Stewart Easton embroidery detail.

Stewart Easton

In Conversation

We talk to artist Stewart Easton about his upcoming exhibition at the SCP Showroom. We talk stitching, meditation and exceeding expectations.

In the run up to the first solo exhibition of his work in London, Stewart Easton talked to SCP’s editor Duncan Riches about growing up in a tough area of Coventry, his love and experience of counter culture, and how the first lockdown helped him develop a new, more meditative approach to his working practice.

For his show in SCP’s window, which is part of a series of experimental exhibitions which feature artists, designers and craftspeople that all make one-off collectible pieces, Stewart Easton has prepared a body of work that includes six felt collages, six paper collages and four hand embroideries.

Easton has become known for creating beautiful and intricate hand embroidery pieces, both large and small scale, which often feature vibrant blocks of colour and abstract storylines. He works in thread, paint and also creates sculptures, and has shown in both the UK and more extensively in the US, where he is represented by the Melhop Gallery 07077 in Nevada and Studio E Gallery in Seattle.

A stitch in time, Stewart Easton at work.

Where are you from?

I grew up on a really poor council estate in Cov (Coventry). Which wasn’t the best, it was your typical, to be a lad, you had to be a lad lad, a bit of a scumbag. Then discovering mushrooms at 13 or 14, changed everything really, made me see things differently. It was mushrooms and Morrissey.

Where was creativity in your life at this point?

When I was really little, I had a bad speech impediment, so I couldn’t talk properly. The first memory of realising that I could draw was when I must have been about six, and all the other kids of the estate would get me to say things. As I couldn’t speak properly, I would get the piss taken out of me. I remember someone had one of those puzzle books, and it had half a gorilla drawn, and you had to draw the other half, and I remember drawing the other half and everyone was like blown away that it looked just like the other side. I think that was the first time. And then all through school I could draw and stuff.

A Stewart Easton embroidery in situ.

Was there a scene in Coventry where you could find like-minded souls?

Not until I was about 15 or 16. There is something about growing up on a Council Estate that is very insular. There is a sense of community that isn’t there in standard middle-class communities that are very twee. Where no one talks to each other. Whereas in Canley where I grew up, if anyone came into the area they would be beaten up if they were not from there. It was that sort of area. People never really left it. The extension of that would be Coventry football club, and the wider extension would be England. So they were citizens of Canley, citizens of Coventry football club, and citizens of England. That is what it was. You would leave Canley to go see Coventry, or to go and see England. It was quite weird. I got into music when I was about 13, and The Stone Roses had just released their first album.

A legendary album if I may add.

It just opened everything up for me. Art and sport were the only things I was really into at school. When you are growing up in that environment, you don’t get pushed. The teachers don’t push you, because you are viewed, I would not say as working class, but you don’t have any expectations put on you. They don’t push you. There was no pushing at home either. But I knew I wanted to do art at that point. So I went and did a Btec National Diploma in art. There was something about psychedelics that had opened something up in me, it showed me that we were connected, but it showed me that I wasn’t like the people around me. It sorted out a load of crap and showed me that I think differently to some of the people around me. I didn’t want to work. I had heard about Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out”. I was sixteen, and then I sort of bummed around, hitched around, saw various friends who had gone to University, and went on a few demos.

"There was something about psychedelics that had opened something up in me, it showed me that we were connected."

Stewart Easton

Soon after this Easton had his first son, which in his view made him grow up fast. He took a variety of jobs from doing classroom support at a college for post-16 disabled young people, to working in a care centre and the college library. After an extended period working in the college, and after the birth of his second child, he finally went back to higher education himself to do an MA in Illustration and Animation at Coventry University. His final University project led him to be commissioned for his first solo show at the Midlands Art Centre (MAC).

The MAC is a lovely art centre. So I had my show there, then I worked with the curator and artist Trevor Pitt. It was a really lovely project, I think it was called “A Soft Bench in a Hard Landscape”. I have worked with Trevor a few times since. From there, things just moved on, I was offered more shows, all over, a lot in America, in fact more so in America. This is the first time I have shown in London.

After a commission for a project at the Cecil Sharpe House (the English folk music and dance arts centre) in Camden in 2013, Easton moved down to London, to Archway, where he now has his studio.

