Member Interviews: Stephanie Bellefleur

‘Roncesvalles Bridge’, photo credit Alia Youssef

Stephanie Bellefleur is a contemporary visual artist of colour who was born in Venezuela, Latin America, currently residing in Saskatchewan. Stephanie’s artistic practice incorporates bold colours with strong graphic lines. The Haus of Bellefleur’s mandate is to provide accessible opportunities through a conscious commitment to the celebration of diversity in the local community. The work focuses on public art and placemaking, it prioritizes equity and sustainability, and it provides capacity building components for both youth and community members at large.

Stephanie has created a contemporary style that embodies both scale, elegance, and grit. Through her work, she has collaborated with municipalities for the City of Toronto and Markham, as well as the Vancouver Business Association and the Hamilton Business Association. She was awarded commissions with Facebook, Skechers, New Balance, and Regina’s Downtown BIA. Her most relevant high impact public art projects include contributing to landmark murals by International artist Phlegm at Yonge and St.Clair, The Pan Am Path Project, and the 23-story Equilibrium Mural alongside International muralist Okuda San Miguel. In 2020, she supported the project “Archipelago” for Michael Lin at the MOCA Toronto. Her personal pledge to positively sanction diversity, inclusion, and equity has led her to this field. Where she can create space for sustainability, serve the public, and continue to support the ongoing progress in a spectrum of unity and colour within the art sector.


Interview with Stephanie Bellefleur

What led you to apply to the Mural Routes’ Mural Art Career Development (MACD) program?

During my time off from studying Fine Art, I made it a priority to travel and expand both my artistic and life experiences while simultaneously connecting with my extended family and my Latin American roots. I visited Miami because I have family there and my cousin Bella suggested I visit a place called Wynwood. So, I took the local skytrain and then a bus to Wynwood. I was immediately impressed and inspired by the outdoor art district, there was artwork everywhere. I was at a place in my artistic practice where I was searching for more meaning in my own work and contemplating why I wanted to be an artist. Wynwood Art District is a free outdoor gallery and exhibition of some of the world’s top street artists. It instantly resonated with me. Through this experience of traveling to Wynwood throughout the years for Art Basel, I have built some fabulous relationships with some very talented artist and arts producers around the world such as the artist Seven who’s the Creative Director of the Burning Bridges Street Art Project in Chattanooga, Tennessee and my dear Manu whom I met in 2016, a Miami female local who’s been a powerhouse in the industry supporting some for the worlds top artists and projects all over the United States with her company the Dirty Projects. I am still deeply touched by this space called Wynwood that has offered free, accessible and diverse public artwork.

When I came home from my Miami trip, I began navigating which programs offered mural art opportunities. The research led me to apply to the MACD program with Mural Routes, where I was successful in my application. I was thrilled and during this time, I was able to paint in parallels outside of the program. I also learnt how to develop both small and large scale pieces with SKETCH, an artistic charitable organization, where I was mentored by Indigenous Artist Scratchwon to further develop my aerosol skills. In the same breath, I was working on a mural art development project with talented artist and friend, Anya Mielniczek, for an Arts in the Parks event with Art Starts. Which led to my involvement in The Steps Initiative, an 8-story mural that supported artist PHLEGM at St. Clair. I truly believe that my trip to Miami and the experience at Wynwood allowed me to become impeccably clear on my intentions and what I wanted to accomplish as an artist. It allowed me to quickly manifest what I felt was part of my life’s purpose and I have been working non-stop from project to project ever since.

‘Equilibrium’, photo credit Sharon Mendonca


How did MACD inform your mural art career path?

Being an artist is one component and aspect of being a creator. As a single mother and person of colour, I have always been incredibly keen on how to educate myself to always become a better human, artist and business person. MACD helped inform my practice by providing a foundation on how to produce a piece of outdoor art. Though much of the program was based in theory, it helped me tremendously while I was out in the field working on projects, I was able to apply the knowledge I gained from the program in the real world. Participating in MACD gave me a good guide and foundation on what I should look for, pay attention to, and navigate when producing a mural project. It provided a fundamental stepping stone into my career as an artist, it truly helped inform the way I do things to this day.

In 2017, you were a panelist for the Women in Mural Art session at the 18th National Mural Symposium. Please elaborate on how you think the landscape has shifted for women in mural art since that panel discussion? Have your views, options, or experiences shifted since then?

