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Family portraits take on celebrity.

Byline: By Tamzin Lewis

Stars and self portraits are side by side in Stella Vine's first exhibition in her Northumberland home town, as she tells Tamzin Lewis

"One boy I was working with today is probably a future Turner Prize winner," says Stella Vine. "He made a gun using Jordan's zits, men's eyeballs and a doily."

Although Jordan has also been the subject of Stella's work, the zit gun was created with a minimum of encouragement from the artist. She gives children a free hand to make pretty much whatever they want from magazines, wool and paint in school workshops she is holding in Northumberland.

Stella too uses magazines as source material for her figurative paintings of celebrities, including Kate Moss, Geri Halliwell and the late Princess Diana.

It was Hi Paul Can You Come Over?, her painting of Princess Diana with blood dribbling from her mouth, which propelled Stella to art world celebrity status. Charles Saatchi bought the painting for pounds 600 two years ago and exhibited it. This endorsement has brought rich rewards for Stella and her paintings now sell for many times that amount.

She says: "Commercial galleries like my pictures of instantly recognisable people, but collectors don't mind if it is a picture of my mum or Kate (Moss), as long as it is beautiful. If I do a good painting, it goes quickly, which gives me comfort."

Stella's latest exhibition, Whatever Happened to Melissa Jane?, is a mixture of celebrity and family with Auntie Ella equal to Bette Davies in her vivid kitschness. It is Stella's first show at Alnwick's Bailiffgate Museum and a bit of a coup for the venue.

The exhibition is hugely personal to the painter because Alnwick is where Stella, whose real name is Melissa Jane Robson, spent her childhood.

She says: "I have very romantic and fond memories of living in Alnwick. It is a romantic place: the people are friendly, the coast is incredible and the town is beautiful.

"I am from a Catholic background and I went to the convent nursery from the age of three. But I left Alnwick rather unhappily at the age of seven.

"My mum, Ellenor, married someone I had never met and we moved to Norwich. At the entrance was a sign saying: Welcome to Norwich, A Fine City.

"I always used to think, 'Why?' It wasn't fine by me. I wanted to be back in Alnwick with my granny. I had my son in Norwich but my mum was really ill and I always related Norwich with a lot of sadness. That comes out in some of my paintings.

"I was sent back to Alnwick every school holiday and it was home to me. My auntie was there and she was wonderful. You would put your hand through the letterbox and pull the key out; she had a roaring fire and a house full of people with lots of chit chat."

Stella became pregnant with son Jamie when she was 17 and, after moving to London, worked as a burlesque stripper in Soho from the age of 26. She started painting seriously at Hampstead School of Art in 1999.

Although she has become famous for her celebrity portraits, she began with painting family. Stella, 37, says: "The tutor suggested bringing in family photos and for some strange reason I started off painting my stepfather. I wasn't very happy about him so they were a bit dark. I am more well known for Diana and Kate, but I have never stopped doing the other work.

"Because this exhibition is in Alnwick and it is personal to me I thought I would link it all together as being autobiographical."

The exhibition title refers to the 1962 Bette Davies movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Stella used to watch a lot of Bette Davies' films with her Alnwick granny and one painting in the exhibition is of Bette holding bluebells, which were her mum's favourite flowers. Another is of her mum at Seaton Point which she describes as "heavenly, because she died a couple of years ago".

Stella, who was married to Charles Thompson, founder of the Stuckist art group, first exhibited work at the Vote Stuckist show in 2001 in Brixton. Her first solo show was Prozac and Private Views in 2004. Despite her recent success, she continues to paint for herself and generally refuses commissions.

She says: "My paintings are spontaneous and improvised. It is about whatever happens to work at that moment. My work is very eclectic, a hotchpotch."

To give viewers a sense of this, Stella has filled glass cabinets at the Bailiffgate with personal photos, drawings, newspaper cuttings and books. "You can see where paintings come from," she says.

Whatever Happened to Melissa Jane? is at the Bailiffgate Museum, Alnwick, until August 6. Stella is leading People, Pets and Places collage workshops on July 1 (Children's Art Day) at Bailiffgate. Tel. (01665) 605847 to book a place.
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 27, 2006
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