• Jo Armstrong

Andy Downes - An Innovative & Community-Minded Artist

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Andy Downes is a Leigh-on-Sea artist with a passion for making art all-inclusive and accessible and was possibly the first artist to bring an exhibition to an online lockdown audience! Relatively new to the local arts scene himself, he is committed to also encouraging other emerging artists - even showcasing them in his own Leigh gallery, 'The Little Known Studio'.

Opening last August, the gallery offered a wall for free every month for an artist to exhibit, invite friends and family, have a drink and talk about art. This proved a huge success and at one point, approximately 50 people gathered in and around what Andy admits is quite a small space.

Obviously the pandemic has put public gatherings on hold and although disappointed at the cessation of this burgeoning community project, Andy does feel lockdown has provided him more time to consider future plans for the gallery, to paint and experiment.

His innnovative thinking led to him transforming his planned solo exhibition, ’All Mine’, due to open at The Forum, Southend, just before lockdown, into an online experience! Entering the venue just before our confinement, he filmed the exhibition and created a virtual tour on YouTube - 'The No Show Art Show'.

Only being able to devote more time to his art in the last five years, he initially learned to spray paint, airbrush and create stencil work. From very early on, his passion for art accessibility was evidenced as he began leaving pieces at outside locations for the public to find and take home. This ‘Free Art’ practice is often seen as part of art festivals and art trails, but Andy did it regularly. He explains,"I have a strong belief that art should reach anybody and everybody from every background, whether they can afford it or not”.

He has similarly created a ‘Free Outside Art Gallery’ comprised of paintings on canvas and plywood for the public to take away. Many local community art installations have also been his work, including stencilled angel wings on a wall which provided many a photo opportunity for passers-by. His first installation in particular makes me chuckle – a life-size Popeye and Olive Oyl on an abandoned boat on Leigh marshes in 2015. It took some planning to set this up – calculating the tide times, using planks of wood and wearing chest waders (which apparently didn’t last the mission!) to reach the boat. It lasted two years before, alas, one too many storms washed Popeye and Olive away down the Thames Estuary. He has also participated in the Southend Fringe and Southend Festivals.

Andy’s work is colourful, often humorous and demonstrates a love of experimenting with various mediums and techniques. A favourite genre is portraiture due to an interest in human facial reactions and discovering individual life stories. He often chooses famous faces to paint - already familiar to the public gaze - in order to stretch himself. Many are iconic figures and inspiration comes from ”anyone who stands out and has put hard work into where they are”, he explains. A portrait of my girl-crush Kate Moss created a few years ago was bought by our late, sadly missed Leigh-on-Sea artist Paul Karslake, who was also a great inspiration to Andy.

Lucien Freud and Picasso are his particular artistic influences due to their experimental natures. Freud ”never got anything right the first time and kept removing things … you can see the layers and the mistakes”, and Picasso was a “natural artist who often threw something away and explored something else”.

Keen to encourage others‘ experimentation, he recently donated his portrait of Picasso to a local school for discussion and inspiration to create their own self-portraits. Community is important to him and his future plans include working with groups who have little access to the creative process. One idea is for people to join him in his studio for 'Paint Along Sessions', no matter their experience or ability. It’s paramount to Andy his studio remains a friendly, approachable space. He explains, “some galleries can feel inhospitable. Everyone and anyone should try and paint, draw, do mosaics and not be afraid of it. We are inspired as children and lose it. Anyone can talk to me about art. Art is about community”.

For now, he intends to “keep painting and enjoying the journey” and is excited to have been selected to exhibit at ‘Platform For Emerging Arts #24’ at London’s Leyden Gallery October 28 – November 07. Click here to find out more.

You can, of course, also visit him at ‘The Little Known Studio’ on a Saturday or Sunday. If you spot a colourful lamppost outside the studio, that’s down to Andy too. A call to arms in lockdown for artists to cheer up the “sad, stark, lonely ... lamppost” with stickers promoting their art was, I’m thrilled to say, answered!

Check out Andy's work for sale on his website here and find out more on Instagram.

Check out 'The No Show Art Show' on YouTube here.


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