It’s really important for us Women to take it amongst ourselves to make space in all arenas, and to not be afraid to speak up and not wait to be spoken to. I have conviction in my words because over the years I have fought for a space to belong in such a male dominated industry. For many years, I really had to be my own self advocate. I have had the privilege of encountering other women such as myself, who understand what it means to change the narrative and the landscape for all identifying women in all sectors, but this is specific to public art. To this I owe much thanks and gratitude to Anjuli Solanki, Program Director of The Steps Initiative. I have had many incredible men and women stand up, speak out and really create opportunities that put us at the forefront of forging through many of these barriers that identifying women face, including those of gender and racial equality for BIPOC Folk and LGBTQ2S+ to which many women and men face within intersectionality. To this I would also like to include a true champion and supporter of the arts Julian Carvajal, thank you.

I think now, more so than ever with the current relevant social issues. More women are using their power, their businesses and their platforms in whatever capacity to say, this is not a man or a woman thing, it is an US thing, an issue as a people. In the past, I didn’t know what a cultural plan was, or how to accurately provide opportunities and make space for marginalized groups of people. I have made it my mission and mandate within my company The Haus of Bellefleur to provide jobs and moments that really measure and evaluate equity in order to set a standard that encompasses great integrity within our industry. There is no immediate need to compartmentalize and or use specific language to identify to the world, whether we are female painters or street artists. We are all artists, some of the women that I really looked up to during my development to which I carefully listened to and studied, include Sheryl Sandberg, Frida Kahlo and Michelle Obama amongst many others. Currently, I have been more focused on how to further develop my contribution to this planet as a woman and how I can continue to support others through my own resources.

‘Equilibrium Mural’ (Artist: Okuda San Miguel), photo credit Nicky Young

As an emerging artist you had the opportunity to contribute to the production of some of Toronto’s largest murals and support internationally established artists. How do you feel that these experiences have influenced your current practice?

First and foremost, I am incredibly humbled and grateful to have had the opportunity to do such work. To everyone who is and was involved in the process and development of these high impact projects, I will say this: it really does take a village. Oftentimes, most of these people are neither seen nor heard so with that being said; this is for everyone who makes all of this magic happen for these projects before they come into fruition. I have had the pleasure to work alongside some really amazing and talented artists and people who both locally and internationally I am so happy to call friends.

The greatest learning experience I can take away from these projects and the opportunities to serve is really how impactful and important they are to the communities that they live and exist in. The beautiful sentiments of people who pass by and tell you about how such a colour has changed their day, a moment, or a lifetime is truly profound. I still receive messages from people who reach out to me or I bump into, who will tell me how much these murals mean to their daily routine and life. I truly can’t even begin to express the feeling, except for just being grateful to share what I love to do with the world. I am humbled and truly honoured.

‘Transformations Connected’, photo credit Alia Youssef

What assets and training were you equipped with that supported you during the production of those large scale murals? In hindsight, what support, training, and/or assets do you wish you had at the time, but didn’t know that you needed during the production phase?

I was very fortunate to work on large scale projects early on in my career. So, I will say that much of what I was learning at the time was all very “green”. I really wish I had more of my own development with murals and aerosols in order to help enhance my practice. I found that I was oftentimes pigeonholed to certain types of projects or not really seen or considered, because I was only looked at as the assistant and not the lead artist. It has taken me some time to develop my own work and to this day I am learning.

I truly would have liked to have had better insight into how my life and body would change after working on such large scale murals. Not only does it require quite a bit of mental strength, but also physical. When you’re working in the month of August with the sun beating on your back, up in the sky whether it’s 12 or 23 stories on a swing stage and the wind is blowing the stage like a sailboat. Your mind is no longer thinking about the fears or falling, you’re just trying to stop the vertigo and saying to yourself “please don’t throw up”. I spent about a good two years during my time working on murals doing lots of physiotherapy.

I damaged my rotator cuffs in my shoulders and had issues with my hips. I did cognitive therapy and had acupuncture sessions regularly for chronic pain. Working as a mural artist is a beautiful journey and process, but it really requires a conscious care for the mind + body + soul from project to project. I have really learned the importance of mental wellness and balancing what makes sense for my life in terms of capacity. I have really grasped a deeper sense of disciple and discernment for things. There is no need for desperation at any point in your career, we are not here to hustle, we are meant to align.

‘Canoa’, photo credit Harry Choi


Based on your personal experiences creating large scale murals as an emerging artist, what strategies would you suggest to current emerging artists that are interested in pursuing large scale mural production?

