Demi Stiles ‘Cabra’ Interview
By Marjian Tsatsaros Tyagi
(This is a transcript of a conversation with some post-editing after the event.)
M: What is the motivation behind your practice and where does the title 'Cabra' come from?
D: I think the motivation behind my practice changes, at times it is about self-expression, it's talking about my family, my feelings. Sometimes my art is a platform through which I'm trying to communicate but I also am motivated to create work just because I enjoy it. Cabra is what my mum used to call me growing up. It basically means goat or billy-goat in Portuguese, it was what she would call me when I was being cheeky, or a nuisance, a pain basically.
M: So, the works in the show are all paintings but you also do sculpture, installation, (etc.) what drew you into working with these mediums/materials?
D: So, I like painting because I like working in colour. I used to draw in pen or pencil a lot and I still draw out a plan for painting now. But for me combining colours is one of the most exciting parts of my process. They create a mood and combinations can be shocking, they can be calming. I also am drawn to materiality, this is why I like sculpture, you can expand more into a space with sculpture. You can layer when you're using paint, to create something thicker and heavier in a space with more objecthood. That's why I'm drawn to the materials I work with, I think.
M: They have a really beautiful density to them that I think people are drawn to.
D: Thank you.
M: What's getting you out of bed and creating at the moment?
D: At the moment, I think it's very difficult for a lot of people to stay motivated. I think people are doing their best to carry on through the pandemic and for me being able to make art is a huge privilege. I was very lucky to have been able to sell my work during the pandemic, which has honestly just made it viable for me to continue. For me, I think being able to make art is a type of therapy, without being dramatic! And it's one I'm very lucky to have access to and not everyone does. For reasons just financial if nothing else. For me it's yeah, just keeping me together!
M: Nice! I'm sure a lot of other artists relate as well. In third-wave feminist art, we are seeing a lot of artists move away from subjects of sexuality and the body to claim other areas. You have talked about the right to femme expression both within works and gallery spaces, could you expand on this?
D: Yeah absolutely, as a non-binary femme person I became fascinated with gender and how I felt gender had been put on me by others. I believe a lot of people who have been assigned female at birth go through processes of socialisation which code them as 'other'. This is one type of othering which many people experience as an intersection with other things such as race, class, ability, sexuality, gender and age. Many times, people assigned female at birth will be socialised into a role that is more sexualised or sensitive (etc.). I feel these things are excluded from some areas of life, sex workers for example do not have the same rights as other workers in different industries. I think we shouldn't have to undergo this free labour of un-learning our socialisation just because we have been socialised in a different direction. And to take our socialisation and perform that unlearning, it's not a fair thing to expect from some people and not to others. I don't explicitly depict bodies in my work as I feel it could be read that, by representing bodies in painting or in an artwork those bodies mean something, or they mean a certain gender and I don't believe that bodies are inherently gendered.
M: We also see a lot of recurring colours such as blues, greens, purples and reds, do these have any particular significance or intention?
D: I think they're just colours that I'm drawn to. I keep thinking that everything at the moment should be this turquoise blue. I started sort of buying only furniture which is only vivid blues. I don't know why I'm drawn to them, I think they're very rich. I think when you combine them with one another, there's just something I love about them! I can't really explain it, it's just sort of an instinctive thing.
M: They work beautifully and there is a richness to the works. So how do you find balance in your creative practice?
D: Hmm, I think…
M: It's a tricky one!
D: It's a tricky one! I think, well I used to be inclined to work for hours and hours just into the night, not sleep and enjoy it in a strange way. Just sort of draining myself by putting all of this section of time into making, but at some point, maybe I suppose after graduating, you have to work, and you have to keep your house together or you have to try to. That I decided a little bit of routine, go to bed not ridiculously late is probably good for some sort of balance. Try and keep a lid on the amount of time you're spending doing one thing, or another is probably good so, I dunno, I gave it my best shot.
M: That could have an infinite amount of answers, but it's good for other people, I feel to have a little bit of inspiration on. Like maybe if I could go to bed on time, I can fit in work and making art tomorrow! Your work is filled with curves and soft edges but a definite solidity and strength. In your paintings, there is almost a contortion of space playing between 2D and 3D perspectives almost touching on the surreal. Is this planned or is it intuitively structured?
