Forewarning: this article delves into the topics of suicide and self-harm.
One question that comes up time and time again is: what makes a person an ‘artist’? Is it when a person becomes comfortable and practiced in their own craft, or when their work is appreciated by others? Is it when a person finds themselves finally exhibiting in a gallery? Or is it as simple as the moment one feels the satisfaction of creating one’s own art? Thankfully, Stefania Russo – better known as Illusorya – never got too caught up in the philosophy of the title. She is an Italian artist who identifies with the most elegant and dreamlike forms of the “Dark Grotesque”, having evolved through many styles and genres on the journey to where she is today.
Illusorya is, perhaps, the product of instinct and following one’s own heart. She has been open to change and experimentation, and rather impressively, thrown off the fear of completely changing her style when the time was right. “In December 2019, I made the decision to kick my old path and start a new one: Illusorya. I notified my followers that I will no longer be creating [the same art] … surprise: they were excited and happy by my decision!” She laughs. “Most feedback was about how I had improved and looked more professional with this transition.”
[My followers] said that finally, my art truly reflects [who I am]. This is the most appreciated response I could have received.
Often, the journey is as integral as the destination. This is the space where we learn and grow; sometimes, we’re not even the same person we envisaged reaching the goal as when we began. But personally, I love learning about stories such as Stefania’s:
A tale of popularity, rejection and creepypasta
“I used to work, a long time ago, under the pseudonym LadyFanhir – I was more of a hobby artist. You could say that I was “born” as a fairy artist, mostly to provide pleasure to those looking my art. Oh well, everyone makes mistakes that later influence the right path! I worked predominantly in Letraset Pantone Markers (the influence of the fashion design school I attended), so in very vivid colours.
I changed to Stefania Russo Art in 2014 when I started to exhibit in Comicons – it was nice use my real name. I was popular here for my creepypasta works. Interestingly, this was unintentional: one time I painted the Slenderman and BOOM!
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the route that Stefania wanted to focus on. “My intention was never to be a “creepypasta artist”. During those years, I wanted to start showing my works in international galleries and collectives, but I found myself getting rejected because they thought my art looked confused and failed to follow a certain genre. Subsequently, I developed strong artist’s block. On one side, I was able to earn an income with my creepypasta art. But on the other, I was tired of being noticed by it.”
Depression, evolution – and from the ashes, Illusorya rises
Stefania Russo’s world changed drastically after a personal event led her to suffer from a period of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. She ended up undergoing rehabilitation in hospital, to help recover from her binge eating disorder and anxiety. While in hospital, she made many friends, listening to the individual stories that led them here and learning about their difficult experiences.
This transition to portray a deep reservoir of emotions led Stefania to the new path she had been looking for.
From that moment I felt like I needed to represent more than a portrait. If, initially, I’d had fun sometimes adding horror details, now I felt the impulse to let characters speak their own stories. My art is just a message that the portrayed characters wish to tell.
At first you may see a smiling character, well-dressed with a golden crown – and then notice her blood flowing from her wrist.
You may see a tortured character with bloody open flesh, smiling at their own pain, glad because feeling the pain makes them feel more alive than an illusory, comfortable life.
Emotions may be good or evil. But they’re always emotions.
And ode to dark art
Having grown up mesmerized by the likes of Luis Royo and Gerald Brom, she found herself creating worlds of fantasy and dark art; two genres that she has always adored. “I love the atmosphere and feeling in [Royo’s] art. It taught me not to fear playing with light (and white). His women are sensual, desperate, strong warriors… To me, they’re not only portraits of women. They convey pure emotions. And Gerald Brom: I’m emotionally linked to his art during these times. I love Brom’s creatures, and he taught me that it’s not always necessary have detailed backgrounds to tell a story.”
This led her to open Memento Tea Gallery with her “art partner in crime”. It was an ode to dark art in gallery form. The Gallery ran for three years before the conflicting bureaucracy of her home country (Italy), finally forced them to close. This struggle to flourish as a business in less mainstream genres is an all-too familiar story. However, Stefania was not about to give up. She started to concentrate on herself as an independent artist once more. “I wanted to represent what I really feel, in my art and in my soul.” She shares. Illusorya was born.
The emotive artist
Human emotions are complicated and reactive, and she found her methods of creating art changed to reflect the nature of her themes. “My principal inspiration is to be pretty instinctive. It’s rare that I make preliminary sketches (unless it’s a project or commission, of course). My characters develop directly onto the canvas; They’re human behaviours, and mental. I love to see the everyday moods from people around me and transform them into a sort of fairytale, sometimes relating them to myth and folklore.
“Sometimes, put my own feelings, like dreams, onto canvas. My dreams are pretty violent and full of action. I often dream about someone hurting and killing me. I feel these sensations for real and will wake with the pain. Of course, it’s due to anxiety. But I appreciated these dreams because they make me feel more “alive” – I feel like the character of a story… Like the characters of my paintings!”
Illusorya enjoys playing with art styles and the variation of moods, but in the past, this process made her incredibly uncomfortable. While some enjoyed her versatility, “most galleries and projects,” she admits, “rejected my work because it looked like I didn’t follow a set style”.
That was my first depressive battle about my artwork. But now, I’ve learned to follow what I feel, and respect the “emotive” artist that I feel I am.
Your art is like a comfy house
I presume you’re here, reading this article, because you are interested in Illusorya’s art. That would make you one of the many people who find solace in her darkly dramatic images. There is something within the realms of dark art which can strike a chord in the viewer – beyond the initial horror often lies meaning and thought, representations of emotions and experiences we all know. Good or bad, we can connect with the art.
Illusorya’s paintings, both in watercolour and more recently, in oils, are beautifully gothic. Though she focuses predominantly on females, Illusorya also enjoys depicting queer and androgynous people. Her characters portray the self-proclaimed “Dark Grotesque” themes which Illusorya connects with so deeply. As one collector states: “They are perfect in their own gloom”.
I’ve had people commission me to create their portrait, or works that represent their own stories, because (as one collector put it) ‘you and your art are like a comfy house, where I can talk and open myself up without judgement’. I really appreciated that someone felt like this.
For now, Illusorya is leaving the gallery scene and instead focusing on exhibiting at Comicons and festivals. Yet with the pandemic triggering an unknown future, she cannot confirm which events will still take place.
As we finish up our chat, she leaves me with the following insight, and I’m left looking forward to what she creates next:
“A few years ago, I was so near to suicide that it definitely opened my eyes… now, I’m slowly waking up to painting what I really wish, and personally feeling more satisfied with the latest works.”