Representing the creative future

CSM MA Fashion Image student on creating a book full of joy

The photographer and artist Stephanie Francis Shanahan talks about the book she created as part of her Fashion Image MA at CSM

CSM Fashion Image student Stephanie Francis Shanahan and the importance of joy in fashion image

Stephanie Francis-Shanahan is laying out her current project — a meticulously curated book of her work, memories, and mind — across the table at Central Saint Martins, pre-lockdown.  ‘’I see making creative work as an extension of my brain and daily life,’’ Stephanie says. ‘’I suppose that’s why my work looks like me.”  Francis-Shanahan’s body of work includes photography, drawing, film, and costumes that carry personal memorabilia and are “sentimental but not too serious, honest and funny” as she describes. At a time of heavy experiences, is there space for fun? Through a mixture of 250 of her family, friends, sunsets, drawings, costumes, and abstract self-portraits Stephanie’s work explores the concept of how personal experiences can be the starting point for change.

 

Stephanie’s bedroom is a wonderland of details, colours, objects, and art projects that are a reflection of her personality. Yet it is not chaotic: every single detail has found its rightful place making the puzzle complete. ‘’I am a really weird mixture of the stuff I love, as you can see,’’ Stephanie says, pointing to the layers on her dungarees. ’’But I am constantly trying to get rid of stuff because if things aren’t organised, I get super stressed.’’ This ideology of objects and feelings extends to her book which comes complete with various gifts from Stephanie’s personal collection — a birthday cake topper from her eight-birthday, a dog toy she played with at seven, hair clips, her Nana’s rose quartz. Things that hold huge emotional value for her, but with which she can spread joy. ‘’I encourage people to pass these gifts on,’’ Francis-Shanahan says. ‘’Giving and sharing unexpected small joys actually often feel bigger than grand gestures.’’ As she puts it, the book represents her professional self, whereas the gifts represent a more personal part of her.

The initial foray for the book was born when Stephanie staged her first art show last year. ‘’I have struggled to fit within the fine art world,’’ she says. ‘’So, I created a solo show in my own house — and I wanted to make a book based on that.’’ But the journey wasn’t that straightforward as  Covid-19 restricted Stephanie’s plans and her mother became ill. “At the time I couldn’t get my head together,’’ she says. When the storm slowly abated Stephanie decided to take action: ‘’I realised it was the perfect opportunity to bring this alive with my major project at Saint Martin’s,’’ she says with excitement in her voice.

The book starts with a poem by the founder of LAW magazine, John Holt. ‘’I told him to write whatever comes to his head when he thinks about my work and me as a personhonest and funny, sentimental but not too serious. He even mentioned Jordan Pickford, England’s goalkeeper, which is very me!’’  Where does her passion for football come from? Her heart beats white and red for Arsenal. ‘’It has been big in my family,’’ she says with a smile.

“If you’re low or you’re not feeling good, you can’t fight anything. But we can use joy to bolster us through more difficult times.”

Football fans appreciate the sense of community and the sharing of joy. ‘’I overuse the phrase collective joy,’’ Stephanie jokes. ‘’But it is interesting that during the American Elections one of the reporters talked about the politics of optimism so maybe it is hitting the mainstream. It’s this culture of younger people that are bringing through this optimistic, positive movement.’’ She continues: ‘’Recently I have been fascinated by what is the feeling of joy we experience? Why do we feel it? How can that emotion be put into an image? How can we take the collective experience, experience it in an individual way, and then feedback on our ability to connect collectively again? I think what’s really interesting, alongside collective joy, is radical happiness. And that’s more of a political statement in the sense that you can use the joy as an act of resistance, protests are often very happy spaces. It’s not because they’re demeaning the political cause, but we can use this happiness and we can use our collective enjoyment to make sure we can sustain our activism.’’ she corrects one of the hair clips and sits down: ‘‘If you’re low or you’re not feeling good, you can’t fight anything. But we can use joy to bolster us through more difficult times. We can come back to it mentally when we’re struggling with something and say, ‘well, we know that it gets better because I’ve felt those feelings and I can feel them again’.‘’

