Stylo Starr discovered the power of creating something from nothing at an early age, and has been doing so, since. A graduate of common art academia, Stylo carries with her a style unlike any of her contemporaries; bold colours, thick lines, and clashing imagery create the stimulating visual tension that is the foundation of her aesthetic.
Found imagery, collage, paint, photography and digital illustration are her primary tools. Her heart, and her experience as a black woman in Canada, her language.
Stylo Starr is a visual alchemist.
1. How did you get to where you are now as an artist?
That's a very interesting question. How can I even compartmentalize that? Well, I decided in high school that I wanted to do art full time, but I wasn't aware of what that meant and what that required, so I went off to art school. I went to Brock for four years in St. Catherine's, and that was a really great four years. I learned a lot about myself as an artist and what I was capable of creating, and the depths of topics I was able to dive into and how I was able to connect with the audience, and that really stuck with me, but it was the practicum of actually making a living off it that I found a big issue with, so I graduated from Brock, went to Mohawk and decided to do art as a trade. I went for creative design. That was also really cool, because that allowed me to interact with people on a person to person basis, because I was freelancing a lot. I was doing a lot of branding and logos, that kind of creating versus a non objective whatever I feel at the moment kind of creating.
I just, at one point, got too much into the design and felt a disconnect and just kind of felt that I needed to pull back and start creating my own work again and focus on what I thought was important, which was very different from what I was working on in art school at Brock. Then I had to reconcile with that because I didn't know if I had to continue with what I was working on in art school as a project or an investigation. I ended up coming to 89 Dames and a bunch of other collages and pieces at the time. I kept creating without the concern of it bringing me any kind of revenue, any kind of reward. It was just something that I was putting out there, because it needed to be out there, I needed to get it out of my system.
Eventually, it was just people beginning to see and beginning to notice. I love social media. That was always a component in my creation. If I created something and I finished it, my friends would know it on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter. Eventually that just started picking up. At one point during design school, I was able to work with Flying Lotus. I did a t-shirt for him that did really, really well. Later on down the line, because of Hamilton's music scene being so diverse, Dâm-Funk came to visit twice, and one the second visit, I gifted him some art work and that kind of fostered a little friendship between us, and we've been friends, kind of distant friends since. I've worked on a couple things with him and it's kind of gotten my exposure out internationally, not just locally. It's been great. I've worked with people all over the states and some in Europe, some locally. How I got here was literally the continuation of getting my creativity out. If there was an outlet, or if there wasn't, I would make one. That's kind of where my title visual alchemist comes from.
2. What is your typical day like?
My typical day is a workday. I work full time at a medicinal dispensary. That's a completely different world. I'm working 9-5 as a receptionist. I get kind of ideas while I'm there interacting with people. It's more of an informed experience of a racial dialogue and not so much of the cannabis dialogue as much as I was hoping. It's very interesting the way they both interact. I'm not sure how I'm going to work that into my artwork, but my days are pretty much I work, I come home and do as much of my own work as possible, whether that is writing down whatever is in my mind, updating my website (which still has a long ways to go), briefing with friends, or even just checking out my Instagram and my Twitter and looking for inspiration, and if I have something on the go I'll tryand put a couple of things together before I have to get into my routine of getting to bed.
On my days off, I really like to sit and think and reorganize my thoughts and then I usually execute something. I usually don't create anything until the night time. I'm a very nocturnal creator. I use my daytime to rest and get anything that I need to get done in the world and in the city and out there, and I come home and reenergize and by the time the sun sets, I NEED to do something creative. That could be anything. That could be creating something physical and tangible, or it could be practicing the clarinet. I used to play clarinet as a teenager, and I came across one, a friend gifted one to me and I took it up again. So whether it be an instrument, or dancing even, or anything, it needs to come out at night time.
