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Steve Joy. Abstract Painter.

Steve Joy is a Plymouth born Abstract Artist. He is enjoying the creative resurgence Plymouth currently has to offer. Made in Plymouth Reporter, Linda Bell met with Steve to find out about his painting practice and thoughts on Plymouth’s creative energy.

Last week, Made in Plymouth Reporter, Linda Bell met with abstract painter Steve Joy to find out about his painting practice and thoughts on Plymouth’s creative energy. Welcomed into his white-washed, light-filled studio on the city margins where Plymouth’s outskirts meet Dartmoor’s open skies, Linda Bell chatted to the artist about his latest paintings, richly layered in shades of Egyptian gold, bitumen brown, obsidian and stony-slate granite, reminiscent of Mayan stelae and influenced by contemporary sculpture, soon to be exhibited in Omaha, USA. Shelves of books, vinyls and CDs complete the feel of the artist’s minimalist style studio, along with a tall narrow painting, a guardian, a sentinel to attention in the central atrium of the building

Born in Anthony in 1952, Steve grew up in Plymouth and attended Tamar School. At the age of 16 he joined the Royal Air Force and whilst stationed abroad decided to become an artist. Studies in Cardiff, Exeter, Chelsea School of Art and Kyoto, Japan, followed, Steve having his work represented by the Lisson Gallery in London and exhibiting alongside Andy Goldsworthy at the Serpentine. A chance opportunity took him to Italy and from there to Spain and Norway, where Steve was a Professor and Head of both Bergen and Trondheim Art Schools. In the late 1990s Steve took a curatorship position at the Bemis Centre in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, where he has since split his time between a Studio in Omaha’s historic Old Market and Studios in New York and Plymouth. In 2008 Steve had a major retrospective exhibition at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, followed by retrospectives in Bergen, Haugesund, Trondheim and Drammen Museums, Norway, and in Sioux City, Iowa USA. 

Steve became a Plymouth home owner in 2011 and had a studio at Maker Heights for several years. He is enjoying the creative resurgence Plymouth currently has to offer along with its proximity to the wild nature of Dartmoor. The Rame Peninsular featured in Steve’s 2017 Omaha exhibition, ‘The Forgotten Corner’ and Winstanley’s Lighthouse (the first lighthouse built on the site of the Eddystone Lighthouse) has been of significant inspiration – as have Plymouth’s naval influences, Steve’s time spent in the USA perhaps an echo of the city’s own Mayflower links. 

LB: Steve, you have spent a great deal of time living and working abroad. What is it that keeps you coming back to Plymouth? 

SJ: Initially, it was family, because I grew up here and I’ve spent most of my life, since I was 16 travelling. And so it was always a base, it was always home. It was family, and then, when they passed, I kept a little house here and which is always a great pleasure to return to because it’s on the edge of the moor. And so I return now really because of the connection with nature, the sea, the moor which of course in itself has a deep spirituality. And also, with those family roots, I think it’s even more important to have a place that you can call home if you live like I do, when you’re rarely there. So wherever I am, it’s an anchor for me. 

LB: Oh that’s a nice way of putting it Steve, so Plymouth is almost like your anchor whilst you’re out in the world making sometimes quite challenging Abstract paintings? 

SJ: Yeah.

LB: So do you think that being from Plymouth, with its historical naval influences, the connection to the Mayflower and its proximity to Dartmoor which we’ve already mentioned, do you think that has enabled you to become inspired by the spirit of the various locations in which you have lived? 

SJ: Yeah, I mean Plymouth was for me always a place as I grew up as a child, a place that you constantly thought about leaving if you had any ambition. This was, we’re talking about the 1960s, there was no University, people were leaving, there was no work, unless you worked for the Navy, so it fostered in me this sense of adventure I suppose and that at some point you had to make this decision to leave your roots behind. And that’s often quite an advantage for an artist because it’s very difficult to survive and if you really want to give it a chance of surviving, much like you know rock musicians always say you have to make it America, everyone had to take that on, and I think it’s the same for painting, you have to go where you have a chance of survival, if not success. 

