"HE’LL BE OK AS LONG AS HE DOESN’T WANT TO BE AN ARTIST!”
Steve and his wife, Maureen, at Reading University School of Art
These words were said by an optician when my Mum took me to have my eyes tested at aged 7, and it was found I was slightly colour blind. From that moment I decided that I would defy expectations and become an artist! I studied Fine Art at Reading University, where I met a fellow art student, Maureen. We married and started a family, continuing our courses without a gap.
Early painting completed at Art School
I graduated in 1967, but my interest had grown in the fields of film and photography. So I studied film making for 2 years at the London Film School, earning a first class honours, and two films I directed being shown at 3 International Film Festivals.
Before starting the course in January 1998, I worked briefly as an art teacher in a Girls Secondary School, and [together with my wife Maureen and a neighbour Valerie] created hundreds of originally designed soft toys which we sold to Hamleys Toy Shop in Regent Street, London and to a range of individual buyers.
After a brief spell as a professional film and sound editor, I branched out into education, initially working in London’s toughest school and then getting rapid promotion to the post of Principal Media Resources Adviser for the Inner London Education Authority, overseeing 600 Media Resources Officer [MRO], technician, library, clerical and teaching staff.
Steve Downey with one of his ILEA MRO training groups in the 1980's
I stayed with ILEA for 20 years before Margaret Thatcher abolished the Authority and I was made redundant. What to do now? The answer: to become an artist again! So after a gap of 23 years without creating any artworks, my new career as an artist and arts administrator was launched, spurred on by my very first artwork winning a major prize at the Essex Open Art Exhibition.
BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST
"Place in Lines 1480": Steve Downey's first artwork after a 23 year gap, prize winner at the Beecroft Open.
So in 1990, after 20 years' working in education as a senior adviser/administrator, I discarded my suit [both in reality and metaphorically] and just started painting again. I owned one of the very early Apple Macs and began experimenting with integrating computer generated images into my artworks straight away. I continued to enter open art competitions and soon had a series of solo shows in London and the East of England.
I knew nothing about the art scene or developing a career as a professional artist, so I went on several training courses organised by the Arts Council, Crafts Council and other funding bodies.
A major step was joining a local arts group, where I gained extensive skills in organising art exhibitions, projects and festivals, and also designed the cover for a Poetry Book.
"ART THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR”
I had already got a lot of experience of working with disabled people and children with special educational needs. I had an idea to organise a touring exhibition of work by disabled artists. Everyone said this was impossible, but my ignorance of the challenge in doing this as a lone individual somehow enabled this to happen. The major exhibition "Art Through the Front Door" toured to 16 venues over a 3 year period 1995-8.
Cover of the Catalogue for "Art Through the Front Door" exhibition by disabled artists
EDUCATION AND MARKETING CONSULTANT
In 1990 I started working as an Education and Marketing Consultant. Clients included the Focus in Education video company, which also published my book "A Practical Guide to INSET". I worked with the London Boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham in setting up an Arts Education Centre on two empty school sites, but unfortunately asbestos was discovered throughout the buildings, and the project came to a halt. I also worked for the Borough of Southwark as a Consultant to the Advisory Teacher team, providing training and individual advice and guidance.
ARTIST RESIDENCIES AND ARTS ADMININISTATION
Around this time I started to work as an artist in residence in schools. My 2-year residency at the Southview Special School in Witham, Essex, led to me securing a part time job with Essex County Council as their first Arts Education Co-ordinator. The job entailed supporting the work of artists in schools across Essex, and I achieved this by setting up a website database of selected artists, and [with Cambridge University] a training course for both artists and teachers about how to organise and run a successful school artist residency. I also led the award-winning "Artists in Architecture Project" which involved artists working with architects and designers in integrating art within the fabric of new school buildings. I was promoted to the post of Visual and Media Arts Manager and later Arts Development Manager [all part time]. Achievements include the establishment of the County's % for art scheme, the COAST arts project and the conversion of the Jaywick Martello Tower into a thriving arts and heritage centre.
Section of Southview Special School Mural
Jaywick Martello Tower Arts and Heritage Centre
The artists Neil Bromwich and Zoe Walker with the mirrored boat they created for the COAST Art Project
ARTS AND HEALTH
Public artworks by Steve Downey at Broomfield Hospital, Essex
In 1995 I started working as an arts consultant in the field of "Arts and Health". I worked with Essex Rivers Healthcare Trust and also Broomfield Hospital and Farleigh Hospice, at the same time as being a professional artist and arts administrator at Essex County Council. Over a period of 8 years I raised several hundred thousand pounds to commission hundreds of artists to create artworks to enhance the healthcare environment for the benefit of patients, staff and visitors.
Public art sculpture by Steve Downey at Abacus School
In 2001 I began to work as a public artist myself, creating many artworks in schools, hospitals and other public places, both in the UK and internationally, including sculptures in Germany and Cusco, Peru.
ADVENTURES ACROSS 4 CONTINENTS
When my wife died in 2004, I undertook 3 charity challenges for Farleigh Hospice: trekking the Great Wall of China, the foothills of the Himalayas in India and the mountains of Malawi. I raised over £15,000, including £6,000 from two charity art auctions held at the Minories Gallery. When the other trekkers returned home, I continued to travel in each of these 3 countries, gaining my love of travel and adventures. These experiences gave me the idea of turning these experiences into the inspiration for creating new artworks.
I visited the USA 5 times, travelling solo by car across more than 25 states. I undertook 3 artist residencies at Vytlacil, New York. In Africa I travelled in Egypt, Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia. I undertook two artist residencies at Sanskriti Kendra, Delhi and spent time in Chandigarh, Bikaner and right across Rajasthan. In South America I represented the UK at the first International Art Symposium in Cusco, travelling widely across this country and also Bolivia, the highlight being a trip to Potosi, which led to over 20 new artworks. My other trips include Thailand, Cambodia and Australia.
Steve Downey with his sculpture in one of the main squares of Cusco, Peru
In 2006 I bought a house in Abruzzo, Italy and travelled widely across this beautiful country.
I have produced over 150 artworks based on these travels, currently grouped into 4 sections: North America, South America, Asia and Europe.
When I started creating art again in 1990 I worked for many years in a studio within my house/garden, and still do so. I also have a studio at my Italian house, and in 2016 started to rent a large studio at Ardleigh Studios in Essex, where around 30 other artists, makers, photographers and designers also work.
My studio at Ardleigh Studios, Essex, featuring 7 "Tio" artworks in my South American series
SEE, FEEL, MAKE!
"Road to the Sun" artwork by Steve Downey
My mainly abstract artworks are created using a combination of computer generated images, collage and paint, each loosely based on photographs taken during my travels. My aim is to evoke the landscapes, patterns and cultural iconography of the places I visit, bringing a highly original, colourful and contemporary feel to these interpretations. These range from the skyscrapers of New York, the sand dunes of Death Valley, and the hot water pools in Yellowstone Park to the cathedrals in Rome and Venice, the devil sculptures in the Bolivian mines, and brightly coloured Indian sarees. So each artwork has an interesting story behind it, some of which are described alongside the artwork images in this website. While making my artworks, I try not to think too much, but work instinctively, sometimes using chance in the production of the work. I describe this process as “See, Feel, Make".