Collage collaborators | Q&A with Maria Rivans & Bonnie and Clyde
They share a Brighton studio and a love of the stunning and surreal art of collage. We speak to Maria Rivans and Bonnie and Clyde – aka the artist Steph Burnley – about their work and new joint show Glitter Bunnies
Basics first – where do you live?
Maria: Hove, 100 yards from the seafront. I love living by the sea, I find it nurturing and calming.
Steph: I’m on the border of Brighton and Hove, about five minutes from the sea. I love it there.
And you share a studio; tell us a little about the space.
Maria: It’s in the centre of Brighton in the North Laine area. It’s beautiful: it used to be the entrance lobby of a cinema built in 1911, hence the name ‘Coronation Studios’, as it was built to commemorate the Coronation of King George V. It has a stone spiral staircase.
Steph: I’m upstairs and Maria is downstairs. We have a happy and supportive studio, which is so important to creating work, and to life generally. It’s an uplifting space.
How did you come to be studio buddies?
Maria: It’s been coming up to four years now. Before we met, we were fans of each others’ work, so I was very excited when I met Steph for the first time at a group boxed show we were invited to take part in – funnily enough curated by Amy Douglas, who is also exhibiting in Glitter Bunnies. About a year later we found we had studios in buildings next door to each other, and were always popping in for chats about work over a cuppa. We thought it would be great to get our own studio to run, and ended up doing just that.
Do you rub along well together? More importantly, who makes the tea?
Maria: We work so hard and intensely that we make sure to always take a lunch break together, which is when we discuss things and have some good food to keep a healthy mind and energy for the day. We take it in turns to make tea and coffee and share the jobs that need doing around the studio. We also share the same taste in music, so will often listen to albums together. The studio has pretty good acoustics!
Steph: It’s a gorgeous work environment. My assistant Jen and Maria’s assistant Grace are both amazing and we all get along so well.
And do you crave order, or thrive in chaos?
Steph: When I work I’m often messy and then have a big tidy-up. It’s very light in my part of the building, so can be crazy hot, and I have a view of a very fast paced, vibrant, mad street. There’s a bar next door and lots of cool food spots on the road and I’m opposite a tattoo parlour.
Maria: Ha, well my studio space is immaculate – someone once said it was like an operating theatre. I like things really tidy; I find that I can’t work if it’s in a mess. And I have to be very ordered to find the images I need as I have a huge collection of source materials to use and sift through which is incredibly time consuming.
What do you need around you to get the creative juices flowing?
Maria: Music is very important for me, and what I play depends on what mood I’m in. I always work to music, it really gets me in the zone I need to be in. I love electronica and jazz and at the moment I’m listening to a lot of Cate Le Bon, Joan as Policewoman, Alice Coltrane, Cat Power…
Steph: Yes, I listen to a lot of BBC6Music, or my Shazam mix or vast iTunes library. I like discovering music and am always on the hunt for my next favourite tune.
Your show is called Glitter Bunnies. What does the title mean to you?
Steph: A little much needed joy in weighted social and political times. It was a comedic name that stuck!
Maria: When Steph came up with the title we were brainstorming at the time and all thought it was really funny. It’s very apt too as the show is near to Easter, and we all use some sort of glitter finishes in our work. I decided to hide a vintage bunny in all six of my small originals…
What would you say brings your work together?
Maria: We both work in collage although use it in different ways. Both of our collage methods are very labour intensive and handmade; you can see the skill of the hand.
Steph: I think our colour palettes compliment each other and we often have similar themes running through.
How would you describe your work to a newcomer?
Maria: My work is a mash-up of Surrealism meets Pop Art. I reappropriate my collection of vintage ephemera to create dreamy realms, which transport the viewer into fantastical worlds of the imaginary, each one suffused with vivid colour, arresting imagery, intricate detail, and finished with a dusting of subtle humour. It takes the form of both large-scale originals and limited edition prints, including my Pin-Ups series, landscapes, film stills and 3D box collages.
