In his vividly embroidered textiles, Anthony Stevens touches upon a wide array of narratives, thoughts and themes. Magpie-like in what he is drawn to and what appears in his work, ultimately these artworks are about the human being, our behaviours and the confluence of our inner and outer lives. In the artist’s own words ‘why we do what we do, and why we are the way we are’.
Stevens has an immense curiosity about the world. Self-taught as an artist, his deep desire for research and learning is also visible in the myriad and often complex ideas he negotiates in his art. Jungian analysis, comparative religion, pop culture and metaphysics appear filtered through the flotsam and jetsam of his everyday thoughts, experiences and dreams. For many years Stevens wrote poetry, and his enjoyment of words and word play finds bold expression in his visual art. A strong Buddhist practice gives Stevens an openness to the present moment in everyday life; observations of fleeting experiences are recorded in fragments of sentences, text and poems in notebooks which he carries with him. These jottings simmer in his thoughts for a while, igniting further contemplation and investigation, before appearing as the text in his artworks. His own feelings and responses to what he learns open up new aspects of the world to him. Stevens isn’t seeking answers, in fact he notes that learning more about the mysteries of our shared humanity makes his experience of life ‘richer and more profound’.
Motifs from cultural myths, religion, philosophy and fairytales all appear in his work. These symbols are often old and deeply routed in our human psyche, but can be overlooked due to their simplicity. In his monkey imagery Stevens is referencing the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind - one constantly in a state of reactivity and endless chatter, where innate curiosity and action is not matched by wisdom. As he takes the time to carefully and slowly stitch his images into material, Stevens observes how a concept which was personal to him and his experience becomes more of an archetype, morphing into a consideration of our shared humanity; the monkey takes on the symbolism of the constant chatter and stimuli of our contemporary society.
As with the monkey, the rest of the artist’s seemingly simple and child-like motifs have layered meanings. To create a figure of a ghost, he cuts material from an old blanket, thinking specifically about how humans - particularly children - portray the supernatural by placing blankets and sheets over themselves. But he is also thinking about what lies beneath - what we show to the outside world and what remains hidden. Our culture and society is consumerist, but are we simply hiding the internal emptiness this creates? Blankets and sheets are also flimsy, and easily swayed, a reminder not to be swept off in different directions. In Solis Rex Must Die Stevens has placed a heart visible about the ghost’s head. Too often we look elsewhere for love and validation, here Stevens is reminding us that everything we need is within us, that it just requires a change of perspective, an ability to look at oneself closely, in order to see that.
Stevens personally finds a place of contemplation and refuge in his work. The physical process itself of creating these textiles has many analogies with human life. If he pulls a thread in one part of the piece, it effects something elsewhere in the work. As he handles the pieces there is a noticeable change in the fabrics, they become softer as he holds and touches them, but also, as he spends time on them, more durable due to the addition of the layers. He notes that this is similar to humans - we change over time through work, attention and time spent with others. Stevens also uses his painstaking physical practice as an emotional barometer. Even before he knows his own feelings, he understands that if the stitch feels taut and tight he needs to go inwards, to observe.
These textiles are beautiful, hand-crafted creations which guide us towards an understanding of our shared experiences as humans. They encourage us to slow down, and lead us towards a realisation that rather than being apart, we are part of something larger than ourselves. Perspective is key. In the Full Bloom series, Stevens is articulating his belief that we can learn by looking more closely at the processes of nature - that we are all subject to the same life cycles as a flower, or a tree, or even the stars, just operating on different timeframes. His message of belonging, understanding and the constant flow of life is reassuring, particularly in these current times.
Jo Baring, April 2021