In a recent Instagram video, 26-year-old artist Stella Blu sits before an easel, adding the finishing touches to a nearly complete portrait of a woman posing in front of a wall of foliage. At first glance the backdrop could be a hard surface plastered in the Martinique-style banana leaf wallpaper that's had a resurgence in popularity of late, but on closer inspection, the leaves are overlapping the woman's arm and the lower half of her body. She's actually in nature — in fact, she's being swallowed by it, and willingly. 

The natural world is a constant presence in Blu's dreamy watercolor portraits, mostly of women, all of whom seem deeply at peace as they gaze back at the viewer with piercing, knowing eyes. Asked what she finds so inspirational about the outdoors, Blu says, “There are no rules in nature. Everything just has the freedom to be, and explore, and grow, and relax. There’s no stress or anxiety out there, just freedom.” 

Freedom is thematic in Blu's art and in her life. After living in Sri Lanka, England and the southern, eastern and, finally, western United States, she attended art school in L.A. for a brief period before deciding to leave, finding the limitations and expectations placed on her creative flow to be problematic. She began practicing art on her own, for herself, and worked relentlessly to perfect her craft. Over time she developed a style that reflected her vision, and she began sharing her work on the internet. That's when Prince discovered her work.

Several years ago, when Blu was only 22, the pop icon came across one of her pieces online and reached out to her. The two formed a close friendship, but Prince also became her first and most important patron. He championed her work — when he guest starred on the Fox sitcom New Girl, he made sure Blu's art was featured in the episode, and he used her piece Third Eye Girl as the inspiration and album cover for his band 3rdeyegirl. Having an artist of Prince’s magnitude recognize and value her work was something that changed Blu's life and art practice. Earlier this year, shortly before he died, Prince requested a portrait from Blu, which she quickly and happily created; it became part of her appropriately entitled “Sunset Collection.” Blu says Prince made her artistry feel “real” and she speaks of him with an immense amount of tenderness and respect.

Following Prince's death, Blu posted the portrait she painted of the singer on Instagram and wrote: “We became friends and I have amazing memories/stories of you. I'm just so grateful to you. I am forever changed from your presence in my life. Thank you so, so much.”  In addition to portraits, Blu has worked on several series of paintings. Her “Strange Bouquet” series consists of still-life–like paintings of bouquets of flowers arranged inside women's heads; each blossom has an eye at its center, casting a coquettish gaze. Her “Strange Kitty” images are particularly popular and near to her heart. She describes her love of cats as relatively surprising and new, but calls them “highly intuitive and soulful animals” that have brought endless happiness into her life.

Every subject in Blu’s work possesses eyes that seem to stare back at the observer, reminding us that what we see can perhaps also see us, that what we choose to objectify has a spirit, life and soul of its own. The roles of the subject and the observer, and the boundaries between them, are blurred. It’s easy to see what draws people so deeply into her work. 

In the coming year, Blu has several projects lined up, including a coloring book composed of her favorite “Strange Kitty” paintings and her first solo show in L.A. Her ultimate goal is to see more of her work become living, breathing parts of people’s everyday lives, to have her “strange” pieces in homes where they can be gazed upon and considered on a daily basis. What Blu dreams about most is continuing to perfect her craft and to work at her art until it becomes her whole life, which will be — she anticipates — the ultimate experience of freedom. 

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