Mick Stephenson and Steph Whalen are both BRILLIANT artists. Yes, their work is amazing, but what makes it brilliant? Artichoke and Lumiere is the answer.
Lumiere is the UK’s leading light festival, commissioned by Durham County Council and produced by Artichoke, the leading UK arts production charity that boldly states it “works with artists to create extraordinary and ambitious public art in cities, the countryside and on coastlines around the UK”. This is certainly true as it illuminates the streets and buildings of Durham City, delighting, thrilling and often surprising audiences, and for 2021 the festival moved into other parts of the county as well.
Helen Marriage, Director of Artichoke has family ties to Durham, with rich memories of visiting her Durham grandparents. Which was why, when the opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to bring Artichoke’s plans for a light festival to Durham. It is fair to say that neither Durham County Council nor Artichoke could have anticipated the phenomenon that Lumiere has become, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, and creating a highlight on the calendar for residents to enjoy.
A BRILLIANT programme
For Lumiere 2011 Artichoke launched its BRILLIANT programme, which is an invitation to the public for anyone to submit an idea for an artwork using light as the medium. Mick Stephenson was one of Lumiere’s first BRILLIANT artists, taking part in the festival in 2011, and ten years later Steph Whalen achieved her BRILLIANT commission for Lumiere 2021.
Durham-based artist Mick Stephenson developed on the job audio and lighting skills working as a roadie with both local North East musicians and touring the world with artists such as Pink Floyd. Recognising he needed more family time, he turned one of his hobbies into a living and started work as a joiner. But when the first ever Lumiere came to Durham City in 2009 and transformed it with light, Mick was part of the audience, truly appreciating the world-class public art around his own city. And when the BRILLIANT programme was announced for Lumiere 2011 he knew he had to get involved, and his BRILLIANT commission Fusion was created.
Mick’s involvement in Lumiere kickstarted his career as a light artist. He has since taken place in light festivals around the world and continues to create close to home in Durham. For Christmas 2021 he worked with fellow North East artist Stu Langthorne on Illuminating Ushaw, outdoor installations set in the grounds of the historic house, chapels and gardens, and in February 2022 he worked with pianist Paul Taylor on a music and light event at Durham Castle.
Since his inaugural Lumiere piece in 2011 Mick has taken part in the festival on several occasions, describing his contribution to Lumiere 2015 as one of the highlights of his career as a light artist. It was big and bold, a replica of Durham Cathedral’s famous Rose Window recreated in painted plastic bottles, fitted with tiny LED coloured lights. 12,000 plastic bottles were required with a callout across the county, with primary schools, community groups, and Durham Cathedral volunteers collecting and painting bottles working to instructions from Mick.
Mick says, “The experience was totally absorbing, as an artist and on a personal level. To be working in the incredible historic environment of Durham Cathedral, animating it for audiences to enjoy was incredible. To think that what I conceived has become of its living, breathing history is incredible, albeit for a moment in time.”
Upcoming projects include a new temporary installation at Durham Cathedral later this year, as part of the region wide celebration of the Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, the Lindisfarne Gospels’ visit to the North East, to be on display at the Laing Art Gallery.
Steph Whalen lives in Spennymoor and her Lumiere story began much more recently than Mick’s and is part of an incredible journey. Steph achieved her GCSEs but was then unwell, not knowing why. She spent some time in London and then in Germany but was always drawn back to the county. Following a bi-polar diagnosis Steph pursued the next level of her education at East Durham College, studying Theatrical & Media Make Up, Media Studies and Art & Design. Her diagnosis shattered her self-confidence, but she is now in a place where she can openly talk about her condition, knowing her skills and perspective have value. After feeling “smashed on the floor” when she was diagnosed, she soon realised it was an opportunity. The diagnosis explained why she is like she is and was the beginning of learning how to live with an invisible disability and enabled her to access appropriate support.
Steph has forged a career in special effects make-up artistry and prop making. Steph says, “Beamish Museum’s annual Halloween event was my first ever industry opportunity working at a live event, and it gave me so much drive and confidence. In many ways it set the scene as I developed my career. I also volunteer for the charity Look Good Feel Better, providing beauty and make-up workshops for ladies with cancer working with the County Durham & Middlesbrough team. It’s nice to be able to give something back using my skills and experience. I have worked with the charity roughly five years now.”
As a resident of Spennymoor, the birthplace and home of renowned 20th century Durham artist Norman Cornish, known as one of the pitman painters, Steph was given the opportunity to take part in an unusual aspect of Reimagining Beamish which includes the creation of a 1950s addition to the award-winning museum. The 1950s town incorporates a replica of the house of Norman Cornish.
Volunteering has been a significant part of Steph’s personal development, and a few years ago she answered a call out for volunteers from Durham County Council to assist with events. She has a very impressive list of where she has made a difference, helping audiences and participants enjoy festivals and events across the county including BRASS – Durham’s international brass festival, Bishop Auckland Food Festival and Lumiere.
Prior to Steph’s own BRILLIANT commission for Lumiere 2021, Steph took part in a partnership project between East Durham College, London based Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Artichoke creating an installation for Lumiere 2019. Guildhall students worked with students from East Durham College on a video projection mapping installation called Lift Off inspired by Artichoke’s Apollo 50 project with Berlin based artist collective Mader Wiermann, as part of the learning and engagement programme for the festival. The Apollo 50 project was also included in the 2021 Lumiere programme, transforming the iconic Brutalist Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee as the Lumiere programme extended across the county.
Steph describes herself as, “being in shock” when she was selected as a BRILLIANT artist for Lumiere 2021. Her artwork consisted of 36 hearts on display along the Riverwalk in Durham City. Six were green and 30 were red. The six green hearts represented the one in six people who have a hidden disability. Called Invisible Hearts it acted as a catalyst for dialogue about disability. Steph once again volunteered as a festival maker for Lumiere 2021 and in some conversations with visitors did reveal herself as the artist of Invisible Hearts. Steph says how she, “designed the piece to make a statement about invisible disabilities but didn’t want it to be ‘in your face’. It strikes a balance between helping others understand more about hidden disabilities and mental health issues whilst being an enjoyable visual experience.”
Whatever Steph does next, she is determined not to let her hidden disability be a hinderance and has turned it into a positive. She is now confident and accepting of her disability and determined it will not stop her. Her immediate focus is progressing further as an artist within the special effects industry both on stage and screen, but also within the community, and is “over the moon” that as we come out of Covid she can once again give face to face workshops for Look Good Feel Better helping ladies with cancer.
Backing Durham’s bid
Both Mick and Steph agree that the prospect of County Durham being UK City of Culture 2025 is amazing. Steph thinks the county is often overlooked and there is so much to shout about. Mick comments how there is a burst of energy about the place with the bid providing a focus and it would be fantastic if the county were to win.