Picture yourself outside of time, at the crossroads of humour and mourning, intimacy and society, memory and legacy, reason and madness, toil and freedom, where various planes of existence come together. In the dreamland of forgotten knick-knacks and twisted forms, a House for both the living and the dead. Now imagine it not misty and grey, but in bright technicolor.
I had seen the photographs and the reports, but they could not prepare me for what I would find when entering the ‘House of Dreams’ for the first time, on a grey February afternoon in South East London.
Stephen, in a yellow hat and green scarf, welcomes me with a cup of tea while I take it all in - the walls covered in words; the maze of narrow corridors and mosaic arches, the very many dolls.
Finally, we sit down in what used to be his studio and is now his shop, overlooking the garden, as he puts on some music. It’s an ambient score of sounds, sometimes odd, sometimes soothing, that composer Derek Collie made especially for the House after a visit. All around us the walls are white, but everywhere are mosaics, ceramics, paintings and “memory boards” (panels of varying sizes displaying fragments of diaries).
I wonder how Stephen, who studied fine art textiles at University, went from working in fashion to creating this unique environment: “I never thought all those years ago, when I was studying, that I would ever be doing anything like this,” he began. But it soon becomes clear that he has lived many lives.
He explains to me how over decades, he made patterns for a knitting company, worked for a decoration magazine, then set up a stationery business in this very house. Then, after selling the business, the ‘House of Dreams’ project was born, almost by accident.
It all started while watching television one evening in 1998. Along with his partner Donald, Stephen stumbled upon a TV programme presented by Jarvis Cocker on Outsider art - art by self-taught, untrained artists. They found it fascinating.
Soon, they travelled to France to meet some of these artists and see their extraordinary places, which include Facteur Cheval’s Palais Idéal, Alain Bourbonnais’s La Fabuloserie, and Danielle Jacqui’s Maison De Celle Qui Peint.
They were so inspired by these ‘environments’ (often created in the artists’ own homes and gardens) that the pair started their first mosaic on the floor of the house when they came back. And that was it.
They set about working on the House, which Stephen had bought out of the money from selling the business, as a joint project. Stephen had never done anything like it before. He was learning as he went.
However, after unexpectedly losing Donald in 2004, and then his parents closely after, he admits there was a point when he almost gave up on the House completely.
He went away to Mexico for a while, wondering what he was going to do. After coming back to London, he met his current partner Michael, who now works as front of house on open days at the museum. Michael encouraged him. “He said to me: ‘You're doing something really important here.’”
More than that, it was time, Stephen felt. “I was ready to pick up the pieces, for me.”
Although he acknowledges, “I'm not an Outsider artist. I can't be. I went to university for a long time,” Stephen still feels very connected to France and to Outsider artists, “people who are untrained, who work instinctively.”
Thinking about his academic and artistic path, he concludes: “I’ve probably been spending 30 years trying to forget everything I was taught.” He explains his work is still very much about “trying to go back to child” and “learning to let go.”
Many of the artists who inspired him have become friends over the years. Together they form their own artistic community and support system, outside of the mainstream art world, something that Stephen does not have in England. He still travels regularly to France to see them and collect objects for his sculptures and walls.
“I need to go out and hunt for things,” he explains. In markets across Europe, each object speaks to him, “It says something to me that asks me to take it home.”
He looks for objects that are old, often broken, maimed, blind or disabled in some way - always imperfect. He doesn’t try to hide those imperfections. He likes to keep them as they were when he found them.
“I don't want to sanitise them. I don't want to clean them. I want them as they are.” It’s important for him to preserve “the history of the person who's had them before on them, the DNA, the smells, the marks, the dust.”
“I feel like I need to look after them. I need to be, you know, daddy and mommy, because nobody else wants them, but I do.”
This echoes something he said in another interview I’d read, when he told the journalist his work was like giving birth: “The creatures that emerge - I feel like I'm actually giving birth to them, with my legs open, and then the object comes out of me,” he confirms.
Yet Stephen also refers to the House itself as a “womb” or “somewhere to hide in”, from the outside world which is “not that nice sometimes, especially at the moment.”
