Our artist of the month Anthony Stevens creates bold and engaging hand-embroidered textile collages influenced by his practice of Nichiren Buddhism and with recurring characters and themes including monkeys, ghosts, snakes and skulls. He talks about how he started making art, his journey, working process, inspirations and hopes for the future. Outside In will be showing a display of Anthony’s textile collages at the London Art Fair this month as part of the Threading Forms textile arts platform of this year’s show, curated by Candida Stevens.
Why/ when did you start making art?
Making art came in two distinct stages for me. The first was in 2011. I was going through a really difficult time mentally and emotionally and ended up buying a bag of scrap fabric with the idea of making some t-shirt designs. I found the process of sifting and sorting through the scraps, examining them and placing them in different piles incredibly soothing; this was very much an outer manifestation of what was happening for me internally (and still is). I ended up making several collages which I showed at a venue in Brighton for the Artists Open Houses event. However, I got some inadvertent, negative feedback which knocked my confidence so I stopped making for a little while. However, I had also started working as a Peer Support Specialist and a lot of the work I did with people was focused on what do you want from life? What do you want to do that you are not doing now? What are the obstacles that needed to be faced? I realised that I was not particularly walking my talk, so decided to do a college course. Again, my confidence slipped and instead of choosing the Art Foundation course which I was most drawn to, I instead chose Culture and Media Studies, which I really disliked, so I quit. A few months went by and by chance I discovered that my favourite artist at the time, Henry Rousseau, was self-taught. This set a bell off in my head and I started to create things again, drawings, printing on tote bags etc. It was a friend in Frankfurt that said my drawings would make good embroideries which set off another bell in my head.
When did you become interested in embroidery/ textiles?
Well, as previously mentioned, it was said to me that my drawings would make good embroideries. This brought back memories of being a child and sitting with my Mom, who was very skilled at dress making. I would watch her, get bored and start rummaging in her sewing box, so to keep me occupied, she would make little bags out of bits of fabric, draw on them and get me to ‘colour them in’ with wool and a darning needle. Basically, this is really very much what I do now.
Where do you work?
I work at home in a spare room which I turned into a studio. Saying that, it is a total tip at the moment so I tend to work in the living room at present and make a big mess in there.
How would you describe your pieces?
I would term them – hand embroidered textile collages.
Do you follow a set process or does it vary?
My process has definitely changed in some ways over the years, my practical skills have improved so I feel that my work and the characters that come up over and over again have fleshed out. I also feel more confident in working on a larger scale and finding ways that work for me to be able to achieve this. I also no longer cover up the back of the work. I felt and at times still feel a great deal of shame around the messiness and chaos that was there physically behind the image and also metaphorically behind the initial reasons as to why I started making work in the first place. But going back to the question, the basic process currently is draw the image, embroider it, cut it out and then make the background. I then sew the image onto the background. This is a slow process, which for me is very important as it allows time for the deeper meanings of the image and it’s associations to come through for me. Also throughout this process I am chanting every day which helps deepen my understanding of what I am doing. I also enjoy seeing the physical aspect of the fabric change over the time I work with it. It becomes softer, more fluid, but paradoxically, because it is layered, it is stronger. I think this is what happens to us as human beings when we are given positive regard and attention.
What inspires your work?
Dreams, images and phrases that come up when I am chanting, personal stories and history, folklore and myths, expressing and understanding how I feel about certain issues and their impact…the human condition, I guess.
How does Nichiren Buddhism in particular influence your work?
Well, I don’t think I would make art were not for my Buddhist practise. In fact, I think I would be an asshole. For me, I believe that when I chanting NAM – MYOHO – RENGE – KYO, I am tapping into the limitless creative force that we are all an expression of. I see it as being a little bit like pumping water from a well. It goes through all the different layers of my being taking on their flavour and sediment qualities, whilst at the same time cleansing them. It puts my mind in perspective, I can see that the creative process that I am engaged with is nothing unusual but at the same time incredibly wonderful, it is life! The universe is constantly in a state of flux and change, stars are dying, imploding and exploding, their detritus is used in the formation of other things, including us! It is the same with creating. We might not get the best life circumstances, beginnings or the best materials, but by chanting I am able to use that innate force to change my perceptions and perceive the potential in the materials in front of me and the materials in my inner life. Everything starts to reveal its unique potential and so life begins to change in a better direction. A bit like fabric, you start to learn that if you pull a thread here, something else moves over there. I could go on and on but I think that will do.
Do you have any creative role models?
Yes, too many to mention really, but the artists/musicians that I am most enjoying at the moment are, The Slits, The Raincoats, Public Image LTD and the painter, Rose Wiley. I feel joy when I engage with their work!
Do you think about an audience when you are making work? If so what do you hope the viewer gets from your work?
Well, I would think like most people, I want to be seen, liked and understood and so by extension, I guess on some level that this would also apply to my work. However, this I feel does not affect what I make. It has to have a meaning for me and take me a bit further outside my understanding of myself and how I perceive life. Of course I am really happy if people like my work, but ultimately, I have to have a really deep sense of accomplishment and like for what I have made. If I don’t, it is a waste of time really. I can’t control how others react to my work or to me.
What has been the standout moment for you as an artist so far?
Art has taken me on several unexpected adventures; to physical places and also metaphorically. I have been able to go to places I perhaps wouldn’t have visited and have conversations with people I might not have met. For me, I find this sort of thing socially difficult, but art connects us. I have been on the receiving end of other peoples kindness and generosity, people have opened up their homes to me, people given me lifts on the backs of their pedal bikes, (no mean feat, I am an ample human being!) fed me and given their time to support me. Most recently, I really enjoyed my trip to Whitby with Outside In for the Hard Wired exhibition. It felt like we as a group entered into a magical, liminal space for a while. I enjoyed immensely the company of the other Outside In folk, the conversations and sharing. It was a great northern adventure!
Is there an artwork you are most proud of/ favourite piece?
I am very fond of the piece, ‘WHAT IT MEANS TO BE US IS NOT TO BE THEM’. I feel as if that piece has somehow ushered me in to a new, deeper phase.
What are your hopes for the future?
Well, if WWIII doesn’t happen, to be contented with my life, to keep working on not being an asshole and to have more many more adventures. This gives me a lot of scope and I can work out the specifics later.