Artist Steven Harrington on his Career Evolution and Love for L.A
Steven is a pure product of California, born and bred in Los Angeles–which is actually not as common as you would think for the city's current population of 3.9 million. Although you'll still find your locals by birthright, most of L.A's inhabitants are transplants, attracted to the West Coast because of either its all-year-long sunny weather, or perhaps because of its much more affordable life compared to other bustling cities like NYC or San Francisco. After getting to know L.A's landscape ourselves, it's easy to tell how much this environment has influenced Steven and his artwork. Even if after trying to step away from it all, the heritage and culture of his upbringing has and will always remain a part of him, etched permanently into his being and all that he creates–specifically L.A's palm trees... he clearly loves those palm trees. His affinity for Los Angeles could almost be considered a pathological obsession.
By personally knowing him and his artwork for a while now, it’s very interesting to see his body of work evolve over time, but without compromise and always with consistency. That’s what makes Steven Harrington a true artist, and this is probably the main reason behind his success. Everything he does could not be more honest of himself. While most artists gravitate towards sticking to a particular approach for most of their career, others have a hard time even finding their own style. Steven aims to evolve with his art. Following a recent show he did at France's fashion retail imprint Colette, we had the pleasure of watching him at his studio over the past few months while he was working on his new series of paintings. In addition to exposing that process, we also wanted to share with you his personal background and creative influences, something we discovered for ourselves after Steven opened up the doors of his studio, and his creative mind to us to answers our drilling questions.
For those who don't know you yet, could you introduce yourself?
My name is Steven Harrington, I’m an artist and designer/image maker living and working in Los Angeles, California.
How was it growing up in California in the ‘80s/‘90s?
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, just outside of downtown, and I had a really... kind of, I guess... imaginative, creative, youthful upbringing in my younger years. I think with growing up in the suburbs with nothing to do or having no real city centers or major centers of culture, my friends, my brother, my sister and I were forced to imagine or make up the environment we wanted to grow up in. So we grew up making everything around us–like most kids–but it’s not like we could necessarily jump on a train to Downtown Los Angeles to go check out some cool plays or movies or what not. If you’re familiar with the suburbs, there’s not much there. So it was really about making up your surroundings.
I think L.A, and just California in general, is one of the younger cities and younger kind of states within America.
What does the city of Los Angeles represent to you?
I think right now Los Angeles, for me personally, represents growth. I think anyone who was born and raised in L.A, or anyone that visited or lived here for even the last 5-10 years, specifically knows that the city itself is undergoing a tremendous amount of growth. It’s nothing like it was 10-15 years ago. I think L.A, and just California in general, is one of the younger cities and younger kind of States within America. It has always had this “wild west” feel to it–if that makes sense. Where anything is "kind of" possible. It’s like, we have friends and visitors that travel from New York and even up North all the time that trip out about how large our studio space is, and how you can come to California or Los Angeles and either buy or rent a building, and you can just hermit yourself off in the corner of L.A and make your own studio or just develop your own presence. I think having that at your fingertips within L.A allows for a lot of growth that you couldn’t necessarily acquire within other parts of the country. Like New York is extremely expensive now and space is really tight, or San Francisco is one of, if not the most expensive city to live in the United States. I think Los Angeles is still kind of behind those cities but there’s a lot of excitement and growth still to happen.
Going back to your youth, when and what was your first introduction to the art world?
To be honest, I am still trying to figure that out. I think that art for me–and the art world in general–has always been this really illusive, abstract, and ambiguous entity. It’s not like I was necessarily ever introduced to that world in one body of work or in one conversation. I think, in Los Angeles specifically because of what I previously described in the last question, I feel like the art world here is very fluid and it’s constantly evolving and constantly changing. And you really have to make it what you want it to be. At least in my particular situation. So, I think that kind of introduction is an ongoing one; it’s an ongoing re-introduction; it’s an ongoing conversation. But it’s one that because of that–because it’s ongoing–it continues and stays exciting and fresh.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your general upbringing and how you started working as an artist?
Yeah, I grew up in La Verne, California. Like I said, just right outside of Los Angeles. I grew up with a really supportive family. My mom and dad were always extremely supportive in whatever it was that I and both my siblings were studying. And I just decided to follow my passion for drawing and painting at a pretty young age, just like a lot of artists, and my dad and mom were really supportive of that. My dad taught both my brother and I at an early age the value of work, and imbedded a hard work ethic in us. I grew up with him being a mason in construction and so at 13,14,15-years old, he brought us to the job sites. He trained us and taught us what work really was. My brother and I learned pretty early that that’s not what we wanted to do, but we gained that work ethic and pretty much haven’t stopped working since. I think a lot of what I’ve done in my life and a lot of what I’ve built within the studio and within my own personal life, I more or less attribute it to that really early learning of what it takes to work hard.