It is an intimate space and one where he can be honest - some of the large boards in the hallway were written just half an hour after Donald died in hospital.
“I came back, and I needed to write the evening, how it had felt, what we've been through together. The experience of that. It just says it as it is, really.”
It was a way of healing from this loss.
Still, he lets people in. He’s been receiving visitors for years and enjoys observing their reactions. Many have an idea of what they’re walking into, but occasionally some don’t.
“They think it's just a bit of kitsch or something. Well, that's a small element of it, but it's a lot more than that. And once they start to read it, it slaps them round the face.”
The House is more than it appears, “It's playful, as am I. It's not just a bit of tinsel and an old doll.” And, like Stephen, it has evolved over time, “It still continues to reflect life, but it's not about bereavement anymore.”
So what is it about? After decades of designing and making things destined for single use (“a piece of paper around a book or present”), this House is and has been from the start “about legacy,” about making “something that was going to last.” He feels it’s become more about him as time has gone on, exploring himself as an artist.
But more than that, he says, “it's about educating people about how to deal with things in life really, I think. And to show people that you can have a life on your own terms. You don't have to fit in a box. You can do things in your own way.”
He adds, “In a time that’s very boring in lots of ways, very dull, very same-y…I think it's important to offer something else.”
Over two decades after he started the project with Donald, work on the House still continues today. They called it the ‘House of Dreams’ from the start (“with a bottle of wine sitting in front of the fire one evening”) because “it's about, you know, the dreams of life, the dreams of aspiration.” All those years later, the House continues to be “a sort of a dreamlike journey.”
“It feels like a dream. But then life is a dream, isn't it? If I hadn't seen the Jarvis Cocker programme in 1998, I wouldn't be doing the ‘House of Dreams’ at all. It just so happened that I had sold the business and I had a gap.”
During the pandemic he had to close for nine months and missed the energy of people walking around the House. But he kept working in the meantime.
When it reopened in May 2021, he had adorned another hallway and painted messages on tiles. Most of them are about Covid itself (which he describes as a “nightmare”), about his own fears of the disease and of the unknown, “waking up in the night feeling horrified.”
Some of these tiles are in the new hallway and others will go up in the new building he has planned at the back of the garden. He also wants to mosaic the façade of the House and is considering bringing someone to help him with that - although it’s hard finding someone “suitably sort of wacky, to be able to understand what I'm saying” since, he says, “I don't want it watered down. I don't want things diluted or made commercial.”
Today he still wakes up at five and works twelve-hour days. “In my studio, I don't have a chair. I don't sit down. I work on my feet all day.” He only sits down when working on the floors or painting his tiles. “I can't make work sitting on my bum. I don't want to. It's not what I do.”
It is an exhausting project and has affected him physically (“you know, my hip, my knee”), and we wonder out loud how Outsider artist Facteur Cheval managed to work on the Palais Idéal, and then on his tomb, until he was 86 years old: “He can't have ever slept. I just can't believe it. I mean, I work hard, but I couldn't do that much. I just couldn't.”
But he is happy working, both on the House and other projects (paintings, ceramics, costumes, performances).
“I love being exhausted from hard work,” even when it doesn’t go well, he tells me. “Sometimes you have days when it's just amazing. You know, you just keep on producing really interesting things. And then you have days when it's not like that.”
On those days, he does wonder to himself why he’s even doing this. But he keeps going, “People want to know the secret. Well, there isn't. Just keep going. It's too easy to give up.”
After that, Stephen shows me around the garden - his pandemic sculptures, the place where a new building is going to be. He touches his work the way you would touch something that’s delicate because it’s alive. And I see someone who wouldn’t stay in his lane, who wanted to do everything, and did it too, connected to Mexico, India, France, in touch with spirits, and in love with the physicality of work and objects, most himself at the crossroads too.
Photographs courtesy of Stephen Wright
You can buy artwork and tickets to visit the House of Dreams on Stephen’s website: http://www.stephenwrightartist.com/