Yas­min Harake in­tro­duces us to yet another artist on the cusp of great­ness, STE

Ekaruna - - Contents - To see more of Stephanie’s work, visit stephaniericha.com Con­tact her at st@stephaniericha.com

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. ”

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