If I may suggest to current emerging artists that are interested in pursuing large scale mural production, to follow the path that is their own and not the one that their peers are on. To be open to doing work that is sometimes less desirable or not directly related to the arts. This will give you the opportunity to learn beyond the scope of what you think is ideal. Oftentimes, we will see our friends and peers growing in their own artistic practices in ways that differ from our own. However, be really keen on building yourself up in many different capacities, not better, just different. It is really important to learn from a worldly perspective. In order to learn how to bring bigger art to our city that will leave a legacy and impact thousands of people a day.

For me, this often meant times where I was the assistant or the supportive role or doing the administrative tasks for different arts organizations, they were not always creatively based roles. Nonetheless, these were very helpful experiences that led to my better understanding of the cultural sector. I would say from my own experience, it is incredibly important to diversify your portfolio. Examples of this are ways in which you are able to showcase your ability to not only produce, but be willing to work in collaboration with others, and listen to the needs of the community and or clients. It’s really an egoless space, if you have the capacity to do artwork on different types of materials, surfaces and spaces, expanding and widening your scope of work whether that is on a fence, utility box, bicycle lane concrete barrier, or corrugated metal container, go for it! Learn multiple mediums, to learn which you prefer. I found it incredibly handy when I better understood how to use both latex outdoor paint and aerosol.

Another piece of advice I would offer emerging mural artists is that aerosol use cuts your production time nearly in half. When we are speaking to submissions who call for larger scale projects when a jury is in the process of selecting works, artists that really have good production experience in managing and working on different types of surfaces, locations and with organizations show an undertaking of professional experience. In terms of design and style, share all the facets of your work within an application keeping it clean and consistent.

Beyond the scope of your initial and previous experience, you will need your safety items like First Aid Training which is very helpful and WHMIS training. All working at heights certifications last roughly three years and always need to be renewed and or updated. Working at Heights is your first step for qualifications, this covers all basic heights used then any aerial platforms heights equipment you will need extra qualification for. This training covers Scissor Lifts, Boom Lifts and Cherry Picker. Always List on your CV or Letter of Intent any updated experience, certifications and qualifications when applying for any large scale mural projects. For Swingstage certifications you will have to complete further additional training. I made it a point to purchase my own safety equipment such as harness, lanyard and rope grab. These pieces of equipment are always changing and evolving with time and safety regulations, so it is just important to be mindful of how you take care of and upgrade your safety equipment. Lasty, if you are working for yourself and or being hired by an organization it is really just best practice to have or look into commercial liability insurance that covers up to 2 million dollars.

Furthermore in order to stay connected and really be on the lookout for large scale mural opportunities, sign up for all local agencies that are connected to public art (newsletters, instagram, facebook) and understand the markets you are wanting to work or engage with whether that’s a Charitable organization, Municipality or Business. Be clear and keen on being an even better business person, have a plan. Know your audience and target market, what is your niche and what services are you providing to which market to solve whatever problems. Know your value and rights as an artist, meaning knowing how and when you volunteer your time. How much you should be paying yourself and what that time looks like, from admin to design fees to research and exploration. Always write up a letter of agreement and or contracts even if it’s with friends or family. Become a CARFAC member and familiarize yourself with appropriate resources to help give yourself a scope of industry standard guidelines. Sign up for granting opportunities to help provide funds to support initiatives with the appropriate budgets and exploratory question answers. You can find these through the Toronto, Ontario and Canada Arts Council and StART Monumental Program.

I always have two rules for myself as an artist. The first is to reinvest in yourself, save a percentage of your artistic income to develop your skills as an artist. That may look like purchasing a professional camera to take high resolution images of your work or a tablet with a drawing pen to create digital pieces. Number two, is to use a portion of your income that is not related to art, but rather to self fulfillment. I want to make the point to save money that is dedicated to what you really love, for me it is travel, but for you it may be something else. Be sure to set aside some money to treat yourself. I really make a conscious point to really honor the work that I do so that I don’t resent the daily rituals and routines of life as an artist.

‘Archipelago (Artist Michael Lin)’, photo credit Kelcy Timmons


In 2020, you were on MOCA’s production team for Archipelago by Michael Lin. Can you describe what the experience of producing a gallery exhibition during a pandemic was like, and what the working environment was like with covid restrictions in place? Can you also share what takeaways this experience provided for you?

