Home is where the art is - Stella Vine

Artist Stella Vine went from foster care and teenage pregnancy to selling her work to Charles Saatchi. Then she ended up living in a car park. 

Was the 'Dorothy' skirt that you painted for a recent Shelter auction a deliberate reference to the idea that there's no place like home?

I'm fascinated by the concept of home, especially as I'm always moving, but no: it didn't cross my mind till later on that day. I just follow my instinct and improvise. I like the way the skirt came out cute and girlie. I found the process of making it immensely enjoyable, partly because sewing reminds me of my mum who passed away from a brain tumour in 2003. She was a seamstress and I still have her thimbles. She was quite absent for most of my life and I longed to spend time with her but my stepdad wouldn't allow her to be with me. Sewing helps me feel closer to her.

What's your definition of home?

For me, it's wherever my paints are. Ideally it would have a shower, but some of the places I've lived haven't even had a toilet. What I need above all is an atmosphere that inspires creativity. I'm currently living in a small room in Camden, which has fantastic light. I'm fairly happy there. If I start to feel isolated I go for a long, soothing walk around the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Occasionally claustrophobia strikes and I recoup to the seaside in Cornwall to the North East. But London always draws me back.

You ran away from home at 13. How have your experience of being in venerable situations shaped you?

My mother got remarried when I was seven years old; we moved to Norwich and everything changed. My stepdad was a cruel man who enjoyed humiliating me. A lot of things happened which I know were wrong. It got to the point were my survival instinct kicked in and I knew i had to leave. I was fostered briefly but clashed with the family over my refusal to go to school - I wanted to self educate in the library. I ended up living alone in a bedsit and fell into a relationship with a caretaker, who at 24 was ten years my senior. By the time I was 16, I was pregnant. When you have those experiences at such a young age, it's a struggle to stop seeing yourself as a victim, and you keep repeating the same patterns. Only now, at 44, have I ceased blaming myself for everything that went wrong.

Have you expressed your feelings about your past in your work?

Although my work looks like it's based on other people, it is extremely personal. My style could be described as "sickly sweet", like that feeling you get when you eat too much birthday cake as child. Originally I wanted to be an abstract painter, like De Kooning or Pollock, but I got sidetracked. People, and in particular their eyes, hold a fascination for me - there's so much fragility and complexity there. I usually end up projecting part of myself onto my subjects. That was the case with my painting of Rachel Whiter [a 21-year-old student who died from a heroin overdose in 2000] that Saatchi bought in 2004. She was a kid living on her own in a bedsit when she died and I identify hugely with her. The work provoked such a strong reaction that it caught me off guard. People accused me of capitalising on her tragic death to make shocking art and become famous. I censored myself enormously after that.

You were briefly addicted to cocaine at the height of your success. How did that affect your ability to identify with the dark side of humanity?

I stared using cocaine in 2005 when I was given a show at London's Hamilton's Gallery after David LaChapelle dropped out. I had just over two weeks to make all the work and was painting flat out. After a few sleepless nights, I contacted a local dealer and bought some cocaine. I desperately needed to stay awake to finish the work. The show was okay, considering the short timescale, but I ended up with a bad coke habit. I couldn't even go out to buy milk without having a line. For the next six months I just stayed in, worked and took coke. I painted all my Kate Moss pictures on it; it gave me self confidence I always lacked. I was just falling to bits, a mess, painting six feet of brown sludge for hours on end, with a hefty £400-a-week habit which became hard to maintain. The whole experience changed me. I was depressed when I came off it - I didn't seem to have the natural energy as before. It reminded me how easy it is to get stuck on repeat in life.

Do you worry that your personal story might influence how people see your work?

I found in the past that people on the periphery of the art world thought they could make money out of me, due to the press interest in my personal life, having been a stripper and a single parent, plus the kind of work I was making: "celebrity", as they saw art. Or they wanted to try to draw attention to their galleries through me. [It's] exploitative, really: not respectful to my creativity. I've also encountered a lot of snobbery form people who seem to think that because I'm not educated I can't make real art. It baffles me.

Do your experiences make it harder for you to put down roots? 

I have this fantasy that if I had a home of my own, then I would make themes of amazing art from ceramics, etching, sewing, sculptures, oil paintings: a place for everything. Occasionally I look online and see some shack in the Outer Hebrides for around £20,000. That seems achievable, but somehow I never manage to save. Everything costs so much these days. There have been so many times in my life when I've lost everything. A year after my big solo show at Modern Art Oxford in 2007, I ended up broke and living in my car in Bloomsbury Square Car Park. I had a resident pass from when I had a lovely little flat there. I can laugh at it now, but at the time I didn't know what to do with myself.

How hard has it been to make your work while living in such small spaces?

As long as you have some kind of materials you can make art. I made some of my largest paintings, including one of Pete Doherty [6ftx7ft] and Wonder Women [9ftx10ft], while living in a small studio. I emptied the room and shoved everything into the kitchen. The canvases covered the entire floor. Wherever I am, I tend to gravitate towards a tiny corner with everything I need nearby. Ideally I like my bed to be as far away as possible from my art, so I can look at it with fresh eyes in the morning, but that's not aways possible. I made some nice work in front of a van once. You don't even need much space or materials: you can make all sorts out of things in skips if you want.

What's your idea of domestic bliss?

My ideal would be to share a home with a partner who is funny, kind, intelligent and handsome (to me). We would have dinner parties for friends; I would make paintings for the walls of the house and ceramics for the dinner table. The outside world of money and survival wouldn't exist.

Find out more about Stella's paintings, exhibitions and other work at stellavine.com