Vox Pop – My Life and Art Between 1958 & 2017 an Autobiography
[Vox Pop entries are personal recollections by individual contributors.]
My Early Life
My early life played a major role in shaping my future and my art but I guess my art work has yet to sum me up. Some of my art is accidental and depicts my state of mind at the time and not essentially reflecting the core of who I am. I am sure many people who know me probably don’t see me as an artist at all. To them I am just Steve, a quirky friend with a dry sense of humour and a rather odd but passionate outlook on life. It has been my outer life and general art which is shared with those, but it is my inner life which required expression and was shared with just a few. Only they have seen my double life, but in the last decade have I started to come out of the artists’ closet to a wider circle and the general public. I was born in Harlow, Essex in 1958. My father was a labourer and eventual Ford worker and my mother was an occasional usherette at local cinemas. My family appeared on the outside to live a basic and simple life. Behind the closed doors, however, I had to cope at a young age with a mother who was emotionally charged and unwell, brought about by wrong medical diagnosis, and a father who had to work nightshifts and manage the stress of a wife with the onset of mental illness. It was a roller coaster of emotions in my young childhood.
I was born with Meningitis, something that later would confront me again. My early years were decidedly odd, coping with an overprotective mother on the one hand, who feared my fits and migraine attacks and, on the other, having to protect loved ones from my mother’s explosive and often uncontrolled violent actions. My own illness would leave me in a state of paralysis, with slurred speech, sudden agonising headaches and seizures, it was unlike anything imaginable.
From an early age, kept in my room and unable to play outside with others, I would dream of monsters, pretend friendships, love, sex, travel and escape. I created play activities to surround myself with these scenarios. It enhanced my imagination tenfold and allowed me to explore the world as I imagined. At Special School I could test out this imaginary world on real people, bringing on fits to get attention. At night I would create loving and emotionally charged scenes in my head from those I loved and longed to touch. My inner world was my sanctuary which shaped how I understood the world, but I longed to externalise my thoughts and feelings safely and so I grappled with my artistic creativity and embarked on developing my newly found artistic skill.
My Teenage Years
In my early teens I found myself in a world of pain and pleasure attending Robert Clack, a Comprehensive School in Dagenham. Surrounded by young male peers, whom I admired both intellectually and physically, I made relationships with a small number of teachers and pupils, who gave me time and attention. One man in particular, Mr Bull, the Art Teacher, gave me the space to express myself and assisted my artistic and personal growth. I spent hours in the art room soaking up this male attention, losing myself in capturing my inner world and forcing it out into reality. My first piece of work was a pair of disfigured male sculptures depicting the anguish I so often felt inside during my childhood. I recall how frightened I was of showing them to Mr Bull for fear of rejection. Rejection would have caused me never to reveal my inner world to another mortal soul. He touched upon and realised that this was indeed a major moment of expression for me. It was as if he could feel my pain, and I was humbled by his acknowledgement. Studying the likes of Turner and other great masters, I painted a copy of Norham Castle Sunrise. Around this time I was painting large canvas backdrops for school stage productions with my classmates and in the art room I was producing more of my own work. A request by a teacher to purchase one of my own paintings for £5 made me realise I must have talent. Soon after I won a prize with my first piece of ceramics at an Exhibition at Eastbury Manor, Barking.
I was enjoying the freedom of my artistic side but hated school studies and the formalised institution that went with it. However, all the painting, the accolades and admiration I was receiving for my art work did not help me overcome the emptiness I still felt inside from my childhood, nor indeed did it help in answering why I felt so different to other boys at school. Around this time I was frequenting music venues and reading avidly of those who challenged the status quo. My drawing of Sid Vicious, from the Sex Pistols, surprised my art teacher in terms of my ability. I shared school with amazing classmates like Stephen Williams, later famed for his creation of Steve Ignorant of “Crass”. He was expressive and I was endeared to him and others who had artistic leaning. But it was the rock music of Deep Purple that diverted my inner anger and so I created music, wrote lyrics, formed bands and listened to the loudest music in the world.
Southend Art School
Upon leaving school I went to art school at Southend Technical College. Works produced from this period depict my life in Dagenham. A large pair of slab pottery buildings entitled “Castle Green Tower Blocks, Dagenham” survive today. They reflect the memory of my first love of a boy who lived in the tower blocks. This fusion of creativity representing my life and my love of men was never bold or public but was evident in paintings and drawings in private. I lost myself in oils and turps on a journey into my mind. I learnt about major figures in the art world from the likes of Hockney to Matisse which helped develop my mind and eye. I then worked briefly at Burger Paints as a Colour Mixer which enabled me to understand the complexities of light and paint.