3. You call yourself a visual alchemist. How did you come up with that term?
To be honest, that kind of came about after I read the book The Alchemist. It was a very important book and a book that I admit that I need to revisit very soon, if not right now. It's the idea that a lot of the things I create, the general reaction that people give me is usually "how did you come up with that? I would have never thought of that". It's interesting to me because it didn't really come out of anything, but just a thought. It's not anything physical, I can't hold on to that until I make it so. A lot of things come to me in my mind's eye first. I already see it completed, I just need to figure out the components and how to put it together and they're usually already around, so it's almost kind of magical in a way. It's almost kind of cosmic as well, so I've put the two together because what I do is very visual and it is a sort of alchemy, so I appointed myself a visual alchemist.
4. As a visual alchemist, you work with a lot of mediums. Is there one you prefer over the other?
I love working with paper. I love paper and print. If I do anything digital, I almost always have to have it printed out just so I can have it in my hands. I love feeling different layers. That was the thing with 89 Dames, I kind of wish I was able to hang them without glass just because there is so much texture involved with the lace trimming and the different layers of paper and textures of paper, the crinkling and the ripping and the tearing, it's all there and present. Even my fingerprints and thumbprints and the glue, the way it dries...I really like that experience because you can kind of immerse yourself even in something as small as a 4" by 4" card and really just feel it and not look around and realize that people are maybe looking at you weird. There's a whole other world going on around you, you can actually dive in when you have something that you can feel and look around and explore.
Digital is great too, especially because you can attain colours and vibrancies that you probably couldn't by hand manually, but I still feel that disconnect where I can't plunge into a lot of that work. A lot of my digital work you'll find has a lot of that handmade texture to it, or I try to mimic it as much as possible digitally, and when I feel I fall too short, that's when I put the computer away and go back to my paper. I love paper, I love getting glue, I love found images and putting found images together and creating a different dialogue or a different narrative that would not have existed otherwise had I not, or had anyone put these two pieces together. I like making stories that way.
5. How did you get into fashion?
That question kind of took me away to grade 6 a little bit. Back in middle school, my girlfriends and I used to design random outfits and we had a little company called SEA. It was just us drawing these outfits and eventually in high school I found a seamstress who agreed to start doing some of the pieces for me, but it never blossomed into fashion school, or me taking on fashion as an actual thing. I befriended a couple of women maybe in 2012 who ran a store named Bodega and they were the originators of that brand and that shop. It still exists in Hamilton now, but it's no longer under them. They were the originators, Estée and Felicia Mancini. They created a company called Girls With Gunz. It's alternative female fashion. It's for women who aren't trying to be on the cover of VOGUE or anything like that. They just have a very different way about carrying themselves, and a way about dressing themselves, so a lot of their focus is on alien horror stuff, things like that. We started collaborating back in 2012 and it started as a bunch of t-shirts and that blossomed into different screen print designs on different fashions that they would sew by hand themselves. At Supercrawl, I actually walked their fashion show. It was fantastic. I'm so incredibly proud of them. They were pretty much the driving force with the fashion influence.
I've always love wearable art, so t-shirts for me aren't just band tees. I've collected band t-shirts all through university and college so I have a stack of them. I don't necessarily wear them anymore and I don't want to throw them out because it's the artwork that's so beautiful on them. That kind of drove my Stylo 12 DUODECIM VESTIMENTUM series because I think a lot of people like to wear t-shirts that say and display something that will start a conversation. My focus is black culture. My influence, ever since childhood, strangely enough, has not been West Indian culture, it's black American culture. I think it's just proximity to where we're located, we're kind of almost near border cities, so that influence is heavily here. My focus was black poets, creators, artists, singers, people who don't necessarily get band shirts or band tees but definitely deserve it. They were beautifully framed, everyone had their own frame and had their own narrative and their own universe created within that frame with them there. I feel like I almost deified them in a way. They kind of look like Egyptian gods in a way. That was kind of the goal. Fashion was always an underlying influence but it was never really the vehicle. It was just always creation in different methods, different ways.
6. Who or what inspires you?
First and foremost, forever and ever and ever, Prince. 100% Prince. I said this the week he transitioned that Stylo Starr wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Prince. He had a moniker named Jamie Starr, the last name was spelled the same way. A lot of my nuances and different flairs you can kind of trace back to the way he would carry himself, his style. Erykah Badu, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Renee Cox, she's a great black female artist who was big in the 90's and is still definitely creating currently and Basquiat.
