Steven Cousens is a brilliant artist who lives in Bellingham, Washington. I’m very intrigued by his work which is simple and primitive yet also sophisticated and contemporary. We chatted about that as well as the state of the contemporary art world.

“… I am fortunate through time, commitment and hard work to live as a full-time artist. However, I still work outside the art world at times to supplement my income ... Too often, I see many young people making life choices based solely on their earning potential, ignoring their passions and leading an empty, frustrated life ...” 

MICHAEL: Hello Steven, Your paintings are so intriguing. They're sort of rudimentary, primitive, childlike and yet somehow edgy and contemporary. Do you have an explanation for this?

STEVEN: Michael, thank you for the opportunity to talk about my work. As for the style of my work, yes I would agree I have a primitive approach with a conscious effort to remain current and contemporary. I have no real desire to create more refined representational work as I find it has less impact both visually as well as thematically.

I strive to create as much visual impact as possible through composition, color and texture, while keeping the work balanced. I can often get caught up in the color and texture of a piece - so much so that I forget the subject matter entirely. This being the case, I have been asked why I don't leave the subject entirely and work only in the abstract. To this, I can say I seem to enjoy the reinterpreting of reality. Taking familiar objects or places and stripping them down to a more primitive state, leaving sometimes only a hint of the original idea or subject. I feel this gives the work more interest both in subject matter as well as visually.

Also I am sure my background in clay has a lot to do with how I approach my painting. Through this I have learned to be very process-oriented. I love the materials in their own right. The paint, the brushes, the mediums and I want to celebrate this through my work somehow. I still think three dimensionally when working with a need to almost feel the piece as it is viewed. This is also why I prefer not to frame my work especially under glass. I want my pieces to have a sculpture-like quality yet still remain a painting.

MICHAEL: It's so easy to see your process and the “building blocks” of your work: simplicity, color blocking, meandering spaces and architectural thought. The work seems very peaceful to me. How do you see it?  

STEVEN: Peaceful is one adjective I and others have used to describe some of my work. I see it more as a feeling of longing and mystery. I am trying to capture a moment and draw the viewer into the work where they might see much more than they initially had.

I create subtleties through drawing and scratching through the layers of paint that a see as a sort of alternate reality or parallel reality within the image. I know the work is complete once I have the right feeling about it, and not so much a resolved composition. If I walk into my studio after being away from a piece for awhile and it still invokes the same feeling as it did when I left, I then usually know it's complete. This feeling is a little hard to put into words, however, if I had to, I would say excitement, curiosity and maybe that sense of longing where I need to know more about the piece, it's surface, and feel compelled to keep looking at it.

MICHAEL: I think the look of your work certainly causes some people to think their "four-year-old could do that." How do you respond to that? I'm always a bit embarrassed for people who say such things because it clearly shows their ignorance, but anyway, what do you think?

STEVEN: Well yes, this is a comment that many of us have heard from time to time, however it is rare any more for me. Honestly, I do not give it much attention or response. It comes from a place of not understanding and that kind of comment does not really deserve a response.

It usually shows that the person making that kind of comment has a very limited and subjective view of art. If I felt a viewer was being genuine and wanted to know more about my process, I am always glad to talk about it. I often respond with the statement that their child really couldn't do it and explain a little bit about the process and what the work is about. Then, an explanation about the historical context and relevance of contemporary art will usually evoke silence followed by a quiet exit. 

MICHAEL: Ha! Ha! I’m sure it does. Do you ever paint plein air or is it always in your studio? Are your paintings always based on an actual location? Do you ever just create scenes?

STEVEN: I used to paint plein air, more so when using soft pastels and then finish the works in the studio. Now I am predominantly a studio painter. I find that this suits my style much more. I work fairly large as well so painting on location would be quite difficult. Also my process can be slow and working in layers is not practical for plein air. 

As far as my subject matter goes, a portion of my work is based on specific locations while much of it is an amalgamation of various locations or subjects and even sketches blended and distorted to create a new image. These pieces are usually the most gratifying for me as they are more open-ended, resulting in what I believe to be a more honest portrayal of my intended expression.

My figurative pieces that I have been working on lately also follow this voice deriving from internal stimuli rather than real figures. This again allows me more freedom to express my intent and message to my viewers. 

