Anthony Stevens is a British artist born in 1978. His work is strongly influenced by Nichiren’s Buddhist teachings and, in particular, by the concept that “nothing is wasted”. A philosophy that has led him to observe the world through a creative lens, discovering the potential in every, even the most seemingly useless thing, but also to face with awareness every single experience of life, however tiring or frustrating, as part of a constantly evolving and valuable process. His latest solo exhibition at the Candida Stevens Gallery in London has just ended, thus allowing him some time to share with me about himself and his art practice.
Innanzitutto sono curiosa di sapere come sei approdato ad utilizzare il ricamo e il medium tessile come linguaggio espressivo?
Embroidery is rooted in my childhood. My Mother was a skilled amatuer dressmaker and would make clothes for my sister. Whilst she was doing this, I would mooch through her sewing box. To stop me doing this, she would give me a piece of fabric and draw on it along with a darning needle and wool. She would show me how to use this and tell me to ‘colour in’ the drawing on the fabric. This is still very much what I do now.
However, I never had any intention of being or becoming an artist. It wasn’t until late 2010/2011 when going through a very hard time emotionally that I picked up this thread again (excuse the pun). During this period of time, I had a very powerful, life changing experience with the Buddhist practice that I have done for 15 years. I believe that this reorientated my life, although I didn’t realise this at the time. I lost the job that I had and felt myself to be on very rocky ground for many reasons and in many ways. To help ground myself, I felt inspired to buy a bag of scrap fabrics which I spent many hours sorting through and examining. I was looking for the potential and value in each scrap, I was asking myself, ‘how best can I use this’. It dawned on me after some time, that this process reflected what was going on for me internally. The memory of sitting with my Mother and ‘colouring in’ with the needle and wool came back to me and I eventually made several collages from some of the scraps and exhibited them locally. However, they were not well received and I gave up making things for a while. What changed my attitude towards this was the new role I had started working in. I had retrained as a mental health Peer Support Specialist, supporting people through difficult and challenging mental health experiences. A large part of the work was discovering what gave meaning and purpose to one’s life. I realised that it was art that did this for me, yet I was holding back because of my fear of criticism, so I challenged myself to do what I was asking others to do, so I started to walk my talk, and the rest is history.
In the choice of waste materials and ancient techniques that require a slow time in contrast with the speed of contemporaneity, is there an inherent criticism of a society that feeds on online shopping, television series and social networks?
I feel in the past that yes, I have felt very critical of these things and this has been expressed through my work. However, if used well, these things can enhance our quality of life. I think living through the pandemic and lockdowns has demonstrated this. I do however feel it is important to ask ourselves why we use things the way we do and consider the impact that these things can have on our experience of life. I don’t feel that this is a particularly easy thing to do, but personally, I feel better in myself when I have time to slow down and go inside, to just experience life on it’s own terms for a while. Working with hand embroidery is very good for this. It provides the right balance of relaxation and concentration and if one of these things slips, it lets you know when you get a needle in your finger! Lol. Practices like this can provide a space to let us figure things out.
Leafing through the photo gallery of your works, I came up with the image of a huge daily diary drawn up with needle and thread instead of a pen, as if your art was an always open notebook on which you write down reflections, thoughts, emotions, events. and phenomena that run through your life. What is the artistic practice for Anthony Stevens? And is there a break in continuity between your art and your life?
My art practice is deeply connected with all aspects of my life. It is how I find meaning and value in my experiences. In some ways, I feel it is an extension of my Buddhist practice, as I feel that without my Buddhist practice, I would not have had the wisdom or courage to begin and keep going.
On a very concrete and practical level, my work will often start with an image or phrase that comes up when I am chanting. I may take this and do a quick sketch or write it down for later, or if it has a feeling of urgency about it, just start working directly with it on fabric. It is during the slow process of stitching and embroidering that the image starts to reveal it’s personal meanings to me and then I realise that yes, this is my personal expression of experience but these things at their root are also a shared human experience, almost archetypal in a way. This connects me to the world, to the past, the present and the future. I have recently started making collages from old drawings, paper scraps etc. These are forming the basis for the work I am making at the moment as time for thinking has become limited due to other commitments. It feels quite a different way to work, but I am very much enjoying it.
