New Zealand artist, Andrew J Steel, has built a name for himself through an unconventional art form— street art. His work is far from vandalism though. Andrew’s work is intentional; it’s meant to add to public property instead of taking away from it. His pieces are simple, yet they have a cartoonish edge to them. Even though he has a science degree under his belt, he hasn’t used it a day in his life. However, there is one underlying scientific concept that can be observed all throughout his work: complex ideas and imagery being simplified to convey a message.
Andrew has produced some of the largest scale public artworks in New Zealand. His portfolio includes interior fine art, digital, interior, and public art. How does his approach change when working on such a large array of mediums? Well, you’ll have to keep on reading.
Note from Andrew to himself and our Internet friends: All these comments are my current personal opinions held on 23 Jan 2020, are my own, and are subject to change. Please don’t rip things out of context or misinterpret them.
Can you describe your creative process? Where do you start? What do you usually have on or around you?
I believe an artist’s role is to live a remarkable life and report back on it through their work. I think it’s about doing and experiencing as much as possible, then translating that energy and those lessons back into the work. It starts well before you pick up the brush or pen. By that time, you want to have something good to do or say.
For me, it’s about getting a good mix of nature and culture; getting out of the city regularly, taking photos and spending time with interesting people. Then it’s about spending time back in the city and studio, reading good books, going to shows and galleries, and having a good media diet (i.e looking at and listening to good stuff, not nonsense). That works for me and gives me a good creative flow.
There seems to be a theme of simplicity in your work. Where do you think that stems from?
Simple imagery is inclusive.
It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how old, what gender or what ethnicity you are, keeping things simple seems to resonate with all people. I never studied art formally, but I did study science. I learned how complex things can be universally simplified as a diagram to convey a message, and how important it is to strip things back to get there. I think on a personal level, I also appreciate minimalism. So, I guess there’s a bit of art imitating life happening there too.
As a street artist, where do you draw the line between vandalism and public art?
Intentions. Vandalism’s intent is to have fun, and f*ck shit up. Public art seems to be about adding something, rather than taking from something.
Your portfolio includes interior fine art, digital, interior, and public art. How does your approach change depending on the kind of work you’re working on?
The meaning has to fit the medium. My approach differs depending on the medium I’m working on. The medium I work in strictly for fun is usually digital and sometimes public art. With interiors, I try to bring the people living or using the environment into the work, as they’re the ones who experience it. It’s largely about people and place for those works. My developing fine art practice is where I’m most experimental and try to explore satire, depth, and more meaningful subject matters.
Different ideas, different intentions, different mediums.
Do you have a favourite medium to work on?
Painting outdoors is always the most fun. I can spend half a day on a single silly digital drawing locked inside or do several public works in an hour in the fresh air. There’s also something really satisfying about adding to your city or wherever you’re traveling, and seeing what other people are doing. It’s vibrant and it’s changing.
Fine art on the other hand, gets to scratch the itch of more thoughtful works, and if you hit the idea well it’s extremely fulfilling.
A few years ago, you were featured on a VICE article titled “People Used to Call the Cops on Andrew J Steel, Now They’re Buying His Art.” Is that true? If so, what were you working on when that happened? Is that piece still up?
Haha! It’s pretty accurate. People used to chase me off for tagging their fence, now some people hope I do. Early in my career we painted a lot without permission and had a few close run-ins along the way with vigilantes and police. There’s no specific moment that piece is talking about, more an evolution of perception of my work and public opinion changing as a whole for public art. As I grew up more, my work did too, and people began appreciating it more.
What is the one project you’re most proud of? What do you think made it such a success?
I’ve done a few projects and public artworks around issues that are important to me that hit the mark well and I felt proud of walking away. I collaborated with an old friend on a shark mural around de-finning. The piece communicated the message effectively, in a fun way that resonated with the public. We did another one on sea ice melting from the climate crisis and how it impacts penguins, with the work depicting the animals slowly melting and decaying across the work. It was confronting but the work was strong.
I’ve also been lucky to create work on the walls of some incredible homes and join some of our countries most impressive art collections, which is cool to show my mum.
Are there any artists, designers, or illustrators that you are loving at the moment?
Jean Jullien, ESPO aka Steve Powers, Keith Haring, Brecht Vandenbroucke, Johan Deckmann are all my all-time favourites. On an artist level, Tristan Eaton and Doug from Cycle in LA are probably the coolest humans.
What do you do to get out of a creative slump?
I used to try and paint through it, but I’ve realized it’s better to stop. If you’re in a bad place the work can suffer. Get out, travel, do something else, look after yourself, see good people then get back to it. Try something else for a bit.
Have a better diet of media and consume new ideas to shake yourself up.
Get off your phone and computer and go outside.
What are some of your future goals, personally and professionally?
I want to have a satisfying career through having fun, make thoughtful work, and bringing moments of enjoyment to people through art. I want to develop into a respected fine artist in our country (aka one that moves beyond surviving, to thriving). On a more personal level, I want to get in good shape mentally and physically, sail and see my family more.
If you’re looking to add some art to your Instagram feed, give Andrew a follow.