Homosexuality and Gay Activism
After some homosexual experimentation, at art college, it was not long before I decided to come out as gay. My long term friend Simon and I called London Gay Switchboard in November 1976 and we were invited along to the newly established London Gay Teenage Group (LGTG) first meeting. After a series of discussions I was nominated and accepted the politically charged role of chair and led the group until the July 1980. I came out to my parents and friends and was forced to leave home due to my father who didn't understand my sexuality. The creative energy in me was soon harnessed and I found myself living in Finsbury Park, London sharing with the likes of Jimmy Somerville, musician. Using a small office at Grapevine, the first ever sex education centre for young people based in Holloway Road, various projects materialised from my mind including a gay youth PenPal scheme, a Sunday drop-in service, trips out and challenging the then age of consent. I started mixing with the artistic and creative of my generation, from pop musicians, photographers, alternative artists through to MP’s and Lords.
Suddenly my very existence was challenged! I was being accused of “conspiracy to corrupt public morals” by the Festival of Light and Mary Whitehouse, the moralistic housewife. She was doing damage and was after my blood. Fortunately a campaign and a Ruling from the Law Lords spared me the same fate as Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News. The Ruling read “It is not unlawful for a group of young people to meet regardless Of their sexuality”.
Besides developing and running the London Gay Teenage Group i became involved in helping to develop the Joint Council for Gay Teenagers, an organisation developed by Micky Burbidge. The Joint Council for Gay Teenagers was made up of supporters of young gay people, consisting of organisations and their representatives such as London Friend, The Samaritans, Grapevine, Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Icebreakers, as well as individuals not linked to an organisation. Meetings were held regularly to help promote the understanding of gay young people.
Whilst running The London Gay Teenage Group I also developed the East London & Essex Gay Youth Helpline and the East London Gay Youth Group. The helpline was run from my flat at Cobham House, Barking. We eventually used a resource centre at Martins Corner in Dagenham to operate from on a regular weekly basis. The East London Gay Youth Group met at the George Public House in Canning Town.
By the mid 1980’s I was working with Capital Radio, through its Jobmate programme, in which I was heavily engaged in supporting the young unemployed of London. I was soon pushing the boundaries and using the music connections by engaging famous bands to perform and support the young unemployed. I was feeling the strain of giving all the time and taking little to support myself.
It was in the mid 1990’s that my past came back to haunt me. I felt desperately low and suicidal, having given all my energy to others. I was poor at sustaining intimate relationships other than for sex, so I reached out for help from Richard Mowbray and Julianna Brown at the Primal Integration Centre. Seven years of intense therapy created a bridge between the past and the present and enabled me to explore my lifelong dilemmas. I started drawing and painting again, creating works in therapy reminiscent of Walter Gropius from the Bauhaus movement. I also started collecting art by Jean Cocteau with his striking portraits of young men, and works by Keith Vaughan with his disfigured and powerful representation of the male form. But it was Christopher Wood, English Painter, depicting scenes of his journey in life and of his male love that influenced me the most. This was the world I wished to portray through my art.
Developing a Youth Work Career
My involvement in campaigning for gay rights and the support I wanted to offer like minded gay young people led me into the world of Youth Work which became my career. Working at Grapevine with Jane Foster, we were described in the media as “sex commandos with backpacks, takings sex education to the streets of Camden and Islington”. It was a world which fed a need in me, to look after those who faced similar problems to my own. This career took all of my emotional energy, giving all I could to those who were needy while my own relationships floundered. My Youth Work career continued to develop and, over a period spanning 30 years, I delivered major youth work initiatives in the London Boroughs of Wandsworth, Kensington and Havering. I was creating visions and designs for a range of purpose built youth facilities in the 1990’s and 2000’s, resulting in the developments of the Lancaster Youth Centre, Ladbrook Grove, The Information Shop for Young People, Romford, the iconic MyPlace Youth Centre, Harold Hill and the R.O.Y.A.L.S Youth Centre, Rainham. I incorporated my passion for art into projects encouraging young people to explore their talents, overseeing the Royal Court Youth Theatre in Portobello Road and creating the Havering Bands Project, all of which enabled young artists to aspire in their chosen fields and fulfil their dreams.
I was hungry to develop my art and so embarked on a course at Barking College studying photography. Here I discovered artists like Madam Yvonde, who created bizarre scenes with her photography, and Pierre Commoy Photographer and Gilles Blanchard Painter, with their mystical staged portraits. I tried to master their skills to depict the world that lived in my head, and so I started producing work like “The Drawing of Shaun” later exhibited at the Strand Gallery in London.
By 2011 I retired on medical grounds, diagnosed with a brain tumour. Whilst recovering and being supported by my long term friends Shaun, Nick and Simon, I began my photography and artwork once again. I met David Cook, the founder of Gay Photography Network (GPN), who helped to develop my artistic confidence again. Using a darker palette, I started to exhibit elements of the somewhat odd and quirky side of my mind.
I am an Exhibited Photographer having been part of GPN Exhibitions at the "Foyles Gallery", "Conningsby Gallery and Strand Gallery" in London between 2011-14. I have had worked published in QX Magazine, featured in The Independent Online and my work shown on BBC Live. I won the London Literary Photography Award from Foyles in July 2013. I have exhibited at the Riverside Studio, Hammersmith and The Guildhall Area Gallery London as part of their “Power and Money” Exhibition.
My work continues to evolve and I dare say I will be merging together as I become at one with myself.
- Vox Pop item by Steven Power, 2017.