This experience was quite different from how I normally work, this was the first time I was able to engage with a core group of local artists that I may not have otherwise connected with. From a more illustrative and or design background, I was happy to befriend some very talented local artists that help further develop my views on mural art making. This project was quite traditional in the sense that it was highly process driven. We were all given strict instructions at best to keep our distance and work in sections.

We were encouraged to use Chinese calligraphy brushes on a large scale mural. This was very foreign to me in terms of time and space. I find for the most part, my work is often rushed and on very short timelines. The expectation with this project was the curation and focused on attention to details. We were taught and guided by Michael’s people from his studio in Paris, because of COVID we really had to follow a blueprint of what was expected in order to execute Michael Lin’s vision accurately.

I was very pleased with the professionalism of our lead artists, Vanessa Maltese and Val Sears. With the ongoing shifts because of Covid and constant delays they were always very flexible, organized and upbeat. It was really great working in the MOCA Toronto, the staff and the people were outstanding. My takeaways from this experience we’re really in opposition of all I had really known and had taught myself as a mural artist. This project taught me the beauty in slowing down, taking my time and appreciating the energy behind those fine details.

You currently reside and work in Saskatchewan, how does this provincial shift affect your current practice?

Alongside some of my core values for myself and my artistic practice, travelling and engaging with new spaces that allow for better understanding and growth is very important to me. Moving to the prairies and being a resident here in Saskatchewan has really helped broaden my understanding of what is happening in this region of our country. I spent most of this past year connecting with nature and many locals here, who care deeply about caring for and living off the resources of the land. Saskatchewan is known as being the breadbasket of the country.

Having a broader understanding for agriculture, farming practices, and how many jobs here are really centred around the use of the earth and natural minerals. These jobs are really crucial to the livelihoods for many families and people here in Southern Saskatchewan, one being that of the local power plant and coal mining. Because of recent federal laws that were passed by the liberal party, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Many of these places are to be shut down with respect to the laws around the environment and sustainable energy. This comes at a loss for this part of the country as hundreds of people will lose their jobs and are already beginning to move and migrate away from an already under populated rural community. Through this I have had the opportunity to help better inform some of my social political understandings that had looked quite different for myself as a single mother living liberally in a large metropolitan city. The needs of people here are quite different and are rooted in how life is governed in a rural area. It is absolutely conservative and there is much room for better diversity and reconciliation for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, All Indigenous First Nation and Metis, including Residential school survivors and continuing to foster better arts and culture practices.

The way I work now is more centered on creating better works out of a peaceful state rather than desperation. Much of my previous work was focused on how to do everything I had to in order to survive and become a better artist very fast. I am so grateful for the way I currently execute and curate the kind of work I choose to put back into the world. I take my time and I really care about all the details, even if it’s just one piece or project at a time.

‘Transformations Connected’, photo credit Alia Youssef

Your current artistic practice focuses primarily on mentorship and supporting marginalized voices in remote communities. Can you describe what the mural/street art scene looks like in the communities that you work with?

Currently, I have transitioned my practice from Toronto to Saskatchewan, which means working between two provinces at the moment. I am really excited about this summer’s upcoming projects that will allow me to produce the work I have done for years in remote places where arts and culture is less accessible. I am happy and excited to announce both workshops and a mural project that has been funded by the Saskatchewan Arts Board that will run for the month of August in alignment with The Coronach Street Festival. I was approached by the festival to do some arts programming for this summer. We will be providing opportunities to engage at an intergenerational level as well as identify two local youth for mentorship and provide honorariums for their participation. Some of the programming will be through workshops identifying potential themes and ideation for the mural art development process. They will learn about material selection and identification, both aerosol and painting techniques, as well as helpful business and entrepreneurship skills to really get young people thinking about what they may like to do in their life in order to create a wider sense of purpose. This will be a first of this size for the town of Coronach which is mainly a coal mine and predominantly farming demographic. So providing alternative pathways of vision and expression is really imperative and we look forward to many ongoing initiatives with other local artists for years to come.

 

What value does your Mural Routes Membership provide for you?

My Mural Routes Membership is essential, being able to be in the know of what projects are currently going on and happening through the Monthly Newsletters. The jobs and opportunities that are shared among us, as well as the network of talented artists across the board that I am always able to engage and share with. It’s a really important part of what keeps my business as an Artist in flow.

Check out more of Stephanie’s work:

Mural Routes member page
Instagram @bellefleurhaus
Facebook @bellefleurhaus
https://www.thehausofbellefleur.com/

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