I met Stella Snead (1910–2006) in the early 1980s on one of my irregular trips back to New York. I had never heard of her and had ambiguous feelings about spending my brief and precious time in the city with a friend of a friend who might well turn out to be uninteresting. However, as soon as I heard her voice on the phone I felt as if we had known each other forever: ‘Come for dinner, I’ll cook you one of my Indian curries’. Her apartment was in a modern tower block just behind Lincoln Center. On entering, I noticed a painting of animals that had an intensely magical feeling. One of my early paintings,’ Stella explained, and told me she was thinking of taking up painting again. Over dinner, she recounted something of her adventurous life.
Born in England in 1910, she was an only child. Her mother came from a comfortably wealthy family, but her father suffered from serious depressions. He became dangerously violent, forcing her mother to flee with the five-year-old Stella. A trip to Paris in her twenties was a revelation to Stella and soon led to her decision to study painting with the French painter Amédée Ozenfant in his newly opened London school. There, she met Leonora Carrington with whom she became close, forming a friendship that was to last her whole life. The war took her to New York, the start of both her career as a painter and her vocation as a traveller. From New York, Stella went to California, travelling by mail truck and with traders into little-known desert towns and Indian reservations. For four years, she lived in Taos, where she produced a large number of paintings and drawings that were shown in solo museum exhibitions across the United States.
Stella lived an unstable, deeply nomadic life reliant on coincidences and strokes of luck, one of which led to her joining a friend in India in 1952. This was to be a turning point. Stella spent the next years living just outside Bombay, where she became a photographer before returning to New York in 1971.
I was to meet Stella many more times, both in New York and in London, where I saw her surrealist photo-collages exhibited; my partner and I are the delighted owners of one of these metaphysical works. Her paintings always struck me as pure internal reflections – a world of sky, clouds and animals, reminding me of the lived fantasies of American Indian mythology, as well as being a keen observation of nature. She was able to paint and to express in photography and collage a distinct, personal view of the world, pure and clear as a dawn sky.
Liliane Lijn is an artist living and working in London. A selection of her work is on display at Tate Britain, 12 November 2018 – 28 April 2019.