Photographs can only take us so far. To really get up close to a city, try painting your way around it. That’s the task Liverpool artist Steve Strode has set himself. Painting around 20 pieces a month, Steve’s taking a year out to capture a city in flux. Half way through, SevenStreets caught up with him to see how he’s getting on. And whether he needs any turps.
Why this project?
I began to notice that the Liverpool I remembered was changing so quickly. The schools I went to, the pubs I drank in, they’re all gone. They weren’t exceptional views but they’re gone all the same. I wish I’d painted them when I had the chance. I wanted to paint the ordinary scenes that we pass every day. I tend to steer away from the iconic structures like the Liver Birds, in favour of typical Liverpool streets and scenes. Where these iconic images do appear they’ll often be used as a backdrop for the life that goes on around them. Our time is filled with the ordinary; it’s perhaps up to us to find the extraordinary in that. As Philip Larkin noted, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”.
How have you been received by onlookers?
I usually work quite small – 21cm x 14cm – and have the painting in the lid of a box that sits on my knee, so it doesn’t really draw the attention that a large canvas on an easel might do. I try to keep out of the way. I usually find a quiet spot, or sometimes I sit in the comfort of the car seeing as I am painting mainly urban scenes. I do get the curious onlookers who will always ask what you’re up to and why, but mostly it’s a positive response about the subject or its history. I was painting out by Stanley Bridge just after it reopened not so long back, and the people who stopped to talk, all had some snippet of history or information about the swing bridge or the surrounding warehouses. I’m just waiting for someone to say “See this…all this around here was fields when I was a lad”.
So, you’re trying to preserve a Liverpool that’s fast disappearing?
The work is capturing a sense of how I see the city today. In the past I have been particularly touched by the old black and white photographs of Edward Chambre Hardman, and the films of Terence Davies, particularly, ‘Of Time and the City’. Hardman left a record of the way things used to be and I believe he did his share of ‘painting’ in the darkroom, adjusting tones pushing and pulling the shapes to end up with an image. The Terence Davies film, ‘Of Time and the City’, has been described as a love song and a eulogy to Liverpool. It’s also a response to memory, reflection and the experience of losing a sense of place as the skyline changes and time takes its toll.
“Our time is filled with the ordinary; it’s perhaps up to us to find the extraordinary in that”
What has surprised you on your journeys?
I’m finding out more about this city than I would ever normally do, I’ve become a tourist on my own streets. When you get out of the car in places you’d only ever passed through and take the time to walk around, it’s amazing what painting opportunities you can find. I’m beginning to see the city on foot and notice the things which I’d ordinarily passed. Everyone has these unhindered views of Liverpool that may or may not be here in the future, views that deserve the time spent on them only a painting can afford. After painting many of the pictures, I have then done a small amount of research only to find new histories and stories that the painting has captured.
For instance when I was walking down by the Pier Head I came across one of the old booths that used to grace the Mersey Tunnels entrance from 1934 to 1936. After serving its purpose there it spent twenty years as a Tote ticket booth at Haydock Racecourse painted in black and white stripes. It was later rescued from a scrap yard and lovingly restored to its former green glory and situated outside the Mersey Tunnels building at the Pier Head. I’d never even seen this before, never had a reason to just have a mooch.
There’s really no need to always seek out the exotic to paint, although it does help if you choose somewhere you actually like, perhaps then it’s up to us to turn that nothing into something.
What do you intend to do when you’ve finished the series?
I could get really lucky and sell the lot – I’m smiling by the way, although they are reasonably priced – but failing that, I would really like to display them. As there will be close to two hundred pictures by the end, just to frame them all would cost an arm and a leg, so it would have to be twenty or so at a time. But imagine that, two hundred paintings all the same size in the same place, it would have to be some venue…
Take a look at Steve’s blog and comment or suggest a site that could be painted in the future.