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Stephen Doherty: In full bloom

In appreciation of his collaboration with COS, Stephen Doherty discusses artistry, influences and the importance of flowers.

‘Strength in softness’ is how Stephen Doherty (he/him) describes his watercolour flower studies. For an unassuming artist who creates powerful art through building washes with ink and water, the analogy couldn’t be more appropriate.

Born in Manchester, Stephen grew up in his high school art department, drawing and being nurtured by his teachers. He moved to London to study an art foundation course at the prestigious Central Saint Martins (CSM), where he felt he had something to prove, but was admittedly a ‘really bad student’ who partied and worked last-minute miracles to meet deadlines. ‘I don’t think I was quite ready for CSM’, Stephen says. ‘It was a very anxious time for me. I was the first in my family to go to university and looking back, I think I found being away from them more difficult than I realised.’

Instead of finishing his final collection, Stephen took a year out from his studies to work in the studio of rising knitwear designer Craig Lawrence, where the excitement of four years of shows and selling collections in Paris brought him back to the thing he missed most, drawing and creating his own work.

‘Art can be a window to somewhere else. I like how soothing and hopeful it can feel.’

After leaving Central Saint Martins in 2009, Stephen steadily built a following with group exhibitions; his first at Nick Knight’s revolutionary London art gallery SHOWstudio in 2011, then shows in New York and Tokyo, alongside working in bars and cafés to get by. He held a self-titled solo show at Somerset House in 2014, and a position as an illustrator at 10 Magazine, while growing his online presence with his flower process videos.

Eventually, the hard work paid off and he was invited back to teach at Central Saint Martins in 2017 by lecturer Berni Yates, which was his silver lining, a ‘seal of approval’. He used his experiences as a student to positively inform his teaching methods. ‘I try to take any anxiety out of my classes and frame drawing as a mindful act of appreciating an object rather than aiming for something photorealistic.’

Stephen celebrated his first major solo show with a return to SHOWstudio in Summer 2019, entitled ‘Gratitude Blooms’, inspired by his study of flowers during a residency in Goa, India. That same year he received the ‘NEW WAVE: Creatives’ award from the British Fashion Council and became an artist in residence at the Sarabande Foundation, a charitable organisation financially supporting young creatives, established in designer Alexander McQueen’s honour. It was a full circle moment for the artist. ‘Even if it’s not a perfect start you can still end up working on beautiful projects’, he reflects.

‘The constant cycle of weather wears down nature. Everything is battered but beautiful. That presence of birth and destruction inspires me.’

To find out more, we caught up with Stephen to learn about the importance of flowers in his work, and the artistry behind his exclusive collaboration with COS...

‘I considered law at one point! Then it was fashion design, which made more sense than being an artist because I could grasp that as a business model. I didn’t realise being an artist was a job until I reached high school. My art teacher showed me Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty collection and it clicked that I could be paid to create beautiful things.’

‘I received so much support from SHOWstudio over the early years while I was working for designer Craig Lawrence. We were on set filming one of their process films, Craig was creating a jacket while I was sketching it, and the curator at the time, Carrie Scott, really liked my drawings and told me to bring in my portfolio. She asked me to start exhibiting in their group shows, which I did for a few years until they graciously offered me my first solo show.’

‘I start by dyeing the paper to create a background of watermarks and then I build layers. Within the pieces, the variation comes from letting the ink do its thing and reacting to it. It’s a kind of back and forth. If I want something textured and worn, it takes a while for the inks to pool and dry – a lot of the process is drying time. Because I’ve been doing this style for so long, it’s something I can kind of lean into and relax, almost trust it to do its own thing. It’s quite organic.’

‘I like to capture the sense of ease and hope that emotes from the flowers when a person views them. I draw from their presence as shrine offerings and how they’re used in rituals. I imagine that intention and power behind each individual flower I create as a visual journey; if they’re weathered, worn, pulled, stressed: this all comes through in the work.’

‘What I do is quite methodical and meditative. It’s something I can lean into and trust. It’s quite organic.’

‘I spent three months during monsoon season at the Aamir Art House in Porvorim, Goa. It was amazing to be given the opportunity to escape day-to-day stresses and be able to just focus on my work. I’ve never felt so at ease. The way the weather had worn all the surfaces and nature, everything was in this cycle of being battered but beautiful, like fresh flowers being scorched, which influenced the colours I used in my work. I feel like in some ways, using flowers in my work is an attempt to bring me back to how I felt when I was there.’

‘My friend, Helen Price, who was working with Craig Green at the time, suggested I apply at Sarabande. I met with Trino Verkade, the founding trustee. I was in and out so quick, I didn’t know what to expect! So, when I was offered a place, I was ecstatic. Trino gave me a lot of business advice, particularly on how to price and value my work. She champions all the artists, and the great thing about Sarabande is once you’ve left, you’re still part of the family.’

‘There’s always a sense of ease with COS in the collections and the stores. With flowers, there’s a play with movement, so it was interesting to see that translate on the silhouettes and all the silk scarves. Considering summer, I wanted to carry through sunset, balmy colours with the cooler and fresher shades of black and blue. I like the impact one flower has on its own, so it was important that every print I created for this collection allowed each one the space to breathe.’

Words by Christopher Prince
Photographs by Chieska Fortune Smith

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