I feel like your art has really evolved over the years. Your last solo show was at Colette in Paris, right?
And the pieces there were pretty vibrant. Would you ever go back to this style of work?
I think my work does evolve over the years. I would hope for it to keep evolving! I think personally for me, art really is the evolution that's pushing myself. I think that my work is a lot different from where it was six or eight years ago. My latest show at Colette in Paris revolved around the concept of the personal anxieties that we all face. The anxieties of having too much work, not having enough work, you know, all those voices in your head that we all have and deal with. Like eating right, being able to cheat and eat crappy. Taking care of your health, being able to go out and party. Having a family but not having a family and being able to get away. Just that kind of balance that we’re all constantly working on, and I think with that balance comes these emotions of anxiety and being scared to face problems and hardships within life. I think that those anxious emotions are kind of ones we rarely talk about these days. So this last show was really about writing those anxious moments and feelings down, then shining humor on them through creating these sort of vibrant, colorful cartoon paintings. So the paintings were really about the act of painting, which is kind of meditative, really mellow, finding solace in these extremely anxious, almost hard kind of moments within life.
I think a lot of what I’ve done in my life, I more or less attribute it to that really early learning of what it takes to work.
Being here in your studio, we can see a whole different body of work. It’s still in your style, but it’s very monochromatic. Why is there such a big gap between these two projects?
I think through the last body of work that I created, I was really exploring color and I’ve always been a gigantic fan of color. But for me personally, I’ve always found through drawing and painting that it can be easy to hide behind color, because I feel like it’s easy to let the color take over and create these good looking aesthetics to the eye. So I was ready to do something new; I was ready to search for a new color palette. After letting the dust settle from the last show and letting myself get back to what I naturally do–which tends to be drawing–I realized that the drawings I was doing for myself were black and white. Or most of the time they’re either drawn with pencil or drawn with ink.
If I move those drawings forward then I will apply color to them and then maybe start exploring color digitally before painting or silkscreening the art piece. With the current body of work I am now working on, I decided to strip the color away and speak purely about the subject matter, thus creating a very monochromatic, black and white color palette. It’s something that I’ve never done but it just felt really fresh for me... It felt really honest and sincere. The paintings and drawings almost feel like I’m simply blowing up black and white, pen and ink drawings and there is something that feels really honest to me about that. I kind of want to live within that moment for a while.
So you’ve changed your approach but your signature palm tree graphics are still here. Why such an obsession with palm trees?
The palm trees were something that I started to develop and explore maybe five or six years ago. I had a bunch of friends visiting Los Angeles from Paris and when I went to go pick them up from the airport, the first thing that they started pointing out here were the palm trees. It just put a gigantic smile on my face. Living and growing up in Los Angeles, it’s one of those things that I just stopped seeing within the city because you get so used to seeing it, so you just stop seeing it. I’m sure being from Paris you stopped seeing the Eiffel Tower, you stop seeing…
Yes, pigeons, I think you sort of stop seeing stone roads and these really old, cool architecture that I see when I go to visit Paris. And I think that’s what happened with the palm trees. I also liked the notion that in this day and age, where everything is so social and digital and everything is one big mix and such a hodgepodge of iconography, I liked the fact that the palm trees to me were synonymous with Los Angeles. It’s something that I’ve been born and raised with. It’s this icon that very much represents home for me, and I think I’ve just really grown to love Los Angeles and grown to love home, and now I can’t stop drawing it. It’s really strange.
Work that I make for myself is art-based and closer to poetry.
Moving on from invading trees, your art career and your many collaborations with brands seem very well-balanced. How do you separate your time between working on your company-free projects and working with commissioned projects?
I think the only way I found throughout the years to separate the work is to schedule my own personal time within the work week. If I don’t schedule my own personal time–my own personal studio painting or to make anything I want–then I’m just not going to do it because client work and commissioned work will completely take over. I’ve done that several times where I’ve had two or three years go by and I haven’t had a show or haven’t made a single painting. And I just get frustrated and really sad, and it affects me emotionally. So the only way that I have found out how to do it or how to live is to schedule in that personal studio time so that I’m just ongoing with painting or drawing, or making stuff for myself, and then filling the rest of that time or work week with client-based projects that are just exciting or collaborative-type work.
What are the main differences between working on personal art projects and working on projects for clients or collaborations?