Steph: I create mixed media collages and limited edition prints. They are essentially urban dreamscapes, which I create combining elements from photographs I’ve taken on my travels. I use paint, mark-making, texture and print to adapt these and isolate elements, which are built up into an environment that works like a visual narrative. I often use signage, symbols and words to inject some humour or political edge.
Where does the initial inspiration come from? Do you begin by sketching or creating a draft collage?
Maria: I just tend to go for it, by working straight into a collage. I use my iPad for noting down ideas and inspirations. Sometimes I come up with a theme or the ideas develop from the images that I collect. Mainly I just play around and have fun with the making process.
Steph: Either sketches or collage. If I have no sketch then I pick out photographs and build up the image and thoughts as I go along very organically. I travel and take a lot of photographs, so the creative process is already in motion as I’m taking pics to use in my work.
You create one-off originals and limited edition prints. Talk us through the printmaking process…
Maria: Because of the labour intensive process I use, the original collages are quite expensive so I began to make screenprints for the people who loved my work but just couldn’t afford to buy an original. I fell in love with the process and the prints quickly became a very important part of my art practice. I don’t physically print myself; I work alongside the amazing printers Harwood King. I seriously wouldn’t be able to achieve such high quality prints as they do. We work closely together. It’s a fabulous process, really exciting and rewarding.
Steph: I create the outline of a piece on the computer and then print off the individual elements and paint them, scan them in and take them back into the scene. When I’m ready to start making the original I paint my paper six times with a mix of paint and digital ground and then print off all the elements and cut them up to collage, painting some untreated ones directly. I then collage the piece with sections of texture and paint alongside the cut up elements, using a roller, glue, scissors, scalpel and rulers, masking tape, fabric, bolsar wood and paint and my old very slow large format printer. I then turn it back into a print from the original using the iMac.
Did your styles and themes unfold organically over time or did you always have a vision of the work you wanted to achieve?
Maria: It developed over time; I made the landscapes first, then 3D boxes. I came across some 1940s Hollywood annuals, saw a beautiful photograph of Sylvia Sydney and this began the series of the Pin-Ups, which are still developing and evolving today.
Steph: Yes, it unfolded organically. I started by screenprinting black and white images with a spot of colour myself and then as my work started to develop more I had to take it to a professional printer, so there were no limitations then and this allowed me to flow my ideas.
What would you say was your big break?
Maria: I think I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always had wonderful galleries that have wanted to support my work. One of the most prominent exhibitions I have had was the solo at the Saatchi Gallery London.
Steph: It’s all feels like a journey. I think my biggest break has been meeting the people I met since moving to Brighton – the move made me happy and open to meeting people who have since played an incredibly important role in my career.
And what are you most proud of?
Maria: Managing to run the business side of the art practice, it takes a lot of work and is difficult to switch from creative head to business head. I don’t see myself as a businesswoman but I’ve had to learn how to run a business along the way and actually find it very rewarding.
Steph: Workwise, a few years ago I had a 30-colour screenprint printed by Harwood King titled ‘The Strip’ featured as the cover and poster image for an exhibition celebrating Beat Culture at Leeds University called Subterraneans. I was sitting next to works by Yoko Ono and Gavin Turk and countless other heroes. I was super proud.
If you had to pick a favourite piece of your own, what would it be and why?
Maria: It would be the Amelia pin-up because I really struggled with it. Sometimes when I am making the collages they develop easily and the making process just flows but for some reason I became really stuck near to the end of finishing Amelia. I was so frustrated that I’d become blind to the fact that I had in fact finished the collage, after tussling and wrestling with the last of the images to fit in. It was a lesson to take a break and not force the process. I think it has become one of my most successful prints.
Steph: I honestly like different pieces on different days. Angels and Liquor I like today. The original is in Delta Airlines lounge at LAX which makes me happy.
What inspires the imagery in your work?
Steph: Most of my pieces aren’t based in California but I think they carry that vibe. They are usually composite scenes from various countries. I love the positivity of the California coast. The cliché palm tree, chilled out, love and peace vibe with a bit of edge.
