John Harvey: Blog

Intersections of image, sound, and word

Stephen Chilton (1975-2014)

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 10.04.30

I’ve lost a friend / And I don’t know why (Tim Hardin/Nico, Eulogy to Lenny Bruce (1967))

I taught Steve when he was first a BA and then an MA Fine Art student at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. At the outset, my impression of him was that of a garrulous, grinning, and ungainly young man with interesting ears and a nervous laugh, who looked like a Mannerist version of Noddy and sounded as though he could be Lily Savage’s brother. But within that shell of brassy ebullience and conviviality lay a personality which had been shaped by long and habitual introspection, the disposition and complexity of which we now better understand. When he spoke about painting and spirituality (hardly ever the one without the other), his thoughts were sober, chaste, and uttered with deliberation. In our tutorials there were, on many occasions, uncomfortably long silences between my questions and his answers. This, I learned, did not imply that he was lost for words. Rather, that silence was a meditative space wherein he ruminated upon his options before committing one to speech.

Within him coursed contrary currents. Steve had an extraordinary capacity to be the most supportive friend you could ever wish to have, and yet nursed a neediness and vulnerability of equal measure. He was great talker; but as good a listener. He could be dizzily optimistic and ambitious one day, and frozen by remorse and self-doubt the next. Moreover, he was often unconfident in the anticipation of making a painting, but always fully self-assured in the act. These combinations of strength and weakness, positive and the negative, light and darkness (never the one without the other) were the necessary precursor conditions for making images that gestured simultaneously towards the inner man and a higher world:


I instructed him in painting, I saw his paintings, but I never witnessed him paint. To have done so would have been deeply uncomfortable for Steve — like being watched while in prayer. I sometimes envied the sense of fulfillment that he experienced in painting. Through it he found an intimacy of engagement, personal resolution (in terms of both a determination and a solution), and the capacity to touch the still, calm centre of his own psyche. Steve followed the psalmist’s counsel to ‘seek peace and pursue it’. Peace was the object of his desire in respect not only to his own soul but also his relationships to everyone and anyone around him. And, palpably, it was the object (if ever there was one) of the works that he breathed into being.

Steve made abstract paintings that slowly evolved through the judicious application of ethereal, luminous colour (reminiscent of the northern lights), variously stained, washed over, poured, rolled, lightly brushed upon, and sunk beneath the warp and weave of the canvas. The resultant images are visual metaphors that, through the process of multiple, thin, translucent overlays, evoke — what the English painter Samuel Palmer (1805-81), referring to the Creation, spoke of as — ‘the veil of heaven, through which her divine features are dimly smiling’. Steve’s creations, likewise, offer a partial and tantalizing vision: a promissory and an anticipation of that more perfect and satisfying ground of being that beckons from beyond. For him, reality did not consist in that which is visible and tangible only. He suspected that there was something else beyond the scene, and someone behind the curtain. Now, he has no need of faith, because, now, he knows assuredly:

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 06.31.13

In June 2014, Steve told me that the two years that he’d spent in Aberystwyth studying for his Masters degree had been the happiest of his life. It was then and there that he’d finally found himself. His last paintings bear testimony to that. They’re mature, focused, and assured. These are among the few consolations that I’ve been able to eke out of a tragedy that can no more be understood than it can be undone. Steve, you’ve left us, as you’d say, ‘gutted’.

Working out titles


Categories: Image

Tags: , , ,

8 replies

  1. Thank you John, wonderful words about a wonderful friend. Rebecca

  2. So sorry and sad 😦 Stunning work by an obviously wonderful person… RIP Steve love to your family and friends x

  3. Thanks John for your lovely words about my twin brother. I find it hard to put into words what I thought of our Ste’s work since as a non-artist I couldn’t express myself the way his paintings deserved (though I have tried Thanks again and I’m glad you have happy memories of him – you’re right, his last few years in Aberystwyth were the happiest he’d been and it is those years we should all cherish and recall with fun and lovely memories.

  4. Thanks John for you insight, which puts Ste into perspective on the level we knew him but explains it through his art which as a non-artist I probably could never fully appreciate. You have written this so well and one blog that I will keep coming back to to help me understand him more and understand he was a mix of physical body and soul /spirit. His only sister among 5 brothers Michelle

  5. Still can’t believe it, amazing words John. I studied with Steve (and you John you also taught me!) I visited him through his masters and actually remember seeing him paint when we were at uni together and actually have that vision in my mind of him now. It is incredible that he said his last 2 years studying his masters back in Aber were the happiest of his life and I remember him saying something very similar when I saw him last year. So odd the memories I have of him and that he’s now gone. ‘Gutted’ as I really wanted to see Ste again soon!! maybe one day eh! All the best and I hope something will be made or dedicated to Ste at the School of Art – I’m sure it will.

  6. Hi John,

    Steve taught my art GCSE, in Swindon, he influenced a the passion of art that I never even knew I had, he will be sincerely missed. Shannon

  7. Thanks for sharing this John. Your words helped reanimate dormant memories. I was lucky to be in Steve’s year group at BA – and still recall the sense of awe his work inspired. In my mind he seemed a man that knew or sensed something beyond most people’s comprehension, and wise beyond words. My condolences go out to all who knew him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s