Artist Mary Stephenson explores social attitudes around romance by creating imaginary boyfriends out of clay. We went down to her studio for help to raise our imaginary boyfriend from the dust.
They always say, love will find you when you're least expecting it, and I guess the cliché was true: When I stopped looking, there he was.
After being single for about a year, I'd begun to despair. A good friend and I actually have this running gag that I'm going to die alone. Ordinarily I'd think it was a funny joke, but lately I'd been wondering if he might be telling the truth.
Given the circumstances—I don't want to die alone—an imaginary boyfriend seemed the way to go. So that's how I came to meet Callum, one sunny afternoon in late September, when I made him out of clay.
Like God raising Adam from the dust, I created Callum from paint and clay: In the image of an east London hipster I created him, to wait outside the girl's toilets at raves and spoon me through my MDMA-induced night terrors. And as my artistic skills are as good as my taste in men, luckily painter Mary Stephenson was on hand to help.
London-based Stephenson crafts life-size boyfriends out of paint, clay and paper and photographs herself with them in elaborately staged tableaux. All of her props playfully approximate some aspect of millennial life, whether it's an empty Corona bottle or a Supreme tee. As Stephenson poses with her boyfriends (they're intentionally nameless) in scenes no less staged than the average Facebook profile photo, she interrogates our contemporary cultural obsession with romantic love—at all costs.
"I was at a wedding three years ago, and someone asked me how long I'd been single for," Stephenson recounts. "And when I said, 'Three years,' he responded, 'What a waste.' I was blown away."
We're in Stephenson's light-filled studio above London's Ridley Road Market. Downstairs you can buy just-defrosted tilapia by the kilo; fake Gucci bags; bowls of limes, dashikis—even, rumor has it, illegal cane rat. Once, I saw the carcass of an entire cow, bisected neatly in half, being wheeled down the street in a shopping cart. It seems as good a place as any to talk about romance. After all, some consider the plight of the perennially single to be much like that poor traversed cow: An object of pity and disgust.
"Initially, I was offended," Stephenson goes on. "This person has just met me; doesn't know me and thinks I've wasted the last three years. But afterwards I started thinking that about how we stage our relationships, and about how society defines us by them. That's where the My Man series came from."
A fine artist by training—she trained at the Glasgow School of Art—one of Stephenson's earliest memories is of wanting to physically occupy her favorite art, like Mary Poppins jumping into a chalk drawing. "I always found the divide between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional really conflicting," she explains. "When I was little I wanted to inhabit paintings, so my work comes from that place, only now I create them in 3D form." Stephenson is influenced by other artists who place themselves at the physical center of their work, like the French neo-realist Marisol.
Surveying Stephenson's cast of past boyfriends stacked neatly on a window, I ask whether they have individual personas, names, or back stories. "No, that's why their eyes are closed. Otherwise they become too characterful. They're the placeholders within the staging I'm trying to play in, I guess." She explains that—whilst the boyfriends may change—her work follows the linear narrative of a real-life romantic relationship. In fact, only last weekend she introduced one imaginary boyfriend to her friendship group (apparently, it went well.)
Under Stephenson's watchful eye, I begin to wrestle with the faceless mass of clay that will soon become my boyfriend-in-waiting. I gouge thumb-sized eyeholes, carefully shaping and then reshaping his nose after photographer Alice unkindly points out a passing resemblance to Futurama's Dr Zoidberg. I feel like Demi Moore in Ghost—if Patrick Swayze's face accidentally melted over a candle flame and she botched the remodeling job.
I craft a prominent nose and strong cheekbones: Bone structure is important (and, importantly, hereditary). "You'll need some hair," says Stephenson, rolling out some clay. For motives I'm still unclear on, I decide to give him 90s-era boy band curtains. "Curtains are hot in Berlin right now," I reason aloud.
Although Stephenson doesn't give her men names, I feel compelled to do so. Boyfriends are meant to be useful, and I don't want to say, 'Thank you, Thing,' Addams-family style, every time he waters my cactus or goes down on me. Like an Old Testament god, I pronounce, "I name thee Callum." Now he has a name, it only seemed right to give him a bit of backstory. What should Callum do for a living? I wonder aloud.
Luckily, Alice is on hand with an unexpectedly specific solution. "He's the chef in a food waste café," she pronounces. "But not a vegan. He does eat meat, but not in a man versus meat way. Small portions of organic meat, at weekends." Searching Callum's aquiline angles for answers, I agree: This is the face of a man who eats meat responsibly.
As the three of us—Stephenson, Alice and I—invest Callum with a creation story, I realize that at some level this is what we do with all our new romantic conquests. We idealize them; romanticize their actions to our friends. If something happens to disabuse us of the image we've constructed in our head, we move on: The rise of hyper-specific app dating offers unlimited options.
"I'm always fascinated by the idea people have types," Stephenson says, neatly contouring Callum's cheekbones. She splashes paint on a metal trolley and mixes it loosely with a brush. "If you have a type," she reasons, "surely you should still be going out with the first person you dated?"
Together, we paint Callum's face. I attempt to give him an earring, but the clay crumbles and falls. Carefully, Stephenson paints on a single gold hoop as I darken his curtains. "He looks like the sort of guy who plays acid house on his own pirate radio show," Alice observes. Just the look I was aiming for.
As we prop Callum on a window to dry, I ask Stephenson one final question: Does she believe in romance? "I'm conflicted. I don't just want to rebel against society, but I also don't think I should be defined by my relationship status. I'm a young woman and I'd love to meet someone and fall in love. My Man isn't anti-relationship: It's about our expectations of romance, and how we stage our lives."
I bid Stephenson farewell and leave alone (Callum needs time to set.) Walking away, I do what all couples in new relationships do: I turn to social media for approval. I upload a cute candid pic of us laughing together and await the sweet narcotic buzz that comes from knowing your social media presence makes other people feel bad about their own lives.
Nothing. I pause. No notifications. I frown. Is it possible that my online avatar doesn't induce the envy that every social media user craves?
I widen the net and text my Broadly colleague Zing a photo. "What's wrong with his mouth?" she asks. I squint at the picture on my phone. The fleshiness of his lips never bothered me before, but she is right. His mouth is all puckered and smooshed, like a guy with an overbite coming up for air after giving you really bad head.
Suddenly, Twitter pings with a direct message. "I want what you have," a friend says. "Really?" I reply, hopefully.
"No, he looks like a burns victim," comes the response. "His face is all melted."
Call me shallow, but that was it for me. My clay boyfriend got fired. After all, no one wants to go out with John Travolta.