Q&A with artist Anthony Stevens

We speak to Anthony Stevens about his intricate textile works

Born in Birmingham in 1978, Anthony Stevens has travelled widely around the UK and is now based in Brighton. Here, Jennifer Gilbert talks to him about his work, future plans, and his upcoming exhibition at Prick Your Finger Gallery in London. 

When did you first start producing art?

As a child, making small printed bags with my mom. I was thinking about this only the other day. She would make a small bag out of cotton or help me make one and draw a pattern on it which I would then embroider with wool. It's very similar to my work now, but with the use of different materials. I think in some ways, the work I do now is a way of feeling closer to her.

And then did that continue throughout or did it stop and you picked it up again recently?

My art practice hasn't been consistent throughout. It wasn't until my early twenties that I started to create art again and that was mainly because I started working in a day centre with adults with disabilities and doing creative activities with them. I did a lot of art there. I also used to be an Occupational Therapy technician so I ran a lot of art groups through this as well. These were my steps back into art. I didn't really see these as jobs or as working, as I was doing something that I enjoyed (art) with people that I liked and could relate to.

How do you see your work? Is it made just for you or for wider audiences to see?

Initially it is for me, and every time I complete a piece I look at it and I just really love it. I do really, really love it. It is probably the only thing in my life that I can feel 100% confident about. I Also feel that the process that goes behind the work is a natural process to human beings- sifting, sorting, moving things around and sticking things back together in different ways. 

Do you make it for others to see or do you not mind if you are the only audience for it?

I would like other people to see my work. So far, reactions have been mixed, but people do seem to understand it immediately at a gut level. Perhaps not intellectually though as I don't always get the the full meaning initially.

Do you think that people may look at it on one level but you've created it with another level in mind and would/does this bother you?

Yes. Some people see it at surface level, but they're not really surface subjects. It goes back to the process. The process is really important. Sometimes the choice of fabric I have used has a deep meaning for me in itself. For example, the stripes. I really, really like them. They have a sort of a continuing notion of life and death, sleeping/waking to them. There is a lot of, for me, deep symbolic meanings to the work. However, I don't really mind if everyone doesn't understand all the meanings behind it. As long as they get something; be it a jolt or a tickle into into feeling a reaction.

How did your find your way to embroidery using textiles rather than other recycled materials? 

Well going back to my childhood, it is the medium I started out with, but in more recent years, e.g. 2010, I was complaining to a friend that I couldn't find clothes that I liked and that they were all quite dull and boring (I can't be the only man that has ever thought this). One day I was mooching around the laines in Brighton where there is a shop that sells handmade dresses. They sell big bags of off-cut fabrics, so I bought one. I bought it to use for t-shirt designs. But I found that a) the way that I was making the designs made them too heavy to hang on t-shirts and b) I started taking more notice of the process that I was using which appeared to be in sync with my own personal life process at that time: sifting, sorting and separating what was useful and what wasn't, but not throwing anything away or discounting it immediately. Cutting out the bits that I did want to keep, reorganising them etc. - so the actual process of stitching became quite key. it became almost like the connecting feature, my life thread if you like. The finished pieces were very strong so you could literally scrunch them up and do them no harm.

I did exhibit these first pieces  in the Brighton Open Houses, but I have to say that I had lots of negative feedback about them. I did really take this to heart at the time. I was present at the exhibition space a lot as I was staffing the space to get it at a cheaper rate. I heard a lot of the negative comments  and yes, they did hurt, but at the same time, it made me a little bit stronger.

What kind of things were people saying?

There was one particular piece that seemed to draw the most attention - it used Mexican Day of the Dead skulls which I had cut into fragmnets. One person in particular said 'oh god I wouldn't want to have the mind that made that.' I was standing right next them and I just didn't know what to say. The whole experience was quite interesting and I felt like I was hitting the ground hard. It was like they were criticising a piece of me. It was quite scary and I learnt a lot from this. I realised I needed to thicken my skin. If I think about the difference between then and now I would say I don't care what others think now as I love my work - I really love it! This is a really great change!

