A ROOM WITH A VIEW
Steve Clark: Stonemason, Sculptor, Fashion Designer
Steve Clark is a sculptor working with a huge range of materials, from silk to sandstone, concrete to velvet. With a career that is constantly growing in new and unexpected ways, Steve is equal parts a cerebral artist and a man whose physicality extends from his fingertips to the soles of his feet. Sitting down over breakfast, with me, he gestures to his strong almond latte and says, “I need that straight in the vein.”
Steve grew up in Denholm, a place he describes as a village in the Scottish Borders. With a population of approximately 600, the Denholm of Steve’s childhood was the kind of place where people left their house keys inside their houses when they left for work. Where children roamed freely to get into the kind of trouble children always manage to get into.
Industry in Denholm during Steve’s childhood was flagging. What had once been a region profiting from the cashmere industry, he tells me that as he grew up only a fraction of the village’s mills were still in operation.
Steve left school at 16 to pursue a 4-year stonemasonry apprenticeship (of which he completed 3 years), working on brick and stone laying, before studying textiles for fashion at college and then embroidery in Manchester.
What was it like, growing up there?
In Denholm, we pronounce it Denholm like blue denim, not like Den Holm [posh pronunciation]. You had the opportunity from a very early age to roam free, my parent would leave me from around about the age of six or seven, because I had a lot of grandparents, uncles, and aunties, and also the village was like one big family, I mean to be honest. There was a lot of freedom from an early age and you had the opportunity to be really quite creative from an early age, with the ability to spend your own time with your friends and stuff like that. You'd make up a hell of a lot of games to keep yourself busy. Not so much playing computer games or whatever. You'd spend all your days out and about in fields, the forest, down the river.
You could do whatever you wanted. I did whatever I wanted, play out into the fields until nine o’clock at night.You’d have dinner at your granny’s because she’d feed you better than your mum would. You know, like biscuits and such. In terms of upbringing you don’t get much better than that. Denholm is very picturesque.
Is there a strong distinction between bricklaying and stonemasonry? Like stonemasons have this really long history and there’s a sense of craft to it.
Bricklaying and stonelaying are really very different, even though there's a lot of crossovers. Stonemasonry is really particular. That's not to say bricklaying isn't particular but it takes longer to become a stonemason or you have to have a certain type of eye for it, whereas being a bricklayer is very methodical because you're laying essentially the same structure near enough every time. Each time you pick the brick up, it's the same format, whereas with stone it changes all the time. So, you really have to have a lot of patience and a good eye for proportion, as well as understanding the laws of physics and the engineering behind making sure the stone stays in the wall.
I used to work on historic Scotland, and that was all taking the stones down, marking them, and replacing, resetting, and repointing them. It used to be that, particularly in historic buildings, the stone was from the place – from a quarry nearby. But now many of the quarries have run out or they aren’t operated anymore, so you have to source the stone from somewhere else. It’s still the same kind of stone though.
How did your time as a stonemason then influence your study of fashion?
It took a while for me to notice that it was influencing my work - it was probably there the whole time due to just my eye and seeing proportion and texture and colour and everything like that. But I didn't actually really put both of them together until I went to university in Manchester and I was actually told by my lecturer at the time to never run away from your past and to always integrate it with whatever it is that you're doing that is new.
I tried to keep them separate. I wanted that to be one part of my life and this to be another. I don’t think you can keep these things separate. If you look at a lot of my work from those early days, though, it’s very feminine and flowing, pastel colours. I did a lot of highly decorative stuff – like as detailed as I could. But I was really lucky to have that lecturer who told me not to keep things separated. He said, look at those textiles, incorporate them into your work. And that’s totally changed how I work, from then on that’s been something I have held onto.
So it did influence my work quite heavily in the end, and that's why I've returned to stone as a creative format. I'd just never seen stonemasonry as creative when I was sixteen, seventeen. It wasn't until I came to Australia and worked with particular types of stone over here, like limestone, that I then decided to use it as a form to be creative with.
I think one of the biggest things I see, is all these people who have really great ideas but the execution isn’t there. You see them jumping from one thing to the next and never mastering the technique of what they’re doing, and that’s something I don’t really like. I can’t just get my chisel and work and then stand back and look at it and then keep working. It doesn’t work like that. It’s all in one move, I chisel and I use my hand to feel the curve. Do I want the curve to be quick or do I want it to be slow and make something round and bulbous?
It’s this way of seeing, isn’t it? We have to see not just with our eyes but with more of our senses?