LB; Yes, and thinking back again to the connection with the Mayflower, people leaving and exploring, um testing out new horizons, do you think that (being from) Plymouth encourages you to go out into the world? 

SJ: We come from a city of explorers, of sea faring adventurers. I know now we are uncovering a lot of historical aspects of these people that are somewhat shameful, but at the same time, it’s another time, we don’t live in that time. It’s hard to imagine what it was like then, or how one could be what they were without indulging in something that we now find less than unsavoury. It’s a different time, but essentially, those were people who were rewarded for being adventurers. And there’s a history of that in Fine Arts, in our history, and certainly the history of the 20th century, all of the French painters, and the Dutch painters, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Matisse, none of them really spent much time in the places that they actually grew up in. They all headed south for the sun, it was cheaper, easier to live, uncharted territory. I think Plymouth is a little bit like that now. Plymouth has a lot of opportunity, and it suffers only from the fact that possibly the rest of the country doesn’t see it that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not here. 

LB: How and in what ways do you think that Plymouth, or perhaps the South West in general, inspires your work and the idea of being an artist? 

SJ: Well, we have the St Ives tradition to look upon, and of course that ended possibly in the late 60s, perhaps a little earlier, but if you look at the St Ives history, through the Second World War and afterwards – in the fifties particularly – a lot of great artists were there and came from London to be there and a lot of great artists, including Mark Rothko, for example, passed through, and in fact at one point, it might almost have become what we think of as the New York School, but then the artists fleeing Germany ended up passing through and going on to America. Nevertheless, we have Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, and others, we have this history, we have a whole history of painters coming out of there and of course we have the wonderful Barbara Hepworth coming in through sculpture so there is a serious history here, but it’s not been serious for a long time. 

So the traditions there, but there’s not a lot of collectors, there’s not a lot of money around, in places like Plymouth, even if there was the necessary wealth to support it, the houses might be too small, or people might have other interests, it’s a very complicated mixture of things that make a city successful for art. 

LB: So who are some of your heroes, and why? 

SJ: Well, it changes, and the heroes that I might think of now are certainly different to the ones that formed me. I am a victim if you like of my own generation, in that, at that time, and we’re talking about the 1970s, all of my heroes were predominately male. And, not all of them, there was of course, Agnes Martin

LB: Oh, yes

SJ: But they were certainly mostly white male. And that’s just how it was, that wasn’t a personal agenda, but it was certainly Mark Rothko. Barnett Newman, was a, a huge influence, because he was the first artist who was alive at the time who taught me that you could be a relatively stable, almost middle class be-suited gentleman, and yet make ten foot square canvases with one stripe on them, which was to me then, incredibly radical. Actually, it still is. Um, because I think now with social media and technology and imagery everywhere, you have to concentrate very much on the nature of the imagery to pull through this sort of mass of art that’s being made. And that might force you away from thinking so much about the spiritual aspects of it. Whereas someone like Barnett Newman made paintings that he didn’t very much care about what they looked like. That for me was a huge influence. And it enabled me, coming from Plymouth, to do the impossible, which was to even think about being an Abstract painter, let alone becoming one.  

LB: So Steve, in what ways do you see or consider your practice as raising the profile of Plymouth in an ever more competitive and perhaps conservative world? 

SJ: Well Plymouth’s profile has always been very inspired by its adventurers. I was thinking also of people like Sir Francis Chichester, the first man to sail around the world in a sailing boat, went from Plymouth, came back to Plymouth. I feel like raising the profile of Plymouth artistically would be very difficult, I mean, we don’t even acknowledge Joshua Reynolds as much as one would think. But I’m not sure that that’s necessary, or even possible. I mean, a city’s profile is raised by the quality of people that do what they do in that city. And, er, only history really decides that anyway. I think the answer to that question is if you’re here, and working in Plymouth, to not think too much about it, but just to do, you know, the best that you can in your chosen field. 