Over the past year I have started doing a lot of work with Sharpie pens and somebody asked me why I don't combine the two mediums. So I did. It was amazing and I like the results I got from combining the immediacy of drawing straight onto the fabric and the more thoughtful process of embroidering.

You talk about the role of Nichiren Buddhism helping with your life, how does this feed into your work?

I'll try my best to explain this . It is very integeral part of process of making my work. To give some background on the Nichiren Buddhism: we chant 'NAM - MYOHO - RENGE - KYO'. We can do this about anything that is on our minds and in the process, bring about the most constructive solution. Nichiren was a 13th century Japanese monk who formulated this simple and powerful practise after a life time of studying all the Buddhist sutras. In regards to my art practise, when I chant, I will often get an image or a phrase pop up in my mind. I scribble this down very quickly and carry on chanting until I feel content. I then begin the art. I find that by doing it this way, each piece of work has an enhanced meaning. I can see the differing parts of my life, the parts that have moved on that I may not have really noticed. It's almost made my art practice seem like a mirror of what is happening in my life. 

The deeper meanings of each piece come out as I continue working on them. Sometimes when working on a piece a negative emotion may come out and so I'm like 'oh god what's that about?!' I will then go away and chant and it starts to unravel itself. It's like a journey; I get points where I get really fed up during the process of working on a piece and feel that it's crap and has no potential, or I feel I have made a huge mistake, but by continuing to chant about it and not giving in to that negativity and working through things, I get to a place where I can bring out the potential of any perceived mistakes and incorporate them into the work. By the time each piece is completed I feel a great sense of love and achievement. Everything adds to the character and depth of the work and has its own value and unique contribution to the whole. It's a great metaphor for life!

Where have you drawn your inspiration from?

I love punk music and draw a lot of inspiration from the 'do it yourself' mentality which combines perfectly with Buddhism. I also love the Japanese concept and aesthetic of 'Wabi-Sabi'.

What were your feelings when you found out you had been selected for the exhibition at Prick Your Finger? 

It was strange. The circumstances felt very serendipitous. I was shocked and like 'wow' all at the same time. When I went on the website and read the manifesto, I felt this is the right place for me. I became very excited, a little bit scared, but mostly excited! 

What are you working on at the moment?

I am doing a series of honzons, (which is Japanese for a holy object) that will explore the different things that I, as an individual and maybe also the wider world, subconciously hold as being 'sacred'. The things that we pursue to bring us what is ultimately relative happiness, as they can change at any given moment. These could be anything from self concepts, to sex, money, relationships ... even a car!

So these are new pieces in textiles?

Yes, they are similar to previous pieces but a lot bigger (about a metre in length). They still feature hand embroidery, but larger off-cuts etc. These are for a show I've been asked to take part in in Frankfurt alongside Annika Malmqvist (who was recently Artist of the Month for Outside In). I will be sending 8-10 of these to be displayed over there. 

What are your aspirations in terms of where you would like to be at in the future? 

Well I guess I would like to be doing this full time and making a living out of art and creativity. I would also like my work to have a positive impact on others. Quite in what manner, I'm not sure, but maybe simply to encourage others to go ahead and follow their dreams. To not worry about making mistakes or being discouraged, but to just do it and keep going no matter what! More dream following needs to happen! People often say things later in life like 'oh I wish I had done that', and I just want to tell people that yes they can do it now,  and to make a start. I would like to help them on their journey by travelling mine and sharing what I gather on the way.

I feel art has taken me on a journey. It's been a tough journey at times, but I would never swap it. Ultimately it's about my dream, and I am making it come true and if I can do it anybody else can do it too! We are all equal in that we each have exactly what we need right inside our lives. We just have to dig around and have a look.

Is there anything else that you want to Include here that you feel is important for others to know. 

I guess the main thing is to approach people and make things happen. Go live your life. Don't wait for permission or try to fit in, just do it in your way! 

You can see more of Anthony's work on his Outside In Gallery: www.outsidein.org.uk/anthony-stevens

More information to follow about Anthony's exhibition in June 2014 at Prick Your Finger, London.