Brighton outsider artist Anthony Stevens chats about working with embroidery and textiles, being a peer support in mental health, and shares an insight into his thoughts and day…
Above: IS THAT SOUP COOKED YET
Above: WAKE UP
Hi Anthony, it’s so great to meet you and thanks for joining us at Om Pom Happy. I love your work!
Hi Cand, thank you! It’s great to meet you and be part of Om Pom Happy. It’s such a great name for a blog! I also love the giraffe!
I have to say it’s quite weird being described as an ‘Outsider Artist’. It always makes me wonder as to what I’m on the outside of and why? I know that there is a whole cultural history to this, but I prefer to think of myself as simply being self-taught. It’s very much a human tendency to label everything and put it in a box.
Ha! Yes, I guess I’m just thinking of you as someone who thinks outside that box! And speaking of boxes… TELEVISIONS… and the power of them! Maybe you can talk us through two of my favourite pieces of yours, BLACK FRIDAY and TWO FOR ONE? And perhaps explain what Black Friday is to those of us who are uninitiated…
Well for those who don’t know, Black Friday is an American marketing phenomenon that occurs the day after Thanksgiving. (Oh the irony.) I guess it’s a bit like the Boxing Day sales we have here in the UK. Last year (2014) was the first time this marketing strategy had been employed in the UK and it took hold like wild fire! There were reports of people going mad, descending into and acting out their more base and animalistic impulses, just to get hold of some reduced price crap that they probably didn’t even need.
Above: BLACK FRIDAY
What struck me about this was the speed in which the media were able to plant this phenomenon into the national psyche, and also just how ready we, as a nation, were ready to receive it. For me, it was a startling example of how our precious minds and consciousness can be so easily manipulated if we don’t take steps to value ourselves enough to choose what we feed our minds with. I also wanted to call into question the origin of the Black Friday phenomena and ask people to think about why and how this came into being. Black Friday originates back to the days of American slavery, where white human beings would sell black human beings in job lots at discounted prices. I feel this really puts things into perspective.
As for 2 FOR 1, this again goes back to the theme of being choosy about what we consume with our eyes.
Above: 2 FOR 1
I feel most TV programmes these days just dumb people down. I mean we live in this vast and ever expanding universe, filled with unfathomable wonders, we have this wondrous consciousness and life that we only get to keep for a limited time span, and we settle for an evening of watching some old dirge about Snookie not being reem enough for a date with Binty… there is something wrong if this is what mainstream culture wants us to aspire to. It’s nothing less than a tragic waste of life and potential, and we do it to ourselves to boot! (God, I sound like a right old fascist!)
Above: GONE SHOPPING
Above: MODERN MAN
Above: i PHONE
Anthony, I had no idea of the origin of Black Friday. I am shocked and horrified and I’m sure I won’t be the only one. At least media can have a positive role and pass on important information and it’s good you are spreading the message through your work. Other pieces, THE DOLLAR IS BIG RIGHT NOW and SHOPPERS IN BERLIN, also speak strongly about your despair of greed and consumerism…
I was chanting one day and noticed that I was reeling off this huge shopping list in my mind, and how I was entitled to have all these things and how I was going to get it etc. I was a bit shocked by this, but at the same time pleased to be able to see some of the more base motivations that drive me. I feel these are the same motivations that drive our current culture and hook us into mindless consumerism and a ‘means to an end’ mentality. And boy, are these motivations in there deep and strong. (At least in me they are!) If you can see these things in yourself you can take steps towards changing. Even just a little can make a huge difference to our world view.
‘SHOPPERS IN BERLIN’ was inspired by a trip I took to Berlin several years ago.
Above: SHOPPERS IN BERLIN
I was staying close to a well known upmarket shopping area and would walk down one of the main shopping streets everyday. There was an elderly woman selling what I guess is the equivalent of the UK’s Big Issue and what I observed from the people who walked past her was the defensive way they would unconsciously raise their designer handbag in front of them, as if it was some sort of talisman to ward of the ills of life and possibly what this woman represented to them.