Basquiat, right now the shine that he is getting is very bittersweet because there was a time (and I hate how hipster this is going to sound) that you know, people would ask me who my favourite visual artist was and I'd say Basquiat, Jean Michel Basquiat, and people would be like "who?" and I'd say he worked with Warhol and they'd say they loved Andy Warhol. I'll get to Warhol later because that's definitely relevant. Now to see him be common knowledge and mainstream media knowledge, his work is being auctioned off... that kind of leaves a sour taste in my mouth. An auction is an auction and we all know the history of auctions and black people. For a man whose art was not necessarily accepted but still commodified, and for an artist who himself was never really fully understood or accepted either, but was also commodified, it's really interesting to see how is estate is kind of spotlighted right now. It feels good, it kind of hurts. He's a big influence for sure.
Warhol is kind of a silent influence. I do love Pop Art. I love his aesthetic, I've read his philosophies and he's a very strange and peculiar character. That's why I felt it was important to include him in the show I have going on right now at the AGH. It was so easy for him to just identify these beautiful, powerful white women and have them on these walls, and these white institutions and I kind of wanted to flip that on its head. Black walls, surrounded by black women, there's only three of you and there are 89 of us. You're forced to immerse yourself in all of us. I want that dialogue to be explored and to be not necessarily understood by everyone, because I want everyone to kind of take something away for themselves for the show, but that's definitely something that I was trying to explore when I was given the opportunity to have a contemporary artist kind of in conversation with my work. He was literally the only choice I was going to accept. When they took me into the archives, I was like yep, those three, I don't need to see anyone else, this is perfect. Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous images that Warhol has done and screen printed, so that had to be included. The Karen Kain one was beautiful, just based on the way the layers came together, it was very similar to the way my layers came together, which was not something done on purpose, it was something very serendipitous and it was mentioned the very first time the show came out a centre 3 two years ago. One of the very first critiques was that it was very Warholesque. I wasn't sure how to take that at first, but I'm kind of like if I can totally subvert it, it's a subversion of Warhol, then I'm 100% for it. Those are my main influences.
7. Do you think that art has to say something or have a message, or are you okay with art for art's sake?
Definitely okay with both. It can be very exhausting to be continually trying to send out a message. When you're sending out a message, you have to make sure you're communicating it as clearly as you possibly can before it is out in the world and there's nothing else you can do about it. That can be very triggering and a very taxing, emotional process. I like to try and do both. I don't always share the art for art's sake. I'll keep a journal where it's kind of like an exercise of getting something out, not necessarily saying something, just making something. I think that's beautiful and people should take that on more often. It makes me really sad when people tell me they love what I do but they're not really creative, not really an artist. I make cut and paste collages. That's literally what I do. I cut and paste. It's one of the best things anyone can do. I have vivid memories of doing it in kindergarten and I remember the teacher actually commenting on it to my parents that I was very good at cut and paste. It's one of those things that anyone can do. It's not even that medium. You can doodle, you can paint, you can finger-paint, you can take pictures. Whatever it is you feel like doing that is somewhat creative, that's what you do and it's for you, but don't say you're not an artist. At the very least, don't say you're not creative. I feel like everyone is born with that impulse, it's just there, you can't get rid of it. If you make bomb food, that's your art. You need to eat, so don't say you can't create.
With art, everyone imagines a beret cocked to the side, holding a white wine and cheese, wearing all black, looking at questionable paintings that no one would understand...that is a huge component of art, yeah, and that was a huge component of art school, but there's so much more and it's a huge honour and a blessing to have an institution as big and as influential as AGH to see me doing my art in a different mode or a different environment that isn't anything like that and wanting to bring that into their space and to change their space to accommodate that kind of art, I think that's really great and I hope I can kind of show a lot of other artists who are emerging (I've been emerging for 10 years p.s.) who are starting out in school, or who aren't "taught", who are (and I hate the term) outsider artists, who are just working, hustling. I hope they can see that they can bridge that gap, and not, for lack of a better word, sell out.
