What makes a person stop and ”smell the roses?”
. . . And what are the roses in this case? Ironically I was recently able to find the answer to both of these questions. No, it isn’t a literal blossom or some quote by Oscar Wilde. It was actually the work and brilliant paintbrush of Maggie Stephenson.
When stumbling across Stephenson’s illustrations earlier this year, I found myself captivated by her use of color and overall execution of these individuals she portrayed within the four walls of a blank canvas. The painting starts out with merely a snow white backdrop. Slowly, and with the assistance of a trusted pencil, thin lines start to scribble and scratch, scribble and ponder—erase—and scribble some more. Do you see it? There it is! A human body. Now the woman has been gifted long, textured hair. Her ebony skin glistens under the summer heat. Are those lemons in the background? Of course. And let’s not forget that woven basket filled to the brim with even more ripe citrus, carried by our main character. She is wearing a floral, burnt orange tank top now. Her cheeks are slightly blush. She is happy. She is a woman of divine nature.
I’ll ask you again. Do you see it? Smell it? Taste it? I did.
These subjects were sometimes clothed. Sometimes they were naked. In the simplest terms, there was also an evident sense of diversty. White and Black. Honey and caramel. Ebony and ivory. You name it. But once allowing oneself to dive deep into Stephenson’s world the audience forgets able single labels and, in the most beautiful way, recognizes these snapshots as simply humanity in our most raw form.
This is what really stuck out to me: this consistency of color and watercolor. And it was the way an arm sometimes stretched for the heavens, or how these blue or brown eyes overlooked another seasonal scene that had me looking for more.
We Are Eve, Maggie Stephenson (2019)
. . . So that’s how embarked on talking to Stephenson about not just her portfolio, but the story behind it all. Where does this direction come from? Is it thought out in advance? Does it come naturally? And what about the role of the artist? Does the person have a duty to serve society? Or does society, instead, serve them with inspiration?
That and more are upcoming.
Hughes: Tell us about yourself. What was your childhood like?
Stephenson: That’s a tough question for me to answer. I’m not someone who enjoys talking about the past. Not because I have bad memories, but because I get more excited about the now. I also get a bit sad thinking back. Mostly because all my happy memories involve my grandparents. And not having them here with me . . . quite frankly it breaks my heart.
My childhood was modest. I grew up in a small village in Eastern Europe. Most of my time was spent outside, trying to keep busy until evening time. Bike rides with my grandfather, cooking with my grandmother, drawing with my friend, spending time in my grandparents large backyard were some of my most treasured memories. That was really an ideal childhood to had. I am very fortunate to have had the privilege of a simple and happy childhood.
I moved to Germany when I was elementary school age. Another small town that felt big after what I was used to. I was bullied in school. Probably because I didn’t speak the language and kids can be mean. As a teen I was a rebel. I didn’t want to be told what to do. I had my own ideas about how I wanted to live life. The problem with being rebellious is, it creates friction and resentment. When I turned eighteen, I left Europe on my own and moved to the U. S. to start fresh and create the life I envisioned for myself.
Hughes: Describe the earliest memory of something you illustrated.
Stephenson: Painting and sketching have always been a part of my life. I can’t think of a particular profound memory because I never gave it any intense thought. As a kid I didn’t have many toys, but paper and pencils were available in abundance. I remember always drawing the outdoors.
”These funny long-legged birds my grandfather taught me to draw. Lots of trees and fruits and random people. Not much has changed.”
Hughes: Is anyone else in your family creative?
Stephenson: There are no illustrators or artists in my family. We have many musically talented family members, engineers and handymen. I believe that creativity and resourcefulness can be found in many fields and are not exclusive to art. Whether you’re an artist, a stay at home mom or dad, or even a jack of all trades—it all requires creativity to some degree.
Hughes: Some writers and artists say that early environmental factors (such as condition of living) heavily influenced the imagery, themes, and overall purpose behind their work. Does this resonate with you?
Stephenson: That sounds like a reasonable thought. From what I see, people’s personalities and their work are a reflection of their early memories and experiences. For me that may be true as well. The simplicity of my early life pours over into my art. People enjoying fruit, soaking up sun rays, and spending time outdoors.
Change is Coming, Maggie Stephenson (2019)
Hughes: The following is a quote by Serbian performance artist, writer, and art film director and producer Marina Abramovic: ‘’I really don’t like art where you need to know so much theory to understand. If the theory is removed, it doesn’t do anything. That means that this work is an illustration of theory, and I don’t believe in the power of the work itself.’’ What is your interpretation of this? Do you agree?
Stephenson: What is art to one person, may not be art to another. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to approach creativity. With my art, what you see is what you get. No theory, no major background stories.
I believe there is great power in work that stands on their own, as well as those that are backed by theory. I don’t like to analyze or overthink the creations of others.
”If it brings someone joy to create something backed by theory, then that’s a job well done. If the viewer cannot appreciate such art without belittling it, then that is quite frankly the viewer’s loss.”
Hughes: Where does your creative battery come from? Does it ever run out? How do you recharge?
Stephenson: It always comes from a positive feeling. From music and good conversation. Nature and light. I only create when I’m content or when something has sparked a positive emotion. With that being said, it does run out from time to time. I’m not a robot. I can’t be happy and positive all the time. I recharge by simply stepping back for a few days and by focusing on family, friends and myself.
