Colinton Arts caught up with iconic Edinburgh artist Stephen Howard Harrison shortly before his inaugural exhibition at the gallery. Here, he talks about his influences, art and the last great oasis.
Colinton Arts (CA): Stephen, welcome. Good to talk to you.
Stephen Howard Harrison (SHH): Thanks. Good to be here.
CA: Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you start your career in art?
SHH: I’m a bit uncomfortable with the words ‘Career’ and ‘Art’ in relation to what I do. Also, I think Art should not really be institutionalised, and the word ‘Career’ has a tendency to do that.
I prefer to think of myself as a Painter, not as an Artist. I sometimes feel I have to use the word ‘Artist’ to describe myself to differentiate from being a painter and decorator, which is of course a great thing to be too. I would feel it to be terribly pretentious to go round saying that I am an Artist and up there with ‘The Greats’. I paint pictures. It is up to others to judge how good they are.
CA: That’s fair. Can you tell us what stoked your interest in art, then?
SHH: My interest in art started when I was very young. My mother, Mary Kent Harrison, was a successful British artist and so I grew up in a home where the activity of painting was very much in evidence. Even the air was rich with the aroma of artist’s oil paint mixed with linseed oil and turpentine!
My love of paintings began very early, and has stayed with me all my life, and given me a very great deal of pleasure. It has been a constant interest that seems just to have been always ‘there’, within me. I remember, as a youngster, collecting postcards of paintings by Constable and Turner. At school in the 1970’s, I enjoyed the relative liberties of the Art room where my Art teacher was very encouraging.
Immediately after school, I attended a foundation course in Art and Design at Nelson and Colne College, Lancashire. This was particularly well run, resulting in a portfolio of my work that impressed examiners at Edinburgh College of Art sufficiently to allow my entry into the second year of their four-year Drawing and Painting degree course.
CA: Having got your career underway, can you say where you get your influences from?
SHH: In a way, I do not want to be influenced, I want to learn – but one cannot avoid being influenced and the merits of being influenced probably outweigh the disadvantages.
Nor do I seek to influence! But I am influenced by all successful art. Perhaps others would be the best to judge who I am influenced by. In particular, I am influenced by 20th century post-impressionist artists such as Van Gogh, Bonnard and the Scottish colourists.
Currently I am particularly moved by the work of Joan Eardley. When I was an Art student, I wrote my thesis on Chaim Soutine. I have always liked Expressionism too. I also enjoy art that’s very different from my own. Nowadays, I get a great deal of influence from representations of art on the social media platforms. It is a great thrill when I see a painting by a well-known artist that I have never seen before. This happens a great deal, probably every day.
Thanks to the internet, we are all seeing works of art that have never been reproduced in easily available books. Also, one gets to see the work of many fine artists who one has never even heard of. I think it is important to keep one’s response to art fairly simple and direct. To simply like something or not. One can be much more analytical at later stage if one wants to.
CA: Thank you. How do those influences show through in your art?
SHH: Probably in the handling of the paint. I paint in a loose but at the same time disciplined and informed way as the aforementioned artists could be considered to have done too.
For me, it is by studying the paintings of the great artists that I learn the most. I analyse formal matters such as composition, colour palette, colour theory, drawing skill, edge, sense of space, mood. But you have to remember that there are no rules, nor should there be. A painting can break all the usual disciplines and be a great work of art. I often like to study how an artist develops.
CA: What relationship would you like the viewer to have with your art?
SHH: A direct relationship whereby the viewer does not need to be aware of anything sourced from an education in the visual arts in order to find my work interesting and hopefully likeable. Ideally, I would like the viewer to want to see more of my work, and if they like it, to follow my work and find in it some kind of security, some kind of anchor. I would like to be trusted by the viewer.
CA: How does your art express a story?
SHH: Overall, it expresses the story about my own developments in painting over the last 12 years or so. I like to think that the story deepens as I develop as a painter. It is probably a story that meanders rather than a story with very abrupt changes in direction or character.
There are some consistencies. For example, that my work is all figurative rather than abstract. My work exists within the story of painting – the history of painting. It is not a wholly new chapter in that story, perhaps more a small plot within a larger story, the value of which it is for others to judge. It is my voice. A decision to speak, not stay silent or overwhelmed by the magnitude of what has gone before.
CA: Do you take inspiration from any specific art movements?
SHH: I am probably more inspired by individual artists within art movements than movements as a whole. It is in seeing how they encountered and overcame the challenges they were faced with that is inspiring.
CA: And how do they inspire you?
SHH: I am wary of naming specific art movements and not others. It is hard to think of an art movement that does not inspire me. Generally, if you look at how individual artists develop, from their early work to their later work, you see that they end up with a highly recognisable look. I don’t really like the word ‘style’.
Their success in finding their particular look, whatever that might be, is what inspires me to continue. I know I am going to continue to paint – whatever happens, even if I fail to achieve such aforementioned individuality, provided of course that it remains physically possible to continue.
CA: How easy or not, have you found it to be creative during the pandemic?
SHH: The pandemic has been hugely disruptive because much of my energy has had to be diverted to simply deal with practical, and particularly, financial matters. I am sure it has reduced the amount of paintings I have done – but I did not find that it particularly changed my work.
So far at least, I consider that any problems I have had with the pandemic are nothing compared to what a great many people have been going through. Many have made great sacrifices to help others. Surprisingly, I found that quite a few people, probably more than usual, still bought paintings during the pandemic. This is most reassuring, about the value of such endeavours in challenging times.
CA: What other forms of art inspire you?
SHH: Music, poetry, literature.
CA: Do you listen to music when you’re creating new works?
SHH: Yes, I usually listen to BBC Radio Three. I quite like not knowing what will be played on the programme. I suppose I do not like to work in silence. Painting makes me feel good. I know that although ‘the news’ is always bad – it seems to be particularly bad at the moment. The activity of painting and the work involved is, for me, perhaps the last great oasis.
CA: Thinking about the works you’ll be exhibiting, what links them thematically?
SHH: All the paintings depict scenes of Edinburgh. Most are well known, recognisable places such as Edinburgh Castle and Inverleith Park. That is the primary link. I have tried to create iconic images of Edinburgh, which is a city I know very well. I like to think that there is a theme of positivity that comes simply from enjoying the particular beauty an urban environment can present.
CA: Stephen Howard Harrison, thank you.