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Animal Planet (A Reminder): Bridge Stehli

Those who do the Sydney group show rounds have almost certainly come across the work of Bridge Stehli, and once one piece is viewed the rest become immediately iconic. Portraying animals in hilarious human social settings – two wealthy buffaloes demonstrating the social discomfort between the new and old upper classes, a murderous red fox attempting to wash away his crime, and an all too realistic depiction of a flamboyant socialite in giraffe form – the common sentiment that lies underneath the acrylic paint and timber is a truly soulful connection to all living things. Although simultaneously quirky and adorable, when Bridge explains the context from where her work originates she subtly underlines a deep warmth within her. It is one that has remained with her since childhood; the profound ability to bond and empathise with creatures who all too often get demoted within the hierarchy of a human-centric society. She expresses such sentiment through art that often explores and comments upon the at times callous effect maturity can have on the human spirit. Indeed, her work is not so much nostalgic of her childhood but rather, never left it. The innocent curiosity inherent within children is a characteristic Bridge still proudly flaunts, and in turn refuses to conform to the jaded, untouchable sense of superiority so many seem to garnish their outlook with as soon as they transition into adulthood.

Sir Hubert 'The Unworthy' meets Lord Cuthbert 'The Privileged' (The battle of new money vs. old money)

“Even when I was drawing comics as a kid the protagonists were always animals and always assumed ‘human’ personality traits. If ever there was a vaguely human character in one of my storylines, they were always the underdogs; I hated dolls, loved stuffed animals and so on. I’ve spent the better part of my life as a vegetarian and grew up with a dog who I regarded as close as a sister. The movies and cartoons I watched as a child and the fairy tales I read more often than not featured characters which were personified animals or people turning into animals.
“I saw a cat get hit by a car the other day and the driver didn’t stop; no one watching or even flinched and I was the only one that ran to help her while everyone looked at me as if I was crazy! I kept thinking to myself, how can we have become so insensitive towards the wellbeing of other living things? And what would the reaction have been if a person had been hit? It really tripped me out. I guess that is a large part of what my work is about.”

The human-like social settings mentioned earlier are something Bridge consciously places her characters into, and she remains fascinated with the behavioural differences between the two species and the contexts upon which such distinction is derived. “I think people generally don’t want to be believe that they are animals and function primarily on instinct, and so they deny those urges with the use of religion, marriage and other ideals. I’ve always found humour in this and so I choose to give my characters similar ideals. They exist within class systems and interact with one another accordingly. Instead of the wolf hunting for necessity he is portrayed as a gamesman hunting for sport. Similarly, a rabbit doomed to be torn apart by either a fox or a hound is depicted as a young lady being courted by two gentleman, one is a socially advantaged and handsome though probably stiflingly loyal whilst the other is a charming and crafty cad.”

Ricky 'The Rustler' Ryder.

Bridge has been drawing ever since she could hold a pen, but when the world of cartoons (Ren and Stimpy, to be precise) opened up to her at age 6, she knew it was love. “I used to get woken up extra early to watch it before school by my dad, and then I’d spend all day drawing them in my books and inventing new characters. I had the font memorised and used to do all my title pages in my work books in that style. Later on I started to explore other artistic avenues and had a turn at almost everything before I came full-circle and decided to become an artist full-time at 22.”

Attracted to the freedom of the largely male oriented sport-art of graffiti from early on, Bridge reflects on the initial peculiarities of being the only girl with a can of spray paint:
“There were ups and downs. The ups were that often I escaped a lot of the politics that went along with graffiti; people weren’t as rough with me. I didn’t have to worry so much about altercations with other writers because most guys weren’t going to attempt a stand-over on a girl. Generally, I was fairly well treated by other writers, but unfortunately, there were some exceptions. I can’t count how many times boys laughed at me before I’d even taken my paint out of my backpack. It’s a male dominated scene and most girls I knew who started didn’t stick at it for long. When I was about 14 I met SPICE , and she was the first female writer I had met since I had started painting. Doing a workshop, I had the chance to hang out and learn from her over several Saturdays. She probably doesn’t even realise this, but the things she told me were a big part of the reason I was able to ignore the bullshit and keep at it.”

Adrian Francis 'Blue Valentine' Williams of Biscuit Basin.

When the discussion turns to the appeal of graffiti, Bridge’s response is grounded in intellectual reasoning, questioning the absurdity of a society that allows billboards but prohibits public creative expression. “I’ve never seen any reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to paint something interesting in a crappy lane or canal. It wasn’t really ever about the rush of doing something you weren’t supposed to because I never felt I was doing anything wrong. I travelled pretty extensively growing up and fell in love with parts of the world that were covered in art and scrawl and were only more beautiful for it. Whilst I realize not everybody has the same kind of appreciation for graffiti that I do, I feel that we allow ourselves to be subjected to constant bombardment from advertisers without so much as a thought, so why should it be any different for personal artistic expression? I also like that it is public and easily accessible. Artists shouldn’t feel confined to galleries.”

Bridge and Daek wall.

Although her beginnings were largely in the public sphere, today she is well known regular on the four-wall art scene, one which has its foundation in starting out by doing as many group shows as possible. Participation is exactly what she advises aspiring artists to do, along with being “confident but not arrogant” and above all, nice, as “no one will give a crap about you if you are an arrogant shithead”. As for her own evolution, she claims she is unsure, but her options range from new paintings to sculpture to animation.

For now, Bridge is content to keep on creating, and to remind people about where they came from – in the more development sense. “I suppose primarily, I hope to remind people of their childhood and the way that they thought about things back then, when animals were the heroes of all their favourite TV shows and getting a dog was the most exciting thing that could possibly happen. As children most of us respect and are fascinated by animals and nature in general but something happens as people get older and a lot of us lose it to indifference and insensitivity. I try to see the world the same way as I did back then and hope to appeal to other people to do the same.”

Bridge Stehli ala Graffiti on Graffers #5 - Daek x Bridge

words: Seema Duggal


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