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Cut and Paste: the surreal anthropology of STEPH DUTTON

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Pairing bygone imagery with surreal sentences, Steph Dutton, harnesses collage to dissect human behaviour in all its banality and eccentricity. Playful compositions show fragments of archival image anatomised with arrows; forming bizarre photo-montage narratives. Steph’s work may be synonymous with Nottingham post-punk band Do Nothing – their shared penchant for hilarity has established a long-lasting creative collaboration – but her repertoire extends far beyond that of a record cover.

What originally attracted you to the medium of collage?

I used to draw loads as a kid but would only ever copy objects or photos, and when it came to drawing my own thing, I never knew what to draw. With collage, the images already exist but I can manipulate them in a way in which I can tell my own stories. I love that there are no rules and infinite possibilities. It’s fun to produce very surreal images – it often drives me crazy though, I never know when to stop.

Your work is playful yet maintains a careful mastery of balanced space. Does the work start with a particular found image or with the composition?

It will usually start with a found image. Most of my time is spent searching for images, waiting for that buzz of excitement I get when I know a particular image is ‘the one’ – the more bizarre or funny the better. Once I feel that, I can start working with composition, colours, words etc. The process can vary – I’ll hand-make collages, use digital manipulation or a mix of the two. I prefer to work by hand. When working digitally, there’s too much room for ‘umming and ahhing’, undoing things you’ve tried out. All of which are beneficial but I think it leaves more room for doubt – working by hand means decisions are quick and permanent; it’s easier to work with what you’ve got and have fun with it. Hand making collages puts you at risk of paper creases, dust specks, rough edges and scratch marks but to me these are all happy accidents and what makes each artwork unique.

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"Glueland" by Steph Dutton

Do Nothing have just released an EP which features your artwork. How did you go about visualising their sonic universe?

I listened to the EP lots and went through all the lyrics, picking out bits I could transform into characters or scenes. Many evenings were spent in YouTube holes of model villages – I really want to go to the one in Hamburg, it looks insane! Chris (Bailey) made a huge painting which resembled a cityscape and then we took a photo, chopped it up and I added in all the residents of Glueland. I wanted it to be something that you’d have to get up close to look at all the details and realise all the weird happenings – like the kids visiting a holy swordfish or the army of eels slithering into the city.

You’ve worked with Do Nothing since 2018, has that long-lasting collaboration altered your process? I’ve seen that you made props for their Glueland music video, what was it like going from 2D to 3D?

Not particularly, I’m given a lot of creative freedom which is really lovely and over the years I’ve learnt which specific parts of my process are important to their style. It’s nice to have worked together to build a visual identity. They’re a band that don’t want to stay comfortable musically and I feel the same with my artwork. I’ve really enjoyed making animations like in the visualiser for Do Nothing’s cover of ‘Adventures in Success’ and it’s been refreshing getting involved with other bits like music videos. Making the swordfish was super fun. It felt good to make something physical on a larger scale. I’ve always loved the idea of transforming my work into 3D, where I can combine my collage style with physical objects in an installation or within set design.

Hands and disconnected limbs seem to feature a lot in your work, what draws you cutting and pasting body parts? Eva Kotatkova is my all-time favourite collage artist; the body parts are most likely influenced by her work. I’ve always found it easier to express my thoughts and feelings visually rather than verbally and I like looking at how people use non-verbal communication. I’m fascinated with how the body and mind are connected and find it incredible that thoughts can cause such physical sensations. The cut-out body parts are used to tell a story or express how I’m feeling – I’ll transform a thought into a bunch of limbs or torsos. The meanings are unique to each collage and sometimes they don’t mean anything at all!

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"A Conversation" - Steph Dutton

‘A Conversation’ is very relevant to the disconnection of lockdown, yet your imagery is old-fashioned, do you feel that the past is more visually stimulating than the present?

I am more visually attracted to old-looking images. They seem timeless? Whereas modern imagery feels too clean looking. Maybe because it gets rid of the illusion of a different universe – it’s too close to home. I like making collages that give the impression they are from a different time or a different world with elements of the modern mixed in. It’s funny because ‘A Conversation’ was originally made to poke fun at my own social anxiety – I came up with the script when I was at university back in 2017 but spent about 3 years figuring out how I should format it. It was quite a nice coincidence that lockdown happened and I felt like I should release it because I maybe some people would connect with it. I’m still not totally happy with the format – I’ve been pondering about making it into a short film one day…

Which pieces of work are you most proud of and why?

Probably the artwork for Do Nothing’s ‘Zero Dollar Bill’ and ‘Glueland’. I studied Fine Art but fell into making posters and artwork for bands. I’m not trained in Graphic Design and have had to learn everything as I go along – so teaching myself how to design record covers is something I’m proud of. I’m really grateful that they’ve trusted me to visualise their music and to have that collaboration turned into something physical like a record is very cool. Just knowing people own records or merchandise that I’ve helped make feels crazy! I feel very lucky to be able to make work with a band I love and to have people tell me that the songs and collages work really well together makes me feel proud that I’m doing the right thing!

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"Zero Dollar Bill" by Steph Dutton

Have you read, seen or listened to anything of late that has given you inspiration?

I recently watched ‘Being a Human Person’ which is a documentary that follows Swedish film director Roy Andersson whilst he made his final film. It blew me away! He has such a unique method of film making – the complicated sets they build and the clever camera tricks they use are incredible. I’ve also just finished ‘Wintering’ by Katherine May which is a book about the power of rest, retreat and repair during difficult times. In one chapter she talks about how before the industrial revolution people would sleep in two shifts. They would sleep after dusk for a few hours, wake up for an hour or two and then sleep again until dawn. They called those waking hours ‘the watch’ and would get up to read, drink tea, talk about their dreams or chat to neighbours. I’d like to make some work inspired by that.

What are your creative plans for 2021?

I’m making some props for a music video and will be helping out with the art direction which I’m really excited about. I’ve been enjoying getting more involved with music videos – my sister Marie and her boyfriend Ben are film makers so it’s fun to help them out. I’m trying not to plan anything this year as everything is so uncertain at the moment but I hope to get more involved in film making and larger scale projects – a mural would be fun!

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"Connection is Paramount" by Steph Dutton
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