I also observed this when people encountered someone by whom I felt they were intimidated by, either in way of looks or status, clothes etc and felt this gave me a huge insight into why we treasure stuff rather than people. Maybe if we thought we were enough as we are, we would be happier to invest in our internal workings rather than our outward appearances. That’s not to say these things shouldn’t be enjoyed, it’s just about putting them into their rightful perspective. I really feel the desire for this sort of object is more to do with what the object represents in our culture than the actual object itself and I often wonder what happened to that elderly woman.
Above: THE DOLLAR IS BIG RIGHT NOW
And does your work with scraps of fabric represent anti-consumerism and making the most of what we have?
Well, this wasn’t my original intention; working with scraps was more of a necessity as I didn’t have the cash for very much else. However, once I found my process with these materials, they took on a much more profound meaning. It’s all in the perspective I guess. Saying that though, I do come from a generation in my family that still remembers my grandparents growing most of their own food. This would be considered quite radical now, but for them it was just normal. They also made stuff for their home, it was just second nature.
Above: A GOOD AGE
My own parents were very much DIY’rs. Again, probably more out of need than choice. My mom used to make the most fantastic dresses and skirts for my sister, all from scratch, as well as cushion covers, curtains, all manner of things. I grew up around this and would often sit with my mom whilst she worked on various projects. To keep me occupied she would make little cotton bags and draw on them for me. Then she would get me to embroider them with scraps of wool and threads. This is very much the basis of what I do now.
Above: GOD IS IN HIS HEAVEN
Above: MAKING SOUP
Yes, the dog is kind of my totem image. It originally started out as a wolf and had quite negative connotations to me; I would even say I was quite fearful of it. However, through the process of exploring it through art, chanting and self exploration it has evolved into what it is today.
I would say the dog is rage that has been harnessed and transformed into strong, protective life force. The enlightened side of animal instinct. As John Lydon so eloquently put it, “Anger is an energy!” The dog has a nose for sniffing out potential and bullshit and I guess that is present in some of my pieces. A dog is mans best friend after all and best kept with a little bit of the wild still in tact! It doesn’t need to respond to every whistle and beep in the environment.
You live in Brighton which of course has a green MP. Many of us wanted to move there! And it’s home to so many artists. Is it where you grew up?
Yes, the people republic of Brighton and Hove! It was such a shock to see a map of all the political constituencies in Sussex after the local elections. Brighton literally was a little red and green island in a sea of blue!!!
I am completely in love with Brighton, it feels to me like an oasis of creative progression in what is a difficult time in history. I came to Brighton in 2007 after completing an access course at Newbattle Abbey College, just outside of Edinburgh. I was only going to stay in Brighton for a year as I had a place at Lancaster University to train as an Occupational Therapist, but I decided to stay. I had found my people!
However, my place of birth is Birmingham. I grew up on a council estate there and left when I’d just turned twenty. (I’m 37 now.) It was the best and worst of times really. Growing up gay, catholic and very alternative on a harsh council estate in the 80’s 90’s was an interesting experience to say the least! At one time I was given the nickname ‘The Boy George of Frankley’, due to my bright orange dreadlocks and DIY outfits. I have to say I quite liked that Lol.
Above: SOMEBODY HAS TO BE THE BUCKET
On a serious note, the difficult experiences that I had growing up gave me the impetus to branch out and make my own life, as hard as it may have been to do so at the time. Just like my artwork, I create from what I have. It’s not about having the best materials, it’s about being able to access your inner spirit, have vision and put these things into action. We definitely can create our own hand-made lives and make them uniquely beautiful, we just have to have a little faith and patience in the process. I could never have envisioned then that I would have such a satisfying life now.
