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Portrait of an artist

May 21 2009
It‘s not everyday you get a chance to be on display in the National Portrait Gallery Stoo, a Big Issue vendor who works near Oxford Street, didn't know he was about to be involved in an artistic experiment when he buttonholed a passer-by in Cavendish Square a few months ago. Victoria Russell, one of Britain's most acclaimed artists, was looking for someone homeless to portray. Their encounter evolved into a fruitful collaboration that enriched Ms Russell's and Stoo's lives. The artist, who is well known for her portraits displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, had been approached by a millionaire who wanted the renovated hall of his mansion in Cornwall to be decorated with four large paintings, portraying a homeless man in the four seasons of the year. Easier said than done, Ms Russell thought. She wondered how difficult it was going to be to contact someone and convince her or him to sit for her. "I wanted to be sensible about it. I couldn't just go to whoever and ask ‚Äö?Ñ??are you going to sit for me?' I didn't want to sound patronising," she says. "So I though the best thing was to get in touch with the Big Issue." One day, while walking around central London, Ms Russell met Stoo and explained her predicament. Stoo didn't think twice before saying "I'll do it." "It was a fascinating experience," says Stoo. "I have been passionate about art since I was young, and have won prizes. But this way I could get an insight into how a real artist who does it for a living, actually works." Stoo, a resident of King George's hostel, Victoria, though he will soon move into his own flat, explains his experience with Victoria partly in English and partly in Italian, when he discovered I come from that Southern European country. His command of Italian is perfect - he lived there until a few years ago. Ms Russell took him to the National Portrait Gallery when they began their collaboration. It took more than two months for Ms Russell to go through all the sittings she needed with Stoo. "I can't wait to see the paintings," he adds. "I can picture her in her study with hundreds of photos of me. I bet she is so focused on the paintings that she thinks about me when she sleeps." The four paintings will be huge, each six feet by four feet. But just why did the millionaire want four massive paintings of a homeless man? "He has seen the extremes of life, and he hit rock-bottom once," she says. "He was homeless for some time." Ms Russell suggests that, from an artistic point of view, it was a life-changing experience. The subjects of her portraits are often royalty or archbishops, and that it is usually large, important institutions that commission her work. This heavily influences the dynamics of her art. "Everything about the interaction with Stoo was different," she says. "I quickly realised that our work meant a lot to him, as he loves art." It proved to be a challenging experience too, Ms Russell continues. "Usually, the people I portray are very still and never talk. Stoo talks a lot - he doesn't settle down. Also, the sittings I do with people are usually indoors, and before starting I put on some relaxing music. This time we were out in the streets, with people all around. The light was all over the place, for example." The 46-year-old artist suggests she had to abandon her usual techniques and objectives in painting. "Instead of trying to picture a still scene, I decided to go with the ‚Äö?Ñ??manicness' of the place. I thought painting Stoo in his natural environment, interacting with the people in Oxford Street, would be more interesting. "This experience is bound to affect the whole way I paint and the way I look at portraits," she adds. Thanks to the work with Stoo, she says she was able to take the concept of portraiture outside and render it almost as a story, with a narrative aspect to it. Stoo leaves me with "one of his favourite quotes". "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change," he says.