Maria: I grew up watching the old black and white films so the Hollywood stars have always been in my life. They’re like old friends and have inspired my life in many ways. Especially the strong female characters that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played, they encouraged me to be independent and adventurous.
Maria – how do you come to choose the female subjects of your Pin-Up works?
Maria: It’s all about finding the right pose. It’s quite tricky, I need a certain position for the model to be posing in for the collar and headdress to work. The lighting has to be just right too. It takes a long time to source just the right image that will lend itself to the technique.
You’ve described TV culture as a huge influence. What in particular did you watch growing up that made a big impact on you?
Maria: I watched a lot of TV in the 70s as a kid. I would get home from school and eat a superb Italian meal in front of the TV (I’m second generation Italian). I loved Saturday morning kids’ TV, and shows like Planet of the Apes, The Time Tunnel, The Fantastic Journey, Land of the Giants, Star Trek, The Singing Ringing Tree to name but a few… and these films and shows keep creeping into my work. During my teenage years I began to really get into Hitchcock, Film Noir, French films and David Lynch.
How do you source your imagery?
Maria: I go to boot markets, charity shops and often people will donate material to me. It’s an exciting process, when I come across something I can use I pretty much get it back to the studio and begin cutting and using the images in the latest collage I am building.
Steph: For the most part I take my own photographs from travels. I have a stash of images.
For both of you, the pieces are on the surface stunningly beautiful but have a wonderfully surreal and dreamlike edge – would you describe them as having subversive undertones?
Maria: Definitely, there are plenty of hidden political meanings and comments on my life and how I see the world that we live in today.
Steph: I wouldn’t call my work intentionally subversive, more socially relevant in places. I like to add some real life elements to them that are not necessarily traditionally beautiful but i do find some kind of poetic beauty in all these elements used.
What message, or messages, do you hope to convey?
Maria: I’m highly influenced by sci-fi, philosophy and Hitchcock. I talk about life, love, the universe and continually question what it is to be a human living in this strange physical 3D reality. I am always searching for answers.
Steph: The messages are generally coming straight from my heart – from where I flow the work from – they aren’t pre-planned and it’s not important to me if my symbols or messages are seen by the viewer as long as they click with the piece in some way. They will hopefully find their own meaning in the work.
Would you describe your work as feminist?
Maria: Yes. Some of my work tackles the subject of gender issues and I hope that my collages conveys a feeling of empowerment to inspire women to become anything they want to be.
Which artists most inspire you and why?
Maria: So many..! Sarah Lucas, because she made one of the best shows I have ever seen when she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. I like the way she uses critical humour and feminism in her work. Richard Hamilton’s retrospective at Tate Modern was incredibly inspiring, and one of my all time favourite paintings is Interior II, which of course features Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. He was one of the pioneers of the British Pop Art movement and I find his work to be witty, sexy and political, which I aspire to.
Steph: Oh I always find this tricky as there are so many. I love Basquiat. His energy and colour palette. I love Peter Blake, his prints and paintings are gorgeous. Rachel Whiteread – her show last year at Tate Modern was incredible, beautiful and powerful. Sarah Lucas for her raw honesty and visual power. Painting-wise, I’m a fan of Kerry James Marshall and also Danny Fox is very pleasing.
What’s next for you?
Steph: I’d like to see my work moving off paper/canvas/board and look forward to working with Maria Rivans on some new 3D and 4D projects with this in mind. We’re both involved in a practice of meditation based around neuroscience and the power of energy healing so we will be producing some work incorporating this.
‘Glitter Bunnies’, For Arts Sake, May 2-26, 45 Bond Street, Ealing, W5 5AS, Mon-Fri, 10am-5.30pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 12-5pm. See Bonnie and Clyde’s page here and Maria Rivans’ page here for available prints and a link to a catalogue of original collage pieces available. Please do email [email protected] with any enquiries.
Interview: Alexa Baracaia