Conversions: Adapting and evolving – “Terrified I’d forgotten my lines”


The objective and the process of conversion is essential for all artists, and specifically for painters. Life is neither symmetrical or played by the Queensberry rules, so we have to have escape routes, challenges and defeats that can eventually be overcome. If I had to choose a clash of proverbial metaphors, which I think I first heard in the 1970s (my favourite years), I’d say being a painter is like being thrust into a ‘sink or swim’ situation where the glass is half full.

Here are some more modifications / conversions of mine:


1. Political Conversions

University represented 3 years to contradict myself. I spent 1 week as a Leninist, 3 months a Trotskyist, 2 years an anarchist and then I flirted with various fringe single issue politics. When did I become a political self-parody? The moment I went to festivals, drank to oblivion and tried to smoke without publicly blowing smoke rings nor mention the Camus word. These days I’m more interesting in freedom from habitual tribalism.

2. Artistic Conversion

I fell in love, but realised that I could not sustain myself purely on that experience, so I went to an evening course at Jacob Kramer art College in Leeds. I set myself on a collision course by dropping out of acting and directing plays in my spare time, terrified I’d forget my lines. I wasn’t sure whether I fitted into that role, so I decided (without much experience) to declare that I wanted to be an artist. I started this ‘process’, ‘journey ‘, (call it what you like) in January 1988.

3. Travel rather than tourism conversions

On holiday with three siblings and my parents, mainly on the road in France, we took a Volkswagen, picked up grapes, peaches, wine, etc. and then pitched a second-hand tent up at wherever we got to that day. These were formative times away from school, rules and limitations (all of which I hated). I was taught to have distinction between tourist and travel, and enjoyed the value of embracing cultures, language, aromas and all sorts of food. In short, I embraced the gift of being new to somewhere but being comfortable with everyone.

4. Religion conversion

This came late in life – about my 40s - but I had always liked a gentle breeze of pantheistic calm and peace of mind. I haven’t always liked churches and cathedrals but in hard times they have proved to be places of rest and wonder.

5. Conversion to rebellion

Apart from wanting to be elsewhere, I didn’t fully understand until my late teens that rebellion wasn’t part of the functional appetite of the young, but part of being excluded when you’re older. The paradox of youth involves an ‘entitlement’ to be angry at the ‘apparent failure’ of the previous generation to change things, whilst secretly harbouring the desire for all the comfort of conformity.

6. Educative conversion

I’d learnt how to get the better of the examiner later on, and I sneaked through university rules and regulations to get in the top 5 in my year. Apart from a failure to get funding to study a foundation course from my local council, I managed also to concentrate on painting by dropping out of an MA in Social Anthropology at London School of Oriental and African Studies. 20 years later, I started a course and the Open University, but once I’d learnt how to get a first, the cruel motivation to prove that I could was gone. My blog, however, has replaced any reversion to do more study – at a guess I’d probably try to do a PhD on ‘The politics of Naïve Art’, but at the moment I’m : ‘ we don’t want no education, we don’t need no thought control….

7. Conversion to a Work Ethic

Influenced by life’s ‘mortal coil’ and the temporary nature of material worth, one can get quite listless and fatalistic. This flimsy piece of knowledge has been replaced with a work-ethic, acquired to garner some recognition of the 1980s and 1990s. Retrospectively, Margaret Thatcher must be recognised as the most defiant of hard working individuals of her time. Either way, it’s up to you to comment on her politics. Yet in regards to another type of unrelenting stalwarts in the UK, like him or loathe him, The Duke of Edinburgh has got a work ethic and modus operandi to a T. “One just gets on with it!” Yet imaging the hours the Queen puts in!


© 2020 Stephen Hornsby-Smith

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