In your works you use a formal language that sometimes refers to Art Brut, at other times to primitive art and not least to the typical expressiveness of childhood to investigate and address complex and profound personal as well as universal themes. Is this choice dictated by the immediacy with which you manage in this way to transform thought into a work of art or by the need to convey it through images that reach the observer with the same immediacy?
Well, this is a complicated question, so I will answer as best as I can. I am a self-taught artist, and as such, I am not so aware of the formal rules of art, it’s language and its rules as someone who has trained academically in this area. These things are not deeply impressed upon my psyche. Therefore, perhaps I do not have to refer to or think about these things when I am making work. I just make what feels important to me and what I feel is beautiful to look at. Perhaps there is less burden with creating in this way? As for the use of formal language, we as human beings like to categorize, label and define things. I am no different in this way. It helps us understand the world, our place in it and our experience.
Among the works included in your recent solo exhibition at the Candida Stevens Gallery in London, there is NIGHT BLOOMS, a modular work in which darkness is the background theme. Can you tell me about this work and the meaning of this ‘night’ which is the underlying theme?
I am very interested in the role darkness plays in the process and cycles of growth. The darkness is essential to life. We all start out growing in the darkness of our Mothers wombs for nine months. Leaving earlier than that can be perilous to existence. It is the same with flowers and fauna, they must be planted and germinate in the darkness of the earth before blooming in the light. We must sleep in the darkness of night so we can recharge our bodies and minds. Throughout our lives, we will all experience periods of sadness, depression and other dark times, either personally or collectively. Maybe these experiences are periods of gestation so that we can give birth to new ideas or aspects of ourselves and see life in a different, more full way? All of life is in the cycle of ‘shine, decline, sleep, repeat’.
Envelopes and flags are often the basis of your works: you wrote about the former that you feel great satisfaction in embroidering them and about the latter that are strange entities. I am always obsessively curious to discover the origin of our choices and therefore I cannot avoid asking you if these two elements also have a conceptual value for you in addition to the function necessary for the construction of your works of art…
Well, starting with the envelopes, the particular envelopes I embroidered were all padded. There were used ones laying around and also some that I use to send packages. When I was handling these, they felt so pleasing to hold and move and squash. It just occurred to me that they would be incredibly tactile objects to embroider, and they were. I really enjoyed the crispness of the needle puncturing the paper before meeting the resistance of the padded interior. It is such a different experience to embroidering textiles. I would highly recommend it for stress relief. I suppose upon examination, there are elements of recycling and the transformation of a mundane object into something else, but these were not at the forefront of my mind, it was really just for sensory enjoyment.
As for flags, I think that by their nature, flags are an incredibly conceptual entity in their own right. In basic form, they are just simple combinations of coloured fabric, sometimes with symbols such as stars, and sometimes not. And yet, they hold immense power in being able to unite and divide human beings. They are imbued with the history, struggles and hopes of the people they represent. They root people in identity and can define us, but physically, they are just coloured fabric stitched together. In regards to my work with flags, I am interested in the universal experiences and needs that unite everybody, heartbreak, sadness, joy, care for each other, all the good things and needs we as humans look for in life. I feel these wishes are deeply expressed in Tibetan prayer flags and like the prayer flags, the qualities that can result in connection and all the good stuff, have to be gently unrolled in us. It’s a fine line, as our experiences can have the capacity to unite or divide and isolate. All of us at one time or another will have been on both the giving and receiving end of these experiences. The heart can be made harder or softer.
How has your artistic research evolved over time? And, looking ahead, how is it orienting?
I think over time, my art practice has become less inward looking and more outwardly directed. As for research, there are so many things that draw my attention it would be difficult to pin down what direction that I am going in. The works that I am currently working on are all based on collages I made last year. I am currently very busy with my other role coordinating arts projects for a small mental health charity, so having these pieces to reference and work from is wonderful.
There is an artwork to which you are so deeply attached that you can never part from it (and if so, why)?
There are several pieces that I would not sell or exhibit. Their purpose was just to be made and to remind me of where I have been and where I hope to go.