Artist Interview

Chichester Art Trail Artists

A studio interview with Leo Stevenson

 

Ellen Hancock has taken the lead in the three latest Artist Interviews. Here is what she has to say about our visit to Leo, Venue 69 in this year’s Art Trail.

 

As you may have gathered by now, the Trail has become somewhat of a family affair! My mother, Nicola, and I (Ellen, middle child) started visiting Trail artists and creating the Artist Interview series in the run up to the last Trail, her debut, and have been continuing them ever since. Our intention with these features, was to create ongoing content to keep the Trail alive during the year in between the May Open Studio weekends and to showcase the Trail as providing an opportunity not only to view local artists work but also, their studio spaces, the intimate creative nucleus where the magic happens.

As we have discovered, a short encounter with these very unique and special places provides such humbling insight into an artist’s creative endeavour and is truly a thing to treasure. Each visit we make we come away buoyant with new knowledge and insight and enthused by a shared creative connection.

This time, we ventured south along the Harbour Trail to visit Leo Stevenson. Leo was an absolute delight to meet. He has an abundance of knowledge and passion for his art, which is completely contagious when conversing with him. Leo has worked professionally as a painter for 30 years now and has quite the CV; though it is clear that he sees his practice as constantly evolving and works very hard to nurture and hone his skills, always finding an opportunity to learn more.

... I know that my paintings can’t change the world, I know I do not have fingers dripping with genius, I am just trying to create paintings that can shine a little light into the dark corners of my life and, if I can, into the lives of others. Does that give me “joy”? When I succeed, yes it does...
Ellen Hancock

What sort of environment did you aim to create within your studio?

Leo Stevenson

Simply an effective, efficient and comfortable working space. As a working space, it’s no different from a kitchen or a workshop in principle. Most importantly, painting is my job, but music is my passion, so my best hi-fi is in the studio and my large collection of CDs is (mostly) in there too. In case you ask, it’s mostly classical and early music (music before 1700), as well as a lot of other genres including everything from jazz to sea shanties.  I rarely work in silence. Music feeds my brain, stimulates my soul, caresses my whole spirit in ways that only music can.

I know that people talk about studios almost as sacred spaces where amazing stuff happens, but to me it’s just somewhere where I can concentrate and create stuff in a more practical way than elsewhere. Like paintings, in order to work it’s not just what goes into the studio that matters but what’s left out – everything must serve the main function of that room, art.

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Ellen Hancock

How has the space evolved over time?

Leo Stevenson

We only moved into this house in 2017 and so with the huge amount that has had to be done to make the studio and the whole house user-friendly, there’s not been much time to have evolution in or with the space. In fact my feet have hardly touched the ground and so far it’s been a huge effort to get any painting done at all….but this will change as things come together!

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Ellen Hancock

What is a normal day like in your studio?

Leo Stevenson

“Normal”? What’s normal? In general, I don’t do normal with anything I do! Seriously though, the shorthand badge of ‘artist’ might imply that my studio is centre of my working life, but in fact I spend only about 20-40% of my time every year painting, the rest, being self-employed for the last 30 years, is spent on admin’ work (nearly all at the computer, grrrrr).

Then there is a truly vast range of things that I do in the course of my work that doesn’t actually involve me holding a paint brush; not just the admin’, but the hunting, choosing, repairing of picture frames, stretching and priming canvases, drawing and sketching (thinking on paper), photography (for working references, as records of work in progress or when finished), talking to people about art in various ways – from potential buyers to interviews, and in particular I spend a lot of time doing the planning and research that’s necessary as part of the process in creating some of my paintings.

Ellen Hancock

You work predominantly as a painter but also produce sculpture, photography and write as well. How does your studio accommodate all these curiosities?

Leo Stevenson

It doesn’t. My studio is just a space for painting and/or listening to music. I am lucky to have a fairly big house. The sculpture goes on in my workshop, which is still in the process of being set up at the moment, in my office, or other rooms and places in and around the house. The photography is done wherever it’s needed, and of course the TV work, when I do it, is done wherever that demands, here or abroad.

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Ellen Hancock

What projects are you working on at the moment?

Leo Stevenson

Trying to get stuff done for the Art Trail!  I’ve sort of made a rod for my own back by committing myself to doing some paintings for it that are far more time-consuming than I thought they’d be. You’d think I’d know by now, but I keep making the same mistake! I am decidedly not being fussy or self-indulgent with these, they just take ages to get right. Most people don’t understand that making art is not necessarily about striving to make masterpieces but about trying to avoid making duds.