LB: Brilliant. 

SJ: And hopefully it will be recognised. Remember that Johann Sebastian Bach wasn’t discovered for a very long time. And actually was forgotten about until his cello suites were reinvigorated.

LB: And of course, there’s Vermeer, 

SJ: Vermeer, yes, 

LB : Who worked in obscurity 

SJ: Yeah, for a long time, now considered one of the most important artists of all and so, well certainly if not one of the most important, one of the most loved …. you can’t really control your destiny in that sense. 

LB: Steve, could you tell us more about the need for Abstract painting in the world today, with AI, NFTs, social media, what need is there to make Abstract paintings, or even to live the life of an artist? 

SJ: Well, I think there’s even more need now than there ever was. Certainly, you know, growing up without all those technological advancements as I did, gave you the chance to investigate more radical ideas of personal freedom, now there is a tendency to expect the same from everybody, because we are of course amazingly manipulated by these technologies. It’s very hard to break away from it and I think that makes it even more important that there’s something left in the world that you can make that isn’t really about finding answers. It’s certainly not about finding easy answers. It asks some very deep philosophical questions if approached in the right way, and there has to be something in the world that really…. Touches your spirit. 

That in a sense, with a certain amount of ambition, almost anyone can do, but it takes a certain amount of stamina, guts, ability to survive, to pull it off. But it’s even more necessary because it’s a position. It’s a standpoint, not necessarily against technology, of course, much of which is very beneficial, but it’s really a standpoint towards saying let’s not just accept every technological advance without question. 

LB: Yeah, I think you developed a whole body of work based on that, er concept, I believe you exhibited these paintings in Zurich, about 4 or 5 years ago, perhaps a bit longer? 

SJ:  I did, yeah about 5, 6 years ago. I made a whole series of large paintings about questioning what a certain kind of machine is. I made paintings that looked like a machine trying to build itself, without knowing quite what it wanted to be. Which was a sort of forerunner to the current, very prevalent conversation about Artificial Intelligence. 

LB: Mmm, so do you find your paintings are becoming more and more inspired by the current climate, whether it’s to do with ecology, war, or identity politics, do you find that your work is becoming somewhat inspired or affected by these things? 

SJ: No, quite the opposite. In fact, they are becoming even more about in a sense the ancient past.  They are becoming even more about holding on to things that we’re losing pretty fast. 

LB: So how do you think that growing up in Plymouth in the 1950s and 60s influenced you? 

SJ: Well, again, it was a very isolated, very conservative place, people had very serious concerns of, there was very little work here, most people were concerned with just getting by. We didn’t have cars, there was no credit. Nobody had credit cards, you could only have what you could afford that week and so I think Plymouth was really on its knees for a long time, rebuilding after the Second World War. And what that does though, it does give you  sense of, um, we keep using that word, ‘adventure’ but it makes me think of all the serious rock bands that came out of Manchester and Liverpool, and Newcastle. Of course, they made those cities famous, but not by necessarily being in them, but simply by coming from them. 

LB: Yes so I understand that when you joined the RAF at the age of 15, 16, um, you were eventually sent to the island of Gan in the Maldives in the middle of the Indian Ocean. And I understand that that’s where you made the decision to become an Abstract painter? 

