Melbourne based artist 23rd Key has just submitted two mind-blowing stencils into Australia’s ‘Archibald Prize‘. She took time to chat with Damo about how this all came about.
DW: Thanks for taking the time to chat. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, what led you to becoming a stencil artist?
23rd Key: No worries. I actually kind of fell into it- I made my first stencil when I was in high school. Being from Melbourne, stencil art was still emerging at the time, my brother knew some of the basics and taught them to me. I happened to really take to the medium though, I found the process of cutting/making stencils really cathartic and have been doing it ever since- I enjoy doing it now more than I ever have. I got to a stage where I’d made so many artworks that I decided I needed to do something with them – being an artist was never something I thought I’d be, ‘when I grew up’.
DW: Often there can be a story behind a name. Is that the case with you?
23rd Key: I struggle a lot when it comes to names, even when I used to play roller derby, I found coming up with a name harder than learning how to skate. The first show I was ever in I went under the pseudonym ‘Keys’, it was basically just because it sounds like my real last name and was my nickname for a long time. Twenty-three has been my favourite number since I can remember and is actually the date of my birth, so I kind of just put the two together. It’s a pretty poor story I guess, hopefully the work I make makes up for it.
DW: You have recently created three amazing stencil works of Aussie rock legend Chris Cheney (The Living End) of which you are submitting one in the ‘Archibald Prize’. How did this come about? What was it like working with someone at the top of their own creative field?
23rd Key: I’ve always wanted to enter the Archibald – I think a lot of artists hope/dream to and I just got to a stage where I realized it was time to take that next step. It’s a scary thing to do, but I think the progress my work has made really shows in the 3 works I created. It’s only when you take challenges on like this that you can push those boundaries and take the opportunity to prove yourself, even if it is to no one but yourself. Choosing Chris was pretty natural for me – in my opinion he’s the best guitarist to come out of Australia, he’s also a pretty big idol of mine, when I was growing up I listened to the Living End a lot, I actually wanted to be a guitarist when I grew up, I spent most of my time in high school with a guitar in my hand – the teachers even let me keep one permanently in the classroom. So to say the least, it was a pretty big deal for me, definitely a perfect start to my Archibald entering career. I contacted Chris’ management and he agreed to have a sitting with me, it’s always great when someone you idolize turns out to be an awesome person in real life. I ended up with 3 works as I was having so much fun painting him and trying to capture him – plus I wanted to have options. And in the end I actually decided to send two of them, as a diptych/multi-panel artwork, they worked as a pair and represented Chris better together than they did alone.
DW: Can you tell us a bit more about the works? The detail is incredible. How long did you spend on each stencil? How many stencils were involved?
23rd Key: Well, the stencils were born out of two separate concepts I had. I wanted to cut a realistic, traditional portrait, something I knew I could do well and was very straight forward. That stencil was 7 layers and actually only took about 3 weeks to cut. It was in my approach to painting this that I took a different step, misting and mixing colours rather than sticking to solid block colours like stencil artists traditionally do. Portraits are a hard thing to accurately capture, especially in a rigid medium like stencil art, because skin tones and portraiture is usually very soft, and stencils are very clear cut and jagged. I’m really pleased with how that one came out, it’s definitely advanced my level of ability to create a realistic portrait. The second concept was to introduce movement into the portrait, with Chris being a performer, this seemed only a natural aspect for his portrait to have, I think every performer has a stage persona that’s different to who they are in everyday life. My aim was to show this as accurately as possible in 2D. I went about this by creating a 6 layer stencil that was the foundation for the other stencils (of which there were 5- making 30 other layers). So in total I was working with 36 layers, which is pretty different for me. I’ve always believed it’s in the detail and not the number of layers that you cut. In total it took around 2 and a half months from cutting to having the works finished.
DW: Noting you were planning on submitting your work for the ‘Archibald Prize’ did you come into this body of work the same way you would approach any other project?
23rd Key: I knew I’d be out of my comfort zone a bit with the non-traditional side of the concept, so I went into it half in the dark. When you’re painting someone you look up to it changes things a bit, I knew Chris would eventually see the work I created and I wanted him to be happy with them, I also wanted to make something that was better than anything else I’d done to date. It was a challenging task and unlike any other project I’ve worked on, even though I didn’t have a lot of time to make the works, I’d been planning it and brainstorming how I wanted the works to look for a while before hand. I’ve definitely never approached any body of work the same way.
DW: How do you find the transition from street to gallery or vice versa?
23rd Key: I never really through of myself as a street artist. The work I put on the streets is usually very different to the work I make for the gallery. I derive a lot of enjoyment in making both works; for the street or gallery. I think they’re completely separate entities, not everything that works on the street or in the gallery works both ways, I think that’s where a pleasure for the difference or transition comes from. It’s almost like working both sides of your brain, they both have to be approached completely differently but have a similar process.
DW: You obviously spend insane amounts of time cutting stencils. How do you pass the time? Music?
23rd Key: Definitely. It’s hard to find a good mix of genres to pass the amount of time I spend cutting, I’ve actually turned to audio books and talk radio like ‘This American Life’, in recent years. Little bit of variety goes a long way.
DW: Where to next for 23rd Key?
23rd Key: I’m actually planning a solo show, working on the Archibald threw a pretty huge 3 month spanner in the works but as of this week I’m straight back into it making the pieces for my show which will hopefully be late this year or at the latest, early next year. I’ve been planning the works for the last year, however, I’m the kind of person that likes to keep pretty busy, this is the first year I’ve really had to focus on my art 100% and not have University or Roller Derby commitments running along side. I’ve got some stuff planned that I’m pretty excited about sharing with everyone, I hope it’ll be a refreshing take on stencil art, which I think is really needed right now. It’s based around the theme of ego and self doubt, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Kanye West to get ‘in the mood’.