Skills to pay the bills

On sitting down to chat with Jess (aka 23rd Key) I had to confess that, although I was aware of her work, I knew little about her.

So I was embarrassed to find out that this passionate, energetic and multi-talented stencil artist, has twice and justifiably so, won The Australian Stencil Art Prize – in 2011 and again in 2014 when it became the World Stencil Art Prize.

“I was a late-starter on the scene. This I partially put down to a Catholic all-girl’s school education and a lack of influences leading me towards creative outcomes,” she said. “If it had been otherwise, I may have entered the art scene a lot earlier. Sadly I was to miss Melbourne’s popular stencil boom by about five years.”

Her first encounter, around 2005, was to become a right-of-passage. “It started out as just something to do but quickly became the start of my career as a [street] artist,” she said.  “Luckily the first one-colour stencil I ever painted on the street is still tucked away in a Collingwood laneway. I owe a lot to my brother who was into stencilling and it was his passion for the technique that inspired me.  The rest is history!”

Jess’s intriguing alias, 23rd Key, is an amalgam of her birth date, a lucky number and a play on her surname.

Initially she saw stencilling as another trick-up-her-sleeve that could help folio-wise if she decided to pursue a career in either graphic design or architecture.

“However, after my first solo exhibition in 2011, I decided to take my career as an artist more seriously. Why not pursue trying to do something you love full-time? That’s the real dream isn’t it?”

“I like to challenge myself, cutting very elaborate, detailed stencils, some of them depicting difficult texture, for example fur and hair.”

It’s this attention to detail and photorealistic style that has become Jess’s trademark. Pushing the boundaries, creating movement in what is essentially a static, rigid technique.

“Some of my early pieces took a long time to complete, but after 10 years I’ve built up speed. The detailed panel for the Banksy exhibition only took one to two weeks,” she said.

Issues with carpel tunnel have forced her to reassess her cutting methods and she has slightly changed her style as a result.

“My second exhibition at Juddy Roller in 2015, was more interactive, as I wanted to explain the stencil process,” she said.

“I framed the largest stencil I had for the show in acrylic so viewers could physically walk between the layers and see how they fit together, but also de-construct them and focus on the detail that goes into each single layer rather than just the finished piece.”

Other projects to date are the Patterson Building (Royal Children’s Charity Auction), Preston Market, Women’s Refuge in Footscray, Wall to Wall in Benalla and the Banksy exhibition.

Last year Jess and her partner showcased street art through their Stockroom Gallery in Ringwood. She also conducts classes in stencil making.

“I’m keen to foster an interest and pass on my knowledge. Melbourne has such a rich history of stencilling and street art. It’s what originally inspired me, and it’s part of why I do what I do.”

The image chosen to accompany this article is Jess’s portrait of architect, Zaha Hadid, who sadly passed away last year. It was Jess’s contribution for the Meeting of Styles event in Blender Lane, Franklin St.

“I felt strongly that her death wasn’t given the recognition it deserved. She was a rock star in her own field of expertise and therefore needed to be honoured for the way she changed the nature of architecture,” she said.

“It’s interesting who society idolises and gives credibility to. I was studying full-time and crazy-busy, but with help from my partner and utilising a technique I’ve developed for large stencils, I managed to paint the piece between tutorials.”

Jess concluded by saying: “It’s taken people a long time to take street art seriously. It wasn’t until it started fetching large amounts at auction that most people really saw a value to it.”

“Even though it would have been cool to be a participant in the scene when it was first taking off, for the foreseeable future, my aim is to keep painting and inspiring the next generation by doing so.”

Jess has just announced her third solo show, Keezus, the Second Coming, at The Stockroom Gallery, in Ringwood from March 4.

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