D: So, I feel like throughout my practice I've found a few elements which have sustained from the start till now. I think that I go into making a work with a sort of freedom. I make choices quite instinctively but within this set of elements that I use. Sort of different combinations using, for example, a lot of checks and certain patterns which I’ll come back to, which I find consistently work for me. And I suppose the pallet as well that I'm drawn to. I think it's been a sort of process of weeding out all the ideas which work, and which don't work. There is an element of decoratism. Which I think is a word which I've made up! In my work, I think those patterns and qualities which are soft and somewhat structured feeds into that for me.
M: How has COVID/lockdowns affected your making processes and your work, have there been any positive outcomes from it?
D: Yes definitely. I completed my degree in the first lockdown, so that was very weird, we didn't have a degree show. Also, just a very weird scary time. It meant I spent about three months with nothing to do but paint. I made my most successful work, which I'm still most happy with, during that time. But then I think that comes back to an idea of balance, I don't think you can do that all of the time. Being at home making artworks, not in a studio, is quite lonely and it's good again to try as much as possible right now, like get out of your own space. But much of what I've been making has been reflective of my own space. It's been what's around me, which has been much of the same objects I collect. Which luckily feeds into my general, sort of themes, quite well anyway.
M: Yeah, that's great, and great you had that time as well to just feel your creativity. Jumping off there, do you have any specific tips of advice for artists feeling isolated or disconnected, and struggling to make work?
D: Yeah, I guess the first thing I would say to anyone is to try and connect via your phone, laptops, anything that you do have access to as much as possible. It might not be the same as seeing people in real life but it's easy to isolate yourself further if you don't do that, I think. And I don't think being able to create and make work can be separated from being functioning, and in other parts of your life, so, I suppose look after yourself as much as you can first and then try to create if you can.
M: Yeah, you have to, almost force yourself sometimes, to make those connections and stay active. It's not the same as seeing you in person but it's great to see you through the computer, even with technical difficulties and all!
D: It's lovely to see you as well, I'm sorry about that!
M: It's so normal now it's like [...]
D: Of the times!
M: You can't help it, it's expected! So, what do you think is the most integral element of your work or practice?
D: Hmm most integral part, I think is umm... oh it's not one thing! I think there, okay […]
M: Have as many as you like!
D: Narrative? So hard! Such a hard question! I think narrative one hundred percent takes a lot of the emphasis and then this element of decoration as well. I think my enjoyment of colour and pattern and, sort of, objecthood and a presence to a piece. It can't be like, separated from this idea of decoration and I think that that gets undermined a lot of the time in art. I think it shouldn't. So yeah, I like that, I like to separate that decorative element of my work and then identity as well comes into it a lot. Gender comes into it a lot. So, three!
M: Three! [laughing] What tips do you have for making work while at home in a smaller space, you know maybe without a studio. Students at UNI have access to other materials, other people around them, what would you say helped you the most at home?
D: I think practice in your new space because I think when you go from having a studio to not having a studio it's very daunting to get back into making, your style might change, the materials might change. I think at first, it's very scary not to have your practice go as smoothly as normal. But the more your able to put time in, which you know is a privileged position to put time in, but if you can keep at it and evolve naturally, I think. So yeah, that's my best advice.
M: It's good advice, almost like making it feel like the home of your art rather than just home and studio. Merge the comfort of when you're making your work.
D: Yeah completely!
M: So, to finish off! If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
D: I'd be on a beach somewhere incredibly warm! [laughs] I think like most people! A nice drink in my hand or something, that's where I'd be.
M: That sounds exactly like what everyone needs right now! Is there anything you wanted to add, anything to plug or any works you wanted to mention?
D: Hopefully everyone will see the online showcase of Cabra! I hope you share it with all your friends and keep your eyes peeled for anything you see coming up on Middleground! Lot of amazing stuff is happening there!
M: Thank you for doing this interview! I'm so looking forward to the show being out and for the public to see. So excited!