The possibilities and the capabilities are there, you just have to hold true to your vision. To be honest, there really wasn't a lot of resistance in putting the show together. It was a lot of open doors and a lot of blank canvasses, and it was really refreshing to see that. It's kind of nice to be part of the discussion between both worlds.
8. What's been the highlight of your career as an artist so far?
For me, interacting with a lot of artists that I admire and it's always them initiating the conversation. It's being seen on a level that supersedes ego. A lot of these artists that are reaching out to me, I've listened to their music, I've downloaded on Spotify...to see them write me and to say they love what I'm doing and maybe we could work on something one day, you know, or I have a project I think you'd be great for, I don't know if you'd be interested...it's always exhilarating. It never ever changes. As many times as Dam and I have met, or spoken, or interacted, I'm always shook. I'm always star struck. He wants to see my work. It blows my mind every time. I've worked with Res, who is another singer who was in a collaborative group with Talib Kewli. I was a fan of hers from high school. She had an amazing album. She was more like a black girl that rocked. She actually had an album called Black Girls Rock. I think that's where they took that from. She was such an inspiration for me. She randomly reached out to me one night on Facebook and it blew my mind. She's kind of still considered indie, she's not mainstream. That doesn't really matter to me, it's not the status. Her art resonates with me so much and for her to see my work too, that connection is very powerful to me.
A lot of my work always responds to my environment which usually has music playing, so if I make something and it explicitly has Dâm-Funk's face or something I immediately either tag them in it or if they're coming around Toronto or the GTA I try to position myself where I can say "please take this". I love how art is this web that's continually growing. There's always that influence that's pushing other people to create other things that are going to influence people to create other things. You can always see and go back and find different influences that maybe they might not have seen, and maybe they see that you don't see. I like that I can kind of make that a tangible gift, a thank you. Thank you for being a part of this. That's the highlight for me. Seeing that interaction. Having that interaction, and not even between other artists I admire, but even people that I would never imagine that would never be into my art are coming to me and are saying that they love my work. When people tell me that they've gone to the gallery and seen my show...I love that interaction. It's an acknowledgment. I see you. For some, that may sound a little self-centered and maybe a little arrogant, but it's a nice blessing to create on your own and to not beg for that and to have it come back to you anyway. It's really beautiful.
9. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or creatives?
Keep creating, protect your work, protect your heart, and know when to back away. It's really hard for artists to not create because they feel like they are not artists when they aren't creating, but I've learned that that's not at all the case. It's a process because alchemy can't happen overnight. Sometimes you need to go through the raw and the dark and the quiet and the silent and then come out on the other side teeming with things to create and things to make. Don't fear the dry spells because they come so frequently and when you're not having a dry spell, don't take it for granted, make as much as you can. You don't have to show it all, but if you choose to, know how you're showing it, know who you're showing it to and make sure that it's not going to end up on some cheap knock-off Instagram boutique on badly printed t-shirts...which has happened to my work before. I admit I still have not nailed down the legalities behind copyright. I would even say that if you are starting out and you have the means to find an art accountant or an art lawyer or something, do it.
10. What's next for you?
It's a little bit of resting, a little bit of just daytime day jobbing it, regular lifing it, and a lot of behind the scenes stuff right now. I'm working with COBRA (Coalition for Black & Racialized Artists) in Hamilton. I'm going to be working with them pretty closely and trying to build them up, getting a little more notoriety in the city and abroad, trying to get more artists of colour in the spotlight, aside from myself. We've got an event at the AGH October 6th, part of First Fridays at AGH. Free admission. We're going to be having Shanika Maria, who is a solo singer from Hamilton, Grimsby area. She's going to be doing an acoustic set in the space. We'll maybe do a couple of collage demonstrations. Aside from that, really brainstorming on new projects. I have a couple of projects I'm keeping tight-lipped about. I've learned in the past three years keeping tight-lipped is actually very vital. That's another bit of advice. If you're working on something that you're very emotionally and creatively invested in and you already feel protective about it, don't say a word.