MICHAEL: Tell me about Bellingham, Washington where you live. You're right between Seattle and Vancouver. What's that like? Both of those cities have decent art communities, but Bellingham? Which other city do you tend to gravitate more toward? Seattle? Vancouver?

STEVEN: Being situated between two major cities can have its advantages by giving me access to what they have to offer without the cost and congestion of actually living in them.

We originally chose Bellingham because of all it has to offer geographically as well as culturally which is significant considering its small population. Also, raising two young boys here has been a good decision rather than Portland where we moved from. Although I do miss the vibrancy and access to the larger art scene that Portland has to offer.

Bellingham has a robust art community. However the market support here is weak compared to larger metropolitan areas. This is why I mainly market south in Seattle where there’s a larger and wealthier base to market toward. Vancouver, although closer, has more challenges for marketing purposes with the border, money exchange, as well as taxes and duties to consider. I suppose if I were to secure gallery representation there it would alleviate some of these difficulties - something I will consider in the future. 

MICHAEL: When did art begin for you? Are you from an artistic family?

STEVEN: I suppose like many, art began at an early age for me, but was not really encouraged or developed until my later teens. I grew up within a family business with a father who was very skilled in working with his hands as a builder and fixer. This trait transferred over to me as I used to spend a lot of time in my father’s workshop building and dismantling things.

This skill has been a constant in my life and I have always considered myself a craftsman and maker. I love the process of creating things and the tools used in doing so. Other than art classes in school, my artistic side was not really developed until my late teens when I made the decision to break away from the family business and enroll in art school.

I found a calling within this environment and absorbed all I could in the years attending college. The union between working with my hands to create and the mental stimulation I derived from the expression was intoxicating and since has been my true purpose in my life.

MICHAEL: Purpose in life? But art barely pays the bills. Shouldn't you have gotten your MBA or learned computer coding? Few people buy art.

STEVEN: Well, I'm not sure what getting a business degree has to do with one’s life purpose, but I suppose some may feel that way. We have become such a consumer, money-driven society and we are turning away from our inner voices and making life decisions based solely on the bottom line.

We are even seeing it in the contemporary art market where auction houses are fetching insane prices for works from dead and living artists. It has reduced much of the art world to an investment on a commodity. No longer are patrons purchasing art because of their interest in a work itself, but whether they can get a huge return on their investment in the future. This is creating an ever widening gap between the working artist and the art elite.

I am fortunate through time, commitment and hard work to live as a full-time artist. However, I still work outside the art world at times to supplement my income. I don't see this as a negative rather art is about life and as long as we have a balance, we can experience a fulfilled existence. Too often, I see many young people making life choices based solely on their earning potential, ignoring their passions and leading an empty, frustrated life. 

Having said all this, I am a realist and know that if one chooses a career path in the arts there are inherent challenges that come with this. We must be extremely motivated and disciplined with our work and be aware of the increasingly important business side of creating. The money and patrons are out there, but they won't come knocking on your door. You have to pursue it relentlessly if you want to make a living through art.

MICHAEL: Nicely said. Finally Steven, What do you think it'll take to get more people interested in contemporary art? I mean, art DOES need an audience. Doesn't it? 

STEVEN: This is a challenging one. I suppose it comes down to exposure and education. Not so much higher education art degrees - that's a whole other topic - but general art education through public schools and local and regional arts funding.

We have to be exposed to art in order to understand and appreciate it. I have seen, in recent years, a resurgence in contemporary art through the growing international art fairs. However, this also goes back to what I was previously talking about with the art elites and super-inflated prices that alienate so much of the art world. Maybe there is a balance that will evolve from this, giving more exposure to contemporary art down the line.

We also need government funding on all levels to support the arts through programs and city galleries with mandates on showing current contemporary art works. This is essential for fostering exposure and knowledge of the current contemporary art scene for the general public. Ultimately it takes the dedication and work of those in the art fields to keep creating, exposing and persevering with their passions. 

MICHAEL: It does indeed. Thanks Steven. This has been a very cool chat.

STEVEN: Thank you Michael, I enjoyed it as well.

Check out Steven Cousens at