Above: CHEW YOUR OWN TALE
You openly admit to using your art as a form of therapy…
Well, several years ago in Brighton I was going through a hard time emotionally. I guess it was one of those times in life where circumstance comes along and pulls the carpet from underneath you. This can either be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you wish to view it! Anyway, during this time, I was mooching around in the Laines in Brighton with a friend, bemoaning my fate and bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t find any t-shirts that I liked (I would like to point out that this was not the cause of ‘the hard time’. Lol)
Anyhow, I decided that rather than moaning I would have a go at making some t-shirts of my own. I bought a large bag of scrap fabrics and started making my own designs. It was during this period that I noticed a direct correlation between the process I was using artistically, and the inner process that I was going through. It was very much about sifting and sorting, looking for the value in a big mess of chaos, not judging anything to be beyond use or repair, and looking for new and unique ways in which to put things back together. I used a collage process of layering, sticking and stitching until what I ended up with were designs that were extremely strong, durable, yet paradoxically, entirely made up of delicate fragments.
In a nutshell, I feel that this reflected the reorganisation that my life and psyche was going through at the time. Since then my art practice, when combined with my Buddhist practice and intermittent therapy, has allowed me to transform all manner of life experiences and perspectives. This is the inherent creative power of human beings!
And now you use your experience to help others?
Yes, I work 3 – 4 days a week as a Peer Support Specialist, with an organisation called, ‘Recovery Partners’. We are a peer led mental health organisation that is entirely staffed by people who have direct experience of living with mental distress and accessing services. The role is extremely diverse, but in essence it is about spotting people’s individual potential when they or others can’t always see it for themselves. We support people to find ways that are constructive for them so that they are able to find their own unique path back to what they consider to be well being. I think we are all very good at Recovery Partners at holding the hope for people when they are facing their biggest challenges. I am very proud of this role, my colleagues and the people I work with.
Above: SAID THE BIRD
When working on your art what is the process behind it? Are you influenced by the fabric you have? And do you keep notebooks and sketchbooks with your thoughts and ideas?
I would say that my process is very much an organic and holistic approach which I pour my whole life into. I feel my art practice was reignited by my twice daily Buddhist practice of chanting Nam Myoho renge Kyo. More often than not I will either, during or after chanting, get images that come up in my minds eye. The ones that I work with are usually accompanied by an intuitive feeling as to whether I should work with said imagery. I generally do a really quick sketch, and from that I will either start work straight away on a textile piece, or, if it doesn’t feel so urgent, I will do a watercolour/acrylic painting, just so the image has some life to it and doesn’t bug me by going round in my head.
Above: ROYAL BIRD acrylic on paper
Above: SAID THE BIRD
Above: WHEN YOU HAVE ROOTS
Perceived mistakes are welcome in my work, as I then have to find creative ways in which to make them part of the piece, rather like life! I find that once I have worked past the personal meanings of the imagery, there is a perhaps more universal/archetypal meaning common to us all. When a piece is completed, I will put it away for a month or two, before finally stitching on the backing. Again, new perspectives will often occur after taking a break from the piece. I guess because hand embroidery can be quite a long process, it can become a very intense experience, so a breathing space is nearly always necessary.
Above: IF MILLY COULD FLY
I then generally chant for 30-40mins before getting ready for work and then catch the bus or train to wherever I need to be.
Above: CATHOLIC CHANTING TO GOHONZON
For the most part, I really enjoy train journeys as I like to people watch. You can learn a lot about our current culture and yourself by watching people. After I return home from work, I relax for a bit if time allows then have something to eat with Stuart, my partner, and then maybe go to or host a Buddhist meeting.
Above: HOT CHIP AND THE BLOODHOUND GANG
Above : JOHNNY CASH watercolour
I like to do a bit more art before going to bed. In amongst all of that, I will do bits and pieces of social media for my artwork as well as research for work and the usual domestic type stuff. I pack a lot into a day!
And you need to be busy because you have 2 exhibitions coming up!
Yes, the first is a group show called ‘The Sewing Circle’ to be held at St Pancras Hospital Conference Centre. I believe the opening night is the 13th of November and it should run through until January. The second is a solo show at Gallerie Art Cru, in Berlin. I have yet to have exact dates but I do know it will be June 2016.
Above: ANTHONY OUTSIDE HIS MAKING SOUP SHOW
Thank you so much for taking time out to chat to us, Anthony, and the very best of luck for the shows. I think we should finish with one of your favourite tunes, Blister in the Sun from the fabulous Violent Femmes, so let’s turn up the volume and pogo!