Work that I make for myself is art-based and closer to poetry. It’s just work where I’m exploring whatever I want to explore, however I want to explore it, and wherever I want to explore it. It’s just being able to completely free myself and be as imaginative and as unfiltered and creative as I want to be. It’s also a time where I can pull social events into my own work or I can pull social happenings or personal experiences into my work. It’s very much a personal time to create, and a lot of that work is really based off of previous stuff that I’ve made. Client-based commercial work is work where the clients approach me to pitch a project, PDF, or a concept, and then we look at the product together and decide if the fit is right.
What clients or brands do you dream to work with that you haven’t already?
I would love to do some public sculptures. That would be a dream project for me. It’s something that I’ve definitely thought about. Just talking to the public directly has always been a personal interest of mine. I think, you know, talking to the woman that lives down the street, or the family that lives across the road, or the people that live on my own block has been something that’s always been so interesting. So much and so often I get approached by clients trying to speak to a very specific “target audience” with a very particular agenda to hit, or a very particular age group. And although that allows me to make really abstract and temporary forward thinking work, it’s not always your typical human you are connecting to.
It’s one that is already willing to accept fashion, art & design. It’s somebody that knows about art & design and I’m a little less interested in making art for other artists. As I’ve grown older, I’ve been more interested in making art for everyone. I feel like so much of art that is created within the art institution, is really made for other artists or people who really have a firm idea of what art is–a preconceived notion. For that reason, I think I’ve always looked up to Clay Oldenburg’s sculptures. His big, large, oversized sculptures, I think that work is some of the most amazing still living work out there to this day. I think that would be really, really cool.
Will we see anything like this from you in Los Angeles or Paris?
I don’t know. I think that it’s more shooting for the stars. So, who knows how that would happen, or where it would happen, but it’s something that is interesting for me.
Are there any clients or brands that you would never, ever work with?
*laughs* I mean, although I love smoking the occasional cigarette, we’ve turned down a pretty big cigarette campaign in the past. Just because I’ve had pretty bad family experiences from smoking cigarettes.
You recently did two amazing collaborations with Nike and Nixon. What was the process like working on these projects?
My recent collaboration with Nike was very exciting. It was like working for a dream client. The processing, the drawings, the building of concepts and the whole Nike world, it couldn’t have gone any better. I think furthermore, or just to add to that, it was a real honor to work with Dylan Raasch. He is one of the lead Design Director for Nike Running, Sportswear and Designwear. He was the designer who designed the Nike Roshe shoe! So it was really exciting to work with him to develop the patterns and drawings for the collaboration.
It was also interesting to see the inner-workings of what goes into a project with a client that is that successful. Seeing the process and how the artwork gets seen and chosen and what goes on behind-the-scenes. You think you know what the “behind-the-scenes” is, but there’s a reality to how it really works. But, I feel very fortunate to have worked with Nike as a client over the last year and look forward to continuing to foster that relationship with them in the future. We are currently working on several new upcoming projects and hope to continue to work on projects with them, later on down the road. We will see what the future brings.
What about the Nixon collaboration?
The Nixon collaboration came very naturally. They approached and asked me if I was interested in creating a custom collection for the brand. I think what they’ve been doing in these last couple of years is really interesting and pushing things in a whole new creative direction, and they have a lot of great ties with several really great shops and locations in Paris, and when they approached me, it just seemed to work well. They were one of the most understanding and pleasant clients to work with that I’ve had in the last several years. I think they were very interested in being there and listening to what my feedback was and were really interested in hearing how I wanted to sculpt the collection or collaboration, and in the end, we both ended up with a product that we are extremely happy with.
You just turned 37, which of course means you have one foot in the grave. Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Still making art, still drawing, still designing. And just to correct that typo, it should be 27.
Sure, we’ll fix that later... So what can we expect from you for the rest of the year?
I still have some pretty interesting collaborations launching. I’m really excited about this new relationship with you and Unrated. I’ve been a big fan of what you guys have been doing throughout the years, and I’m excited to see what that possibility brings in the future. I think that you guys are doing some really cool stuff and I would like to be a part of where you guys head. What direction that is, I’m not sure quite yet, but I hope that I am there to make it as creative and exciting as you.
Cool. Any last word to our readers?
I just think that, you know... I just want to say that I hope everyone out there has a nice evening tonight. And that they drink maybe a couple glasses of beer, a couple of glasses of wine, maybe smoke a gigantic joint and really let loose, you know. Hug the person next to you!
Words: Benjamin Benichou
Photography: Steven Harrington