Anyway, for the moment I’m doing some paintings that are relevant to the area, i.e. very local ones of Fishbourne and the wonderful landscape that is within a very short walk to the south of my house here. I know it’s corny to say this, but there really is a lot of inspiring landscape around here – both within a short walking distance, as well as not far away on the South Downs etc. All very different from where I was born and where I lived up until about eighteen months – London.

Talking of which, I am also trying to gently nudge on what I hope will be a dramatic and beautiful cityscape of a part of London, but that’s a big project that’s still only embryonic at the moment.

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Ellen Hancock

When you are creatively lost or frustrated, does your space inspire you?

Leo Stevenson

No, not especially. I never really feel creatively lost or frustrated because I already have enough projects planned and sources and resources to fuel me that’ll last me until I’m at least 175 years old! I have never been one of those artists who run out of ideas.

As a space, the studio doesn’t motivate or inspire me as much as external things do, e.g. things that stimulate my mind or that interest me, aesthetically, historically or emotionally; now they’re the things that really inspire me.

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Ellen Hancock

What time of year or day do you most enjoy your studio?

Leo Stevenson

Enjoy is a very loaded word to use to someone who does art for a living. Ok, there are clichés about artists who want to create and feel driven to do so, but being self-employed I simply don’t have the freedom of artists who do art in their spare time as a hobby. I am constantly trying to make a practical and almost moral balance doing work that has value and integrity, a kind of  be true to yourself ethic, and selling my soul to the devil by doing paintings that I know will appeal to others more than me. This balancing act is very difficult.

The joy can very easily be sucked out of the process, especially when people always equate what I do with something that can cost peanuts because the person doing it has some other means of support. If it doesn’t sound too disappointingly unidealistic, I feel that I am a maker, a supplier of high-quality products, and there is no shame in that. I know that my paintings can’t change the world, I know I do not have fingers dripping with genius, I am just trying to create paintings that can shine a little light into the dark corners of my life and, if I can, into the lives of others. Does that give me “joy”? When I succeed, yes it does.

... I want to get better at what I do, like most people, it’s as simple as that. Ok, here’s another cliché for you – I really genuinely think I am doing my best ever work at the moment and I am curious to see what else is inside me, what else my mind and hands can come up with.
Ellen Hancock

Do you enjoy inviting others into your studio and sharing your process with them?

Leo Stevenson

To be honest, most of the time I prefer to be alone and work alone, in order to really concentrate. I find it very hard to get anything useful done when I’m barraged with questions. I am an old-fashioned oil painter, and the processes of traditional oil painting aren’t conducive to chatter. Having said that, I have done a lot of TV work over the years, including some live TV with me painting and chatting, and that just makes my head explode, reminding me of the phrase used about President Gerald Ford that said that he couldn’t “chew gum and walk at the same time”!  Luckily, I don’t do too much TV work these days.

The Chichester Art Trail is kind of different. I’ve only done this once before and it was a very positive experience; I found it very valuable to be a part of this. The feedback I received on my work and even how I presented it, was very useful, and I had some fascinating conversations with visitors and fellow artists. The event, like art, is all about sharing, which is a very nice thing to do.

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Ellen Hancock

What ambitions do you have for your work and studio in the future?

Leo Stevenson

Apart from retirement? I want to get better at what I do, like most people, it’s as simple as that. Ok, here’s another cliché for you – I really genuinely think I am doing my best ever work at the moment and I am curious to see what else is inside me, what else my mind and hands can come up with.

Having moved down to this wonderful and beautiful part of the country it really does feel like the start of something, like a re-birth, a renaissance if you like. London was just grinding me down. To be very frank, here’s my dilemma; I really do want to retire soon, but at the same time I have this internal urge to creatively make the most of having a lovely house and studio in a lovely area, and it’d be a waste to stop using the lovely facilities that luck and serendipity have given me. Watch this space!

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Ellen Hancock

What is a ‘studio’ to you?

Leo Stevenson

A studio is much like a kitchen. There are times when I go in there and I feel I want to create a masterpiece that’ll astonish and amaze, and other times when I go into that space and it feels like a drudge or chore. Like the paintings that come out of the studio, how I feel about it varies enormously.

Firstly, I feel an enormous sense of privilege in having such a relatively nice studio and in having everything I want and need in it or within easy reach; I hope I never take that for granted.

Secondly, for better and for worse art has been my job for a very long time, so this space and what’s created within it is part of me, part of my identity, part of who I am. How I shape it and how it shapes me is something that only time will tell. I spent twenty-seven years in the same studio in London and that space grew to represent me and, effectively, my mind more than I dare think about. The same will probably happen here.

Photographic Credit: Ellen Hancock
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