CSM Fashion Image student Stephanie Francis Shanahan and the importance of joy in fashion image
CSM Fashion Image student Stephanie Francis Shanahan and the importance of joy in fashion image
CSM Fashion Image student Stephanie Francis Shanahan and the importance of joy in fashion image
CSM Fashion Image student Stephanie Francis Shanahan and the importance of joy in fashion image

Stephanie comes from a working-class background with Irish heritage. ‘’I never had any back security of my family owning a home or cars, my mother is on disability benefits and a lot of stuff happens out of your control. But I was raised to believe that you can make yourself feel secure in any situation,’’ she says. ‘’The bad things will come; you’ll deal with them and you might feel shit. But then you know that things are going to get better again because they always do.’’

“You have a fantasy of how arts are going to bring money, I’ve got to make loads of money for my family, I’ve got to be the first one.”

As the first woman in her family not to have children by eighteen and the first woman to ever have a degree, Stephanie feels overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunities she has had: ‘’When I am tired after long days and don’t know how to carry on, I think of my papa — my grandfather — who started work at 14, paving roads.’’ The fact that she is completing her MA at Central Saint Martins is a huge thing in her family. ‘’The emotional challenge has been to be the first woman to get the MA. You have a fantasy of how arts are going to bring money, I’ve got to make loads of money for my family, I’ve got to be the first one,’’ Stephanie says. “I think it’s more the pressure I put on myself rather than the letting that I am letting anyone else down,’’ Stephanie says. ‘’It is all kind of this invented thing of being from an immigrant family and working-class and being a strong woman, I have to succeed.’’

After graduating with her Fine Arts degree she met resistance from the gatekeepers of the art world — she felt that she couldn’t get anyone in this part of the industry  to be interested in what she was doing: ‘’It was like my work didn’t even exist.’’  Then came fashion. ‘’I became more interested in fashion because it is so much more connected with popular media and it feels more inviting and engaging than the fine arts scene — a world itself which is hugely elitist and intimidating,’’ she says. ‘’It is the first time in education where the industry seems smoother and people feel amazing — people wouldn’t even look at my work before you know.’’

CSM Fashion Image student Stephanie Francis Shanahan and the importance of joy in fashion image

Now she sees herself as fitting more into the role of the artist as opposed to traditional image-maker, “I convinced myself that I don’t need to change myself and my work to fit in.’’ This kind of calm headspace is rare for her. At 19 she was diagnosed with dyslexia and visual stress, and although she has not been formally diagnosed with ADHD, she says that sometimes it is overwhelmingly busy in her brain: ‘’At school, I didn’t understand why everyone else could sit down, read and write notes. I just can’t do it because my brain doesn’t know what is going on.’’

“If you can overcome that barrier of seeing dyslexia as a ‘disability’ and more like a neurodiverse, learning difficulties become a difference, not a dysfunction.”

Like many people with dyslexia, Stephanie struggled to focus in class, which resulted in her having to go home and redo the whole school day again in the evening. This led to pressure and migraines because she had to work doubly hard compared to her classmates. “If you can overcome that barrier of seeing dyslexia as a ‘disability’ and more like a neurodiverse, learning difficulties become a difference, not a dysfunction,” she says. “I wouldn’t make the work I make, be as optimistic, as joyful, wanting the world to do better, I wouldn’t be the same character without this because this makes me, and at the end of the day, someone’s brain works like this, other’s the other way. And it is all fine, it doesn’t mean my brain is bad, it is just different.’’

A year later, she wanted to revisit her topic and take it further. Stephanie contacted the Dyspraxia Foundation and wrote an updated reflection on her life. Her dissertation on the creative challenges of being dyslexic in an art school context was published in a professional medical journal — alongside three experts from the field with PhDs — to help kids with special educational needs. ‘’To me being published in a medical journal and being able to hopefully help these kids — this is to date, my proudest moment over everything,’’ Francis-Shanahan explains.

The book profits will be divided between Solidary Sports, Key 4 Life, Dad’s house charity, and 54thegate. ‘’It has been so much about love and community, collaboration and my family. I want the book to be something that brightens your day. For me, it will be something that when I feel anxious, I can pick it up. I want it to be something that people can come back to and have a breather with.’’

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

Buy Now