SJ: It was. Very much. We were left to our own devices for a lot of the time … I think I was 19 or 20, maybe 21. To be that age then before cheap travel, cheap flights, there was no Ryanair! To find yourself on a remote island, in a remote Atoll in the remotest part of the Indian Ocean, was almost unheard of. It was certainly a very formative influence and you could either get drunk – 

LB: (Laughs)

SJ: Or, or use it. There was a great library, full of great art books and it just made me think a lot. Cezanne was my first great motivation, a biography of Cezanne, by you know, Emil Zola, a novel called ‘The Masterpiece, l’Œuvre’, which was apparently, the story of Cezanne, loosely based on Cezanne, and again, the story of the absolute impossibility of being a painter – not just an abstract painter – but the impossibility of, of protesting against the establishment, the art establishment, and setting out on your own with ground-breaking new ideas, which is what those artists were doing then of course, and it inspired me, again, this, coming from Plymouth and being in the air force, the crazy impossibility of being an artist was incredibly inspirational, I have to say. In fact, it still is. The thing about being an artist, is that it makes you aspire to greater achievements throughout your life. 

LB: Right

SJ: It’s not like there’s a cut off point, as long as you keep a modicum of health, it’s something that does sustain you throughout life. And very few things, do that, very few occupations. And so it has great importance to somebody who can envisage this life of constant striving for some greater form expression, whatever that may be. 

LB: Yeah, I’m just picturing you now, in the library, on the little Atoll island, learning about what it is to be a painter..

SJ: If you’re a certain age and you want to express yourself, you may not be able to play the piano, or be a dancer, or a million other things, but you can have a go at painting. I think that painting was always open to almost anybody, but we’ve seemed to have forgotten that it takes a certain amount of skill to pull it off. And I think it’s very important to practice that skill, but it does leave itself wide open for anyone with ambition and a sense of adventure and spirituality in life, it’s open to everyone in life to have a go at it, particularly painting, because the materials are not stupidly expensive and you can practice it without a serious studio, you can practice it almost anywhere. 

LB: Yeah, and thinking about materials, I understand that a lot of your work actually uses gold leaf from Japan, and I understand that you spent some time there when you were training as an artist.

SJ: Yes, I studied in Japan, I studied in Kyoto University of Art. It did give me a feeling for materials, the intrinsic value in an object. 

LB: Right, 

SJ: So my paintings have always – perhaps sometimes to their detriment – concentrated a little bit too much on technique, but I also see that as being the only viable way forward for abstraction because for so many years Abstraction was so concerned with getting the message across and getting people to have a basic understanding of it that, and of course that coincided with the invention of cheap acrylics, that for a long time, you know, painting, the way it was made, seemed to be forgotten, and for me, I always wanted a painting to have the sort of quality of a Vermeer. It’s the only way you can get people who are not trained in that area to appreciate what you’re doing. Because if you paint badly, it’s the first thing the public will latch onto. 

I always wanted my paintings to be accessible to everyone, whilst at the same time not caring that they were. Because that’s beyond my control. All I can do is make the paintings in a way seductive enough to attract people, but I can’t do more than that. 

LB: Steve, how do you think spending more time here in Plymouth later in life is inspiring/motivating you? 

Well, I’ve had to work most of my life in places that I didn’t necessarily want to be in. One thing that most of these places missed which we have a lot of here in Plymouth is this connection to the landscape – the, the Spirit of it, and the availability of it. And I think that, that has grown on me as I’ve gotten older and I’ve had the opportunity to spend more time here, it’s very hard to live without it. I think of Whitsand Bay, for example, or certain areas of the Moor around Plymouth almost every day when I’m somewhere else. It’s a sort of grounding factor. 

LB: Thank you Steve, for that insight into your life, your abstract painting practice and your thoughts on Plymouth’s historical significance, creative energy and adventurers!  

Steve’s Website: www.stevejoystudio.com

Steve Joy is a Plymouth born Abstract Artist. He is enjoying the creative resurgence Plymouth currently has to offer. Made in Plymouth Reporter, Linda Bell met with Steve to find out about his painting practice and thoughts on Plymouth’s creative energy.
Steve Joy is a Plymouth born Abstract Artist. He is enjoying the creative resurgence Plymouth currently has to offer. Made in Plymouth Reporter, Linda Bell met with Steve to find out about his painting practice and thoughts on Plymouth’s creative energy.

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