Ever since Stephanie Le Beller Arpels arrived in India three years ago with her husband and little son, she has been seeing things in a new light.
“My eyes always fall on the colours,” says the French artist, who was awarded the UN International Women’s Day Award 2018 for excellence in the field of art this March at an event supported by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
Having travelled to several parts of India, in fact, she is not only taken by the vivid colours adorned by Rajasthani women, she is also fascinated by the way rural women squat comfortably on the ground while taking a break from their hard labour, or when waiting for something.
“I didn’t realise India could change me like this,” she says, smiling warmly.
Born in the town of Arras in the north of France, Stephanie was the younger of two sisters and had a “complicated” childhood. “I felt misunderstood,” she recalls, seated in her sprawling house in a tony neighbourhood of south Delhi.
Large paintings adorn the walls behind her, jostling for space with scores of photo frames that depict her life and relationships in every phase, colour, sepia, black-and-white.
“I grew up a rebel. I was ambitious and wanted to get out of there,” she says. Stephanie’s teen angst founds its way to paintings that were predominantly black, a trait that continued as she struggled through college studying German, commerce and dietetics.
When she was 22, Stephanie developed a lifelong health condition and had a near-death experience. “It left me intensely spiritual. I realised I had the power to create my own life,” says the self-taught artist.
She headed to Paris, took a loan and set up three centres of a holistic wellbeing chain within two years. “I wanted to help women find confidence,” she explains, offering us a ‘dates-and-coconut laddoo’, which she says builds immunity and strong bones. “In the process, I found relief from my own health issues.”
By the time she was 26, she felt courageous enough to start her own company.
And then she met François Arpels. The Paris-based businessman proposed to her within 10 days of their meeting, and they were married in three months. “We just knew,” Stephanie says, simply.
She sold her business and, in 2012, despite her medical condition, they had a son, Andrea. Encouraged by Francois, Stephanie moved on from her Pierre Soulages-type black canvases and began to paint abstract nudes – the female form structured in geometrical shapes and blocks of colour.
A few years later, the family relocated to India where François wanted to pursue business interests.
“My move to India significantly influenced my work. The energy of Indian women leaves me awestruck. They look so beautiful and feminine, smiling even in the direst conditions,” says Stephanie.
Gold paint and bright collages dominate her new work, in addition to the black of her youth. Whether it’s her abstract nudes or her squatting village belles, Stephanie’s women are faceless, their bodies and postures communicating their emotion to the viewer — dreamy or melancholic, sensual or suppressed. Many of these works now adorn the homes of diplomats and the who’s who of Delhi.
Stephanie has put her difficulties behind her and is content as her family and her painting consume her existence. “Everyone has to face some complications in their lives. I have been lucky,” she ends on a sincere note.