Whenever I'm working stone, I tend to touch the stone and feel the stone without even looking at it for it to tell me what issues there is lying in terms of getting the perfect honed finish or getting the perfect curve. Your fingers can tell you better than seeing. Depending on the light, if you get certain type of light on an object then it'll show its flaws, but usually you can pick up them flaws with your hands. So unless you've always got the light on the right bit for the whole entire day, you can't just see it with your eyes, you have to use your hand. And you feel more part of the stone as well, touching it with your hand.
I find it interesting the convergence between the textile industry in your area and your interest in fashion.
Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot. I mean, in some sort of crazy way, maybe. I don’t think there’s any connection. I would probably say no.
What prompted your interest in fashion, then?
Going to festivals from about sixteen onwards a lot of people from mainly down south were wearing their own constructed garments that I thought were really cool at the time. I was really interested in buying them but they don't, obviously, sell them so then that prompted me to start making my own outfits.
I was always interested in fashion without being interested in the fashion industry. I was always interested in wearing particular more like out-there kind of clothing. I mean, I always stood out as a kid because my mum took the time to dress me, so maybe that’s where it really started. It was quite a natural progression really, it felt quite natural for me you see, but not for other people - me ending up in that industry.
While fashion is quite a male-dominated industry, it is not seen as a particularly masculine one. Did that cause you problems in such a small town?
No because I was quite masculine already, and I played football at quite a high standard so it wasn’t like fashion was the only thing. I was well-received within the village amongst the male, dominant peers, so me going off to do fashion was more something they thought I was going off to pick up girls, or that I was using it as an excuse to not work. I was quite obviously heterosexual, so it was not really a problem. I was already part of that main group of guys in the town but I can imagine how it would have been hard if you didn’t have a strong kind of character. Because men… you couldn’t talk about your feelings. It’s just not done. Unless you were smashed, that was the only time it was okay.
Like alcohol gives you permission to express yourself.
Yeah. I’ve really had my eyes opened since travelling. In Denholm there’s two pubs: the top pub and the bottom pub. Because the main road is like this [tilts hand at slight angle] and one pub is at the top and one is at the bottom – it’s not even a real hill – and that’s where the main people in the town gather on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays. You don’t talk about your emotions though. Like if I had used the word “energy” then, it’d have been like “whoa man, settle down… energy? The fuck you mean, energy?”
What was the overall approach to people of different sexualities?
It was hard. There was one guy… we all knew he was gay from a young age, but because all of our parents were close and we were close, it would have been hard to come out in that environment. Impossible. You’d have to leave before you’d be able to be yourself. But there were two groups of older lesbians in the town.
Like the “spinsters”?
Can you tell me more about school?
School life was really good up until about age fourteen, fifteen. Like, I used to love school. I hated homework, though. It was so much of a stress for me, I just didn’t do it. Probably that was the reason I ended up wanting to leave so early. I would be out after school playing games or being creative in some way and running around and then I’d come home and I couldn’t do it. It’s just two different sides of my brain and it takes me ages to move over. Even now if I have to do paperwork I either have to do it at the very start of the day, or set a whole day for it. It’s just really hard for me.
I was in university when I found out I had dyslexia – actually pretty severe dyslexia – as an adult and doing the test, you know, I felt dumb. But my dad, when I told him he looked at me like [puts on a sceptical expression] and said “did you get stuff for free?” and I said, “yeah,” and he said, “good job, son.” And he thinks I conned them to get all this stuff. But I have dyslexia.
I’ve always loved games, though. Playing football; I used to be like the gamesmaster. It wasn’t always football, depending on the weather or the seasons and I’d be looking at the fields and thinking of games to play and coming up with the rules.
So in a way, the fields around Denholm were the first textile you worked with?
I hadn’t really ever thought of it like that, but yeah. You basically got to do whatever you wanted, it was up to you to come up with games during the summer holidays. So you were always being creative on that level.
So to go back to those “energies” you mentioned, do you feel that sort of energy with each piece of stone or each work you create?
I do feel a bit of energy with each part. Some sculptures that are just on an art base only that don't have any function, they definitely have more energy and a feeling or emotion that I can't really get to grips with. I don't know where they're coming from or why they com out sometimes.
The work I’m doing right now, they’re all characters. This one family: mum, dad, son, daughter, dog. I didn’t start out with that intention but that’s just who they are. But yeah if I’ve got jaggy angles I will think of the piece as masculine, or related to a particular place or moment, and if it’s soft and round I’ll think of it as feminine. But that’s just my perception, you know, someone else might look at it and think it’s masculine or feminine.
It's all just to do with texture, touch, how proportion sits in a room, how a curve feels, why a curve meets a flat spot, how long a flat spot stays for, it all means something and I'm just getting to grips with what that means. I don't know if I ever will or if I'll just get better at talking about it, I don't know.
Claire has too many plants in her bedroom. She keeps buying more. It's becoming a problem.