An Interview with Beverley-Jane Stewart
With the appreciation and fascination for her material growing, and ahead of her debut solo exhibition this autumn, London-based Jewish artist Beverley-Jane Stewart agreed to talk to me about the key influences on her work, her creative process, and her ongoing exploration of the relationship between Jewish and British identity.
Best-known for the unique style of her synagogue oil paintings (her early works concentrate on personalised imagery in synagogue services, together with architectural details), the most recent phase of Beverley-Jane’s work focuses on how Jewish heritage operates in contemporary multicultural British society.
What are your influences and how have they shaped your work?
I am a Jew. I can’t run away from that, but I don’t think you should run away from what you are, whoever you are – you should be proud of it. I thought ‘if I’m going to be honest in my art and honest to myself, then being a Jew will come through’. Thinking through the factors that are crucial to Jewish identity also means I am compelled to approach my subjects with new, culturally relevant, aesthetic choices. The two are not separate, they are always in a dialogue with each other.
From a very young age I was aware of the social and religious values the synagogue provided, values that would later inspire much of my work. When I was an art student I became very interested in the importance of buildings and people, and how the relationship between the two affected individuals and communities. I was aware of the role played by different spatial environments in the production – not merely the reflection – of identity. I really wanted to tap into the way in which, historically, British Jews have engaged with architecture as a means of constructing a positive identity within the context of British society, and trace how the level of acculturation and assimilation achieved by the community could be measured in terms of space and form, expressing their sense of belonging and difference.
I draw on a range of art historical references in my work. For example, in the Story of the East End painting I begin with a Chagall scene. When the Jews came over from the pogroms in Russia, we weren’t sure our tradition would last or where we would go. So the Chagall reflects the significance of survival, but also the doubt of survival. Unconsciously, I have also absorbed Renaissance images. Wandering round the National Gallery’s ‘Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting’ exhibition recently, I realised I was doing the same thing as these 14th, 15th and 16th century artists by making architecture a core component in my work and manipulating the hardness or straightness of lines to show the controlling principles of the built environment.
Can you tell me about your creative practice and your approach?
Regarding the treatment of pictorial space, I have a very multifaceted approach. I try to assemble fragments and weave them together into a unified tapestry. I play around quite a lot with perspective because we are always on the move – our angles change. As we explore a space, we constantly get these different focal points…no one stays stationary.
The use of bold, expressive colour is also very important to me when building up layers of meaning. In many of my paintings, black imagery or cold, sombre blues accentuate the darker times the Jews suffered, with light, warmer colours highlighting the move into a more enlightened, tolerant period. So, in the Story of the East End I wanted to create vibrant, fresh bursts of colour, intensifying the viewers’ sense of the energy, creativity and echoes of Jewish history there.
I try to take risks and look for novel ways to resolve challenges in my practice. The increased gallery interest in my work has given me the confidence to open the Pandora’s Box in my head! I’ve returned to some quite original techniques by making etchings, opening up the print world to diversify my work. Likewise, in my latest picture I have taken a new direction by exploring a 3-D approach. It will be interesting to see how it develops, but I think it will be an exciting twist! I am trying to keep to my style, keep to my message, but use different methods to engage in a conversation with my audience and invite them into my work.
How do you know when a work is finished?
Strangely enough, before I start a painting, before I even make a drawing or pick up a paintbrush, I have the picture fully in my head. I know exactly where I’m going and what I want to do. I’m not making up a work as I go along – it’s more of a flash…it’s there! I know when it’s complete and when it has to be released and have its own life. As with a child, you have to know when to let go.
What research processes do you go through when formulating your work?
For each painting, I spend time researching the history, heritage and culture of the local community. I wander round a place and feel it. I interview people. So, for my Plymouth picture (which looks at the re-admission of the Jews in 1656 under the Cromwellian Protectorate) I went to the naval base, I went on a boat to better understand how claustrophobic it would have been below deck, and I conducted research at both the National Maritime Museum and the British Library. That’s why I describe myself as a visual writer. I’m not putting all that material down in words. Rather, I model it in images, fusing facts with emotions.
My work is telling a story, the story of the Jews from the past to the present, and I’m doing it in a visual way, exploring the possibilities and pushing the boundaries of visual language. When you read a book you follow the lines, you follow the chapters through to the end. The chapters of the story I am trying to narrate are all brought together and connected on one canvas – time builds, shifts and flows through each painting.
What would you like viewers to take away from your work?
I really hope that my work will open up new avenues of discussion, that it will stimulate questions and reveal different aspects of Jewish life to its viewers. By thinking about a history of time, a psychology of time, I am endeavouring to show how communities build up the layers of their personality. The reality of dual identity takes centre stage and I want to encourage people to have a greater understanding of commonality and difference, and why they are both important and beneficial.
How do you feel about your first solo show?
I am apprehensive as to how my work will be received, but I am very excited too! However, for me personally, as a creator, I want to be grounded. I need to be very connected to my subject. It’s important for me to be holding onto the grassroots, to be able to connect with and maintain a rapport with people, and to be able to express that in paint.
Beverley-Jane Stewart’s exhibition, Spirit Recaptured, runs from 8 to 17 September at Trinity House Gallery, Mayfair.
Beverley-Jane Stewart in her studio
Beverley-Jane Stewart, Story of the East End
Beverley-Jane Stewart, Plymouth Past and Present