Why narrative art underpins my work by Stella Tooth

Storytelling has always played an important part in my life. My mother was Italian, my father British, and I was born, and grew up, in England – a creature of two worlds.

Oral tradition of storytelling

My mum passed down the stories of her side of the family in an oral history – through the telling, and retelling, of key moments of her and her family’s lives.

Relatives I had never met – some long dead – came fully formed into my mind and became an integral part of my life. And I felt a connection with them, in the way that photographs taken when you were too young to really remember provide you with reassuring half-memories of an early childhood where you were much loved.

My mouth was always full of who, what, where, when, how and whys? Whose knee was I on? How did you meet my Austrian Godmother/French Godmother. Were they war brides too? How did you meet? Did my Italian Godfather bring the pasta he sold in his van back from Calabria when he visited home? You made that dress? Where did you learn?  Your mum was a seamstress?   

From journalism…

So it was no surprise that at 16, when a career involving travel at the Foreign Office was ruled out due to my mother’s country having been on the wrong side during the war, my choices of career – in art or journalism – both had to do with storytelling. Journalism won out as my first career, as a surer way of making money while telling the stories of those in the news. And I soon became an instant expert in whoever’s life I was writing about, before I moved on to the next story, forgetting much of the detail except a small kernel of knowledge that travelled with me like a game of consequences and changed slightly – perhaps in emphasis but not in fact – in the retelling. Forgetting, for me, had something to do with the need not to get involved emotionally with my subject, helping maintain a professional objectivity.

...to broadcast news PR…

When I moved from journalism to ‘the other side’ into PR at BBC and then Sky News, I found myself retelling the stories of newsgatherers, forensically picking them apart and repackaging them for different newspapers, with distinct editorial styles, viewpoints and readerships and later online. And I arranged for the stories of the broadcasters themselves to be told as they became the news themselves as radio or television celebrities.

Self-portrait in oils on canvas artwork by Stella Tooth. Self-portrait

...to portraiture…

So, after 20 years of telling other people’s stories in words, I decided, in 2010 to reinvent myself again and tell other people’s stories in pictures instead. I retrained as a portrait artist at The Heatherley School of Fine Art for three years on their Diploma and Post Diploma, having always kept my hand in at life drawing, and learned to paint in oils and draw portraits on their part time and portfolio courses for the five years before.

Becoming the story…It was then that I realised I had – briefly - become the story. Friends and acquaintances, often of a similar age, wanted to know why I had I left journalism/news PR after nearly 20 years?  Was my new career a success?  I could see some had thought of changing their own careers and they were interested to see if I was a pathfinder – or had lost my way!

All I could tell them, is that every day had become an exciting assault on my senses.  Through learning to paint people in oils, about light and shade, chroma, about warm and cool colours - about the history of portraiture in art itself - I was learning to see the world differently.

Why portraiture?

It’s easy to see where narrative art fits into portraiture as, through collaboration with the sitter, the artist is telling the story of a life lived up to that moment, evoking emotions and capturing universal cultural truths and aspirations.

The Lots Road Group, which I co-founded from a group of 20 portrait artists who had studied – at different times – at Heatherleys, are unique in that we accompany our portraits in our catalogues and in exhibitions with words that explain our collaboration with our sitters. Through our regular exhibitions we aim to explain portraiture – what it’s like to portray an intimate, a well-known stranger, someone engaged in an activity familiar to us – or through a portrait to capture the zeitgeist.  Our motto is ‘Our portrait, your story’.

Why performer art?

It was the Lots Road Group’s ‘The Art of Reading’ show, that is most in sync with my performer art.  Both feature portraits of people who may be unknown to the viewer but are engaged in a familiar endeavour – reading or entertaining. And it is this endeavour that connects the two and makes the question of who they are, famous or otherwise, irrelevant.

Although knowing the performer can add an extra layer to my art, when I portray a performer – in the street or in a venue – I am really seeking to capture and convey a moment in time and the excitement of performing live. I use colour and the rhythm of negative space to suggest the sound of the music, the comedic pause, or the skill of a circus act.  And I look for the moment when the performer is swept away by the music or connects with the audience.

It was tutoring by my Brighton gallerist, Kellie Miller, that helped me develop a style for my performer art that combined the 3D aspect of portraiture with flattened backgrounds that have more in common with illustration - something I love, having been a child in the pop art era of the ‘60s.

Words and pictures

Although I may appear to have moved from a world of words to a world of pictures, both are equally important to me.  As a journalist and PR I was constantly aware that a story needed a picture to get more exposure in a newspaper, that radio paints pictures in your mind, and that tv relies on moving image. 

As a narrative artist I do something rather unusual…  I don’t incorporate the stories of the performers I portray in the pictures themselves. I prefer to allow the performers their moment in the sun and tell their backstories in written words or via the oral tradition of storytelling. You will uncover their stories in exhibition catalogues and panels, on social media, in my webshop, on my website, via my emails or through contact with me in my open studios.  I’m aware that these stories are therefore ephemeral. They might change with the retelling. They may even be lost in time. But it’s as close as my work comes as a visual artist to audience interaction.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published