"There's this camaraderie. You can look like you’re flying through the universe or you can look like you're lying in a bed of flowers"
When we call Hattie Stewart, she’s squirrelled away in a beautiful old house in Margate, putting the finishing touches to I Don’t Have Time for This, the majestic, larger-than-life piece that is now covering almost the entire floor of NOW Gallery on Greenwich Peninsula.
A magical, fully immersive piece of oh-so-2018 pop art, it’s a vivid, cartoonish “kapow!” of work, made up of the night sky, rainbows, hearts, clouds and the bright colours, bold lines and in-your-face designs the 29-year-old Peckham-based artist has made her name creating.
And Hattie’s work isn’t just for idle enjoyment. The viewer is encouraged not only to look at the piece, but also to lie down on it and gaze up to the ceiling, where an equally massive mirror reflects the epic illustration back down to onlookers, making them part of the main attraction.
“It’s a big party!” says Stewart with a laugh. “There’s this camaraderie. You can look like you’re flying through the universe or you can look like you’re lying in a bed of flowers.”
From Secret Cinema to Es Devlin’s Mirror Maze, immersive art and events are taking over galleries and venues across the UK, and Stewart’s epic new piece actively encourages visitors to snap pictures of themselves interacting with it and share them on social media. It’s fun, fabulous and the perfect representation of one of the most exciting young artists around, and one who has – only half-jokingly – called herself a “professional doodler”.
Originally from Colchester in Essex, Stewart’s been making her own art since she was a kid, starting out drawing mermaids inspired by both Disney’s Little Mermaid and her mum’s work as a swimming teacher.
“I preferred to make my own toys than be given them,” she explains. Hattie has remained true to this DIY aesthetic right up until today; you can see it most clearly in her ‘doodle-bombed’ magazine covers. Reworking the front pages of iconic magazines like Playboy, i-D and Vogue with her own bold, hand-drawn illustrations, her art has all the impact and colour of an Andy Warhol screen print, while subverting the idea of celebrity, and generally just being a massive laugh. Po-faced, overly studied art this is not.
“It’s taken on a little world of its own,” she says of the process, which led to her releasing her own sticker book, Doodlebomb, last year, featuring over 500 wild designs like the ones featured on the magazine covers; from flamingos to ice-creams with eyes and winking, cartoon hearts. Head over to Instagram to see how people have used the stickers, covering whole tables with them or incorporating them into their own artwork, giving Stewart’s work a whole new lease of life – one that she has little say in.
“It’s nice to see people interpret it in their own way,” she says. “If you do have a commercial side to your artistic practice and you want it to live, you have to let a certain part of it go. I want people to enjoy it – I’ve always tried to keep my work very open, so more people can find joy within it – that means a lot to me.”
It was her magazine covers that inspired I Don’t Have Time for This. She asked the question: “How can I make that interactivity more intimate, by bringing people into the illustration – where they are the cover, rather than someone that they’re forced to see? How can I make them the star? Instead of it performing for you, you’re performing for it.”
In response, she returned to a style of work that she hadn’t been able to do for years: large-scale drawing. The last time she’d done that was for her final piece for university, and she was excited to capture that feeling of creating a huge-scale piece again. “I just remember that feeling of love I had to sit and draw and paint for hours.”
It took her a while to come up with her plans for NOW Gallery, but they were eventually inspired in part by the space itself. “It’s a gallery space that is not the norm, which I kind of love – every space that I’ve exhibited in has its restrictions or its challenges, and that’s what I like – to think of how my work can mould and fit. This one is so big, and I thought: ‘What on earth am I going to do!’”
Hand-painted and then varnished, rather than simply being printed up on vinyl and stuck to the floor, Stewart’s latest piece didn’t just bring her back to her love of painting, but also gave her time to reconnect with her DIY values. “I wanted to do something that was just a big, beautiful, considered piece of artwork – I just hope it works!”
Her NOW Gallery commission is quite different to the somewhat more sombre work she was creating when she was a student at Kingston University. “My final piece was a book all about death, and my dissertation was about the line between art and pornography – I used to make graphic novels all about sex and death,” she explains. “I reeled in those darker explorations as I got older, but that cheekiness, and that tongue-in-cheek element of my work stayed with me, and I managed not to get too cute or too kitsch.”
It’s strange to think of Hattie getting off to a rocky start, since she has experienced such recent success. As well as her own exhibitions and books, she’s taken on commercial work for everyone from Apple Music and Mac Cosmetics to House of Holland, Pepsi and Nike. Nevertheless, back in her college days, she was far from the ideal student.
“I found it quite hard to explain my work, so I butted heads with the tutors a lot – I failed my first year and had to retake it, and I almost failed my second!” she reveals. “Me and my friends felt like the misfits.”
It was perhaps this that gave her even more drive to succeed. “I didn’t just wait for something to be given to me – I had to work my arse off to get it.” Now her signature style work is so ubiquitous that people have actually had Stewart’s designs tattooed on themselves.
“I think, ‘Oh my God’, it’s such an honour that people want to keep your work with them their whole life,” she says. “I just hope they don’t end up regretting it and have it lasered off in a few years!”
Her favourite commission however, was when she was contacted by a man who wanted to propose to his girlfriend of 10 years by the means of a custom piece of Stewart’s work, as she was such a huge fan of the artist.
“I got an email a few months down the line saying she was in shock, but she said yes!”Hattie Stewart then, capable of creating love and shock with her work – go and experience it for yourselves at NOW Gallery and dive deep into her world.
I Don’t Have Time for This is on at NOW Gallery, 16 May to 25 June.