Artist Steph Leighton on moving to Manchester and the challenge of lockdown

Playful colours, larger than life characters, and unusual scenarios appear in the work of Steph Leighton, the third artist in our series exploring how Manchester School of Art students reacted to the early months of COVID-19 and lockdown.

Leighton is inspired by childhood, memory, and nostalgia, she tells me: “Children’s drawings have always fascinated me, their confidence to imagine all things weird and wonderful and create their own alternate reality. I’m inspired by everyday life, the mundane, conversations I’ve had, humour tragedy, music, the list is endless.”

Artwork: Steph Leighton

Leighton has lived in Manchester for three years while studying art, a substantial change from her rural upbringing in Devon. “Moving to a big city and embracing that change has evolved my practice in a big way.” 

“There is a strong relationship between the themes I’ve explored surrounding personal identity and the city.”

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Lockdown has meant that there has been a lack of access to the art school’s facilities. This had previously enabled multimedia artists like Leighton to use workshops with binding equipment to create books and the tools to stretch their own canvases for paintings. 

Moving to the big city and embracing that change has evolved my practice in a big way

Leighton has had to adapt the way that she creates artwork: “I’ve still managed to keep drawing in my sketchbooks, creating smaller works and then photoshopping them into gallery spaces.”

“I’ve tried not to get too caught up with the technical side of things, by sticking to as much physical art making as I can on a small scale.”

Like many other young artists, there have also been positive and negative challenges raised by COVID-19 for Leighton’s artistic process: “There have been days where I haven’t wanted to make anything at all, but the extra time it’s allowed for making (and sometimes thinking about) art has been beneficial.”

Representation of Steph Leighton’s artwork in a gallery space

Leighton believes that the “digitisation of so much of the course has forced a lot of people to completely change their art practice and learn how to use software they hadn’t tried before.”

When asked how important she thinks physically viewing art is she replied: “I think it’s extremely important. I think that viewing art, witnessing its physicality and form in spaces is so vital to the way we understand it.”

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She continued: “We experience art through so many more senses than just the eyes, which makes me think a virtual experience would eliminate so much potential for both the effect of the art and the viewer’s response to it.”

Artwork by Steph Leighton

Leighton recommends following the Manchester School of Art (MSOA) on Instagram so you can stay up to date with opportunities to get involved with the art school. There are regular invitations for the public to go to events in and around the art school. 

She highlights how Instagram works better as a platform for emerging artists: “For me, Instagram is definitely the best for discovering new art and connecting with fellow artists. You see projects and events shared on Facebook, but I don’t think they’re accessible if you aren’t looking for them, which sometimes makes for less diversity amongst the people involved.”

See more of Steph Leighton’s work and her future exhibitions at @sleightonart.