There is something restorative about Stella Sevastopoulos’s paintings. Whether turning her gaze on the Greek coast’s undulating waves and their shifting hues of green and blue, or producing more intricate geometric designs, her artistic practice evidences the natural balance of the world, and a desire to regain it in our Anthropocene age. Sevastopoulos enchants the viewer with a romantic vision of nature: colourful arrangements of full-bodied flowers in-bloom; sturdy ships buoyed by placid azure oceans; light-suffused beaches encircled by grass-covered mountains. But the attainment of this harmony and splendour appears to necessitate a diminished human influence within it.
Of Greek parentage but hailing from Ealing in West London, Sevastopoulos moved to Athens in the 1990s. After being dissuaded from pursuing an artistic career by her parents, her education in Britain veered away from visual arts practice and towards more academic subjects. She embarked on a career in journalism when she settled in Greece. But, her love of the arts undimmed, she continued to paint in her spare time, finding a muse in the Aegean Sea that laps the capital’s coastline. It was only when her mother, after being diagnosed with cancer, rued that her daughter hadn’t yet taken her portrait, that Sevastopoulos redoubled her efforts as a professional artist. She held her first solo exhibition in 2018.
Her body of work is stylistically eclectic. While the painting Homage to Bosschaert III (2019) pays tribute to the 16th century artist of the title, it also evokes the surreal scenes of Dorothea Tanning. It’s like a Still Life come alive: the dispersed array of flowers, rendered at a low angle against a gloomy background, seem to fall towards us with supernatural animation. Further influences are seen in her intimate images of single blooms (Georgia O’Keefe), while her seascapes take inspiration from Konstantinos Volanakis’s ocean panoramas and Chryssa Verghi’s transcendent vision of nature. Naturalistic scenes are a recurrent focus for Sevastopoulos; inflected, however, with expressive touches and Post-Impressionistic echoes.
This stylistic experimentation is clear from her divergent entries to two recent group shows. The first, Love and Disaster in Athens at FokiaNou Art Space, placed an open call for works that expressed the dramatic contrasts of Greece’s capital. Sevastopoulos responded with a piece from her series “Sails”; an ode to the Athens Riviera, a place she describes as somewhere “you can escape and dream, and let nature heal you.” Sails I (2019) falls between her impressionistic and abstract approaches. The motif of two-dimensional waves fills a background divided into six rectangles, while triangular forms representing sails extend across the foreground, their colourful fabric glistening in the sun. It’s a subjective evocation of sensations: (com)motion, the sea breeze, the radiance of light.
Her strictly abstract geometric designs (or “flights of the imagination” as she also calls them) are more aesthetically ordered works. In their basic formation – a circle within a square, organised around a central point – they invoke the Mandala, a transcultural symbol. Depending on its context, it can be a representation of the universe or the divine; a guide to meditation, or a beacon of cosmic order. The artist’s Blue Geometric (2017) and Grey Geometric (2017) are both mesmerising: complexes of pleasing symmetry, interlocking shapes and balanced colouring. However, as life necessitates a tension between order and chaos, so none of these geometric works adhere rigidly to symmetry. As Sevastopoulos says, “no two tulips, roses, olive trees or people are ever the same.”
A counterpoint to her abstract designs comes in the form of more realist pieces – lush landscapes, island idylls and studies of nature – rendered using acrylics. One such painting is Where the Roses Grow (2019), part of 20/20 High Vision at ArtZone42 Gallery. Exploring the numerological significance of the year 2020, with its associations of heightened vision and spiritual revelation, Where the Roses Grow transforms a naturalistic image into something more symbolic, through the sly use of negative space.
Sevastopoulos presents an abundant assortment of flowers: of red geraniums and full-bodied, yellow-petaled roses among more timid buds. Minor details prove delightfully engaging, such as a tiny caterpillar crawling up a rose stem, and a single, delicate cobweb. Given that the flora occupies over three-quarters of the canvas, it isn’t until we cast a glance to our right that we perceive an ethereal female figure, obscured by wildlife and a dusky blue background. Gazing steadfastly at us and assuredly posed, this discovery introduces a mystery. Who or what is she? Sevastopoulos states there is no definitive interpretation. But, given the scene already appears vividly animistic – bursting with incipient life – she appears to embody nature’s generative spirit.
From acrylic paintings to watercolours, her work continually returns to the majesty of the natural world. Our eyes range over ports, bays, crystal-clear Samian waters; we see solitary ships afloat on the choppy ocean. But where is man and woman in this vision? Where is humankind? In diminishing the signs of humanity, Sevastopoulos reminds us of our privileged existence on this earth: drawing our attention to nature’s restorative power and bounty.
Potami (2018) presents a hazily luminous beach scene on Samos island. Grasses and ferns cover the mountainside, while to the right, translucent blue waters swell calmly into the arms of the bay. People are represented by a few dark marks, barely perceptible against the small stretch of golden sand. Ancient Mariner (2019) likewise offers the tiny dark outline of two people in a rowing boat, sat in the shadow of a larger vessel, both exulting in the salmon-pink tints of sunset. In minimising the human presence within her panoramas, Sevastopoulos engenders a sense of the sublime; a reassuring mood of peace and wonder.
Every day that passes, Sevastopoulos’s romantic vision looks increasingly under threat. “In a world that is becoming all the more artificial, tainted, contaminated, maybe in order to go forward, we have to go back to nature.” In our Anthropocene age, where wild habitats are denuded so human development can continue apace, the artist rightly perceives that we must re-evaluate our notion of progress if we’re to minimise the impact of the current ecological crisis. It’s these concerns that will inform her upcoming exhibition later this year: addressing themes of art, human nature and the environment. Until then, Sevastopoulos’s work holds up an exacting mirror to all the natural beauty we stand to lose.
By Daniel Pateman