So I have a studio at the house in Archway, we have a Council House in Archway, which is one of those weird five storey places, which has just one room on each floor. I have a studio in one room there.

At work in the Archway studio.

Do you have a particular working rhythm, or do you work toward shows?

I have a weird way of working that has developed since the first lockdown really. There has been a new way of working. I will start creating a body of work without really knowing what I am going to do with it. In the first lockdown I would spend the day painting. Creating works which I had no idea what I was going to do with them, just painting because that is what I wanted to do. Then in the evening I was doing live streams of stitching (making embroideries) and talking, playing old ambient and new age tapes. Streaming on Instagram, just during the lockdown. So the paintings I made went to a show that I had in Joshua Tree, and the embroideries, along with some quilts and collages I made went to a gallery on Lake Tahoe. So, I have finished those and they have gone, and I am working on a load of paintings again, and new embroideries. These have gone to a gallery in Seattle.

So what do you prefer working on at the moment?

If I am working on an embroidery project, where I am having to stitch up to 12 hours a day over 2 or 3 weeks, I need to make stuff, so the painting is a bit like an antidote to that. It’s easy, I don’t have to really think about it, so I will just paint. Just to get back to a level where I am able to function.

"In the first lockdown I would spend the day painting. Creating works which I had no idea what I was going to do with them, just painting because that is what I wanted to do."

Stewart Easton

What about the scale of work? I know you make both large and small things.

It totally depends on what project I am working on. At the moment, I can’t afford a bigger studio, as I would like to work on a bigger scale. Luckily enough I am with a gallery in Seattle and one in Tahoe now, so I can just send them my work and I don’t have to worry about storage so much. I do want to get bigger, but it will depend on the project.

With the embroidery, are there particular rules or methods you use?

I developed a technique which I teach, which combines hand embroidery, meditation and abstract art. I use the process of stitching as an anchor, to help train the mind. When I was working on large scale embroideries my work was very figurative, so you would spend a lot of time focusing on trying to get something to look right. So, I would be working for 12 hours a day stitching. I noticed it was almost like a mantra, I would be doing the same thing over and over again. So I decided to see if it was possible to use the embroidery as a means of meditation.

After a range of different experiments, Easton set upon a combination of visual isolation and breathing techniques to elevate his working practice. He then combined this with an idea from the Shambhala Buddhist practice of thinking about slogans to help train the mind.

One of the slogans that I really liked was to “drop the storyline”. It’s about dropping your storyline, and when we all do that we realise we are all feeling the same and we have a connection, whereas when we are running our storylines we are separate, we are in our own world’s. So that slogan got me thinking about the idea of dropping the narrative, so I thought I would see how this technique would work without a narrative, without a known representational object that I am stitching. So I am stitching a flat block of colour and seeing if it enables me to use stitching as a means of meditation. What happens is that you realise after you have been sewing for three or four hours that the gaps between your thinking are getting bigger. But also there is this weird contradictory moment that occurs where your focus is on these tiny stitches, so your focus is really small, but your awareness is growing, with this minute focus. So that is what I have been teaching, with workshops and such.

Over lockdown Easton took to Instagram live to spread these teachings, and the response was really positive.

It went away a bit from the technique to a bit more of me talking rubbish and listening to music, but it was really good to see that there was a community out there who were joining it and each other. They would spend time talking to each other over the chat. So it was like I had created this space without intentionally creating this space, just by me talking garbage and playing 1980s new age cassette tapes and sewing. It was really sweet.

"One of the slogans that I really liked was to 'drop the storyline'. It's about dropping your storyline, and when we all do that we realise we are all feeling the same and we have a connection."

Stewart Easton

Can you tell us a little about your new work for SCP?

There are eight paper collages, eight felt collages and four hand embroideries, and they all have this eight centimetre square grey face with a pink nose and eyes, but they are all giving a little side eye. I’ve started with that, the eight centimetre square and I have built around that. That is the building block. I’ve made pieces which are more like fun pieces. I hope people enjoy them.

A big thank you to Stewart for taking the time to come to SCP and talk. We look forward to the show.

Stewart Easton at SCP