Breaks are actually very important. I crave that time to myself to rediscover inspiration. Self love and self care are an essential part of growing in any field. There is nothing more rewarding than taking a break and coming back with more ideas than ever before. It’s a beautiful process to take part in if you allow yourself that experience.
Ladies of Leisure, Maggie Stephenson (2019)
Hughes: Define the role of an illustrator to society.
Stephenson: That depends on the illustrator and what they want to accomplish. An illustrator can provoke, entertain, encourage, or shock. For me art evokes emotion. I want to leave the viewer feeling uplifted and hopeful.
Hughes: Define the role of an illustrator to oneself.
Stephenson: Ideally the role of anything to anyone should be to do things in such a way that it leaves one feeling content. If at the end of the day you can go to bed without remorse and with a hopeful outlook in tomorrow, then you must have done something right.
Hughes: When I came across your page earlier this year, one thing that particularly caught my attention was the prominence of humanity in your work. There was ebony and ivory, honey and caramel, men and women, dressed bodies and naked bodies. Why people? For example, is there a reason for why you (seem to) return to faces?
Stephenson: There is beauty to be found in humanity. We are all unique in our own ways but the same in the way that we all just want to live happily, don’t we? It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what makes you you.
”Ultimately all we want is to have peace of heart. That’s the moment I want to capture. People living in kindness, unity and peace.”
Hughes: The following is a quote by English cartoonist, illustrator, and children’s writer Quentin Blake: ‘’I suppose illustration tends to live in the streets, rather than in the hermetically sealed atmosphere of the museum, and consequently it has come to be taken less seriously.’’ What is your interpretation of this quote? Do you believe this is accurate?
Stephenson: I would rather have my illustration live in the streets than a museum. The street is where life is found—where lessons are to be learned and where the sunlight is. If that makes it less serious, then I am fine with that.
Hughes: Describe your relationship to illustrating. Is it more hobby than career? Career than hobby?
Stephenson: Thankfully for me they go hand in hand. It is a career because it pays my bills. It is a hobby because it brings me joy. I hope to always have the fortune to have both. For this simple reason, I am selective about the jobs I take on. If it doesn’t bring me contentment it is not worth the paycheck. You can always make more money elsewhere, but you cannot redo a day lost to stress.
Hughes: Describe your art style. For example, is it completely modern? Or do you take inspiration from other decades?
Stephenson: To be frank I don’t have enough practical art knowledge to categorize it. My inspiration is drawn from life, color and feelings, rather than art itself. I don’t concern myself with trying to fit in a certain art style. I just draw what comes naturally.
Hughes: Use three adjectives to summarize your art portfolio thus far. Why these choices?
Stephenson: Simple. It is to be a reminder that there is joy and peace to be found in life’s simple moments.
Warming. Because warmth derives from light. And we are not here to live in darkness. I hope everyone moves past the sadness they’ve picked up during challenging times. The sun is only ever a few steps away. Have you ever sat in sunlight, facing up with your eyes closed and felt sad? That’s very hard to do.
Encouraging. I hope people see, that no matter what difficulties they are going through, that there is hope to be found in tomorrow. Always look ahead. Don’t let the battles and trials of yesterdays define your future. My life was not always a bed of roses. Nobody’s life is. We all get dealt a different card, undoubtedly some tougher than others. But the one thing we all have in common is the chance to start over. It is never too late to choose to work on inner happiness.
Hughes: Does an artist ever fear they will run out of scenes to paint?
Stephenson: That is a fear that I have. To stare at a blank page and to not be able to fill it with color. Thankfully that fear is usually short lived. A song will play on the radio, a landscape passes me by . . . and it all triggers new emotions and ideas.
Eclipse, Maggie Stephenson (2019)
Hughes: A writer friend of mine once said that they were more active during the second half of the year due to the change of imagery and overall mood. Do you believe the seasons influence your art as well? Or are you always ‘’stuck’’ in summer?
Stephenson: I contemplated on that a few days ago when it was dark and rainy. That day I attempted to paint but with it being so dreary. It was difficult to create. My work mostly entails summer scenes and optimism, so I rely heavily on sunshine. Spring and summer always pull me in and inspire me. I moved to Florida many years ago. Thankfully fall and winter are short lived here and not as pronounced as in other parts of the world. So I’ll be stuck in summer for as long as life allows.
Hughes: Name one favorite painting from your collection. Why this piece? What was going on during your life at the time upon composing it?
Stephenson: That would have to be And Then We Saw the Sun. I created it during a moment of clarity and certainty of a better tomorrow.
And Then We Saw the Sun, Maggie Stephenson (2019)
A few months earlier, my family went through some challenging times. This piece was sort of the light at the end of the tunnel. I created it as a reminder that sometimes we get certain mountains assigned to us, so that we can show others that it is possible to move past them. And usually, if you just keep going, persistently and full of intent, you will come out bolder and braver than ever before. And once you do, you will see the sun and all will be right again.
Hughes: As once said by Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, ‘’Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.’’ Do you believe this is true?
Stephenson: That must be different for every person. For me, Art imitates life. Not life as it is, but rather how it would be if it was ideal.
Hughes: Now for a fun one! Extraterrestrials have invaded Earth. The leader approaches and demands you to recommend the one person who can give them one reason to abort their mission of destroying mankind. Who would this individual be? Why?
Stephenson: My son. He can talk himself out of trouble better than anyone I know. Plus he would probably tell them that humans are a dog’s best friend (and vice versa). So don’t kill the humans or the dogs will cry. And nobody wants to see a dog cry.