We are talking about outsider art. Meeting in the midst of Soho at the House of St Barnabas no less. It’s a concept that my interviewee the artist Steve Chapman certainly associates himself with. That idea of circumventing traditional routes. Of making your own path.
Our meeting has actually been fairly serendipitous. We first met nine years ago. A different time to now. Before Steve identified as an artist and before I, a blogger. Instead we would occasionally bump into one another at corporate networking events. We would talk about worthy things such as creativity and doing things differently. Come to think of it, it’s not far from what we are both doing now.
The Inner Critic
Steve is speaking at an event that I am hosting. The high octane Sunday Assembly at London’s Conway Hall. It always has interesting speakers and this time it’s Steve. His talk is on the concept of what he calls ‘wonkiness.’ It’s about celebrating those little imperfections and embracing those quirks in ourselves.
He tells me about the project that really got him started. The visualisation of what he calls his ‘inner critic’. That little voice which is there in all of us that tells us that we are not quite good enough. Steve’s inner critic with regard to his own art, had formed at school. A place where he felt that creativity and experimentation were not encouraged. Where creativity meant producing something which conformed to a set structure. Anything outside of that box would not be encouraged.
Responding years later he started to make the critic real by drawing him. Slowly he would get to know the critic through his art. Eventually starting to look at it differently, almost feeling sorry for it in some way. “It didn’t start out as a project” he tells me. but that’s what it became. He even gave a TED talk about the process.
“I quite often describe myself as a professional imposter” Steve tells me. Explaining that he doesn’t have any training in art or indeed in any of the stuff that he does. On that basis he says he is an outsider artist. “But because I’m an outsider I don’t actually understand what the actual definition is, so I may even have that bit wrong” he adds.
Speaking to Steve Chapman it’s clear that as an artist his work can and indeed does take many different forms. “For me it is art as an expression of just making a mark that represents your inner world. It doesn’t need to be of any particular standard.” he tells me. From drawing ‘wonky’ portraits in Trafalgar Square to the recording of a silent podcast (yep it’s a podcast where he and his guest sit in silence). “It’s a response to my frustration at noise and distraction” he says. All are projects born out of an innate desire to address thoughts going on in that inner world with a view to give them some form of voice.
The Hungerford Bridge Gallery
His latest project is a gallery. In fact it’s very new, within the last few days in fact. As we meet he announces to me that he has claimed a section of the Hungerford Bridge and filled it with his art. It had actually started on the day of the Sunday Assembly talk. Initially managing to install one medium sized portrait of a character he calls Len amongst the gnarled metal spikes that protect the underside of the bridge.
Len has since been joined by ‘The Naturist’ and ‘Don the Philosophical Duck’. It’s rapidly become a quirky, or should I say wonky, little feature. Certainly it’s something that’s been noticed by people on their daily commute. Indeed he seems quite proud of the fact that already he’s seen it on social media. He also seems intrigued by what could happen with the space now that the gallery is there. Will other artists add to the work? Will it be destroyed or damaged? Indeed what if someone adds something to the space which would be against his core values? Would his work then be linked by association?
“I don’t do the art for any other reason other than my own therapy” he says. “I guess that’s why most people do it. It’s an expression of something without needing it to be anything in particular.” Certainly this seems true with much of Steve’s work. It’s that wonkiness which makes his work special and it’s a wonkiness that is there inside all of us.
Steve Chapman was interviewed at the House of St Barnabas on 11 June 2019. You can read more about his work at his website ‘Can Scorpions Smoke‘.