At the end, I’m always a guy from a little island living abroad | Steven Scicluna

Malta-born, Spain-based illustrator Steven Scicluna speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about creating community-conscious art across national borders ahead of his participation in the upcoming Spread the Ink exhibition

Steven Scicluna
Steven Scicluna

Could you give us a brief run-down of your trajectory as an artist and illustrator? What were some of the highlights of your career so far, and what would you say are some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt along the way?

As someone who studied graphic design and later illustration, and is a self-taught artist, my trajectory has always been informed by these three creative pathways. They often intertwine, run parallel to each other and most definitely serve as a source of inspiration to one another. Over the years I’ve had the chance to work as a designer and illustrator in a number of studios in London and Valencia and now work as a freelancer on a global level. In the process I’ve also had the chance to hold or participate in a number of exhibitions across Europe and even Asia.

Looking back, there are a few projects that stand out. I find that the most memorable ones are collaborations or projects which involved a team of people rather than solo work. The time spent working on the woodcut illustrations for Antoine Cassar’s long poem Erbgħin Jum (Ede Books) was a highlight, which I worked on together with my friend and designer Marco Scerri and Antoine himself. Even if we collaborated really closely on the project, Antoine gave us the freedom we needed to produce something which we were ultimately all really pleased with.

Another standout was the N15 Street Art & Culture Festival which I organised together with a small group of friends back in 2015 in the neighbourhood of Seven Sisters in London, which is where I lived at the time. We organised the whole thing really quickly, in a matter of two or three weeks, and at the end managed to bring together a bunch of artists and local establishments to celebrate the multi-cultural community of the neighbourhood, and paint the facade of a local community centre in the process.

I would say that the biggest lesson I’ve learned is in balancing the need of creating art for personal reasons with using it to create some kind of social change. While I still value art as a tool for self exploration and expression, I’m equally as happy using art, design and illustration as a way of collaborating and making some sort of contribution.

Steven Scicluna organised the N15 Street Art & Culture Festival in the Seven Sisters neighbourhood in London, where he lived at the time
Steven Scicluna organised the N15 Street Art & Culture Festival in the Seven Sisters neighbourhood in London, where he lived at the time

How do you feel about your Maltese background now that you’ve spent so much time living abroad, and how have the enduring memories of Malta impacted on your art, if at all?

This is an interesting question. While my background and upbringing in Malta is not something that has or will ever change, I feel that there has definitely been a shift in the way I handle and perceive it. It might seem obvious, but over time you come to realise how defining your early years really are to your identity. They become a sort of anchor, something you keep coming back to and a yardstick by which to measure new experiences. When I lived in Malta, I yearned to get out and explore the wider world. I tried to channel this sense of curiosity into producing art (how and whenever I could) and I don’t think that this has ever changed since then, even after experiencing life in a number of other countries and lands. At the end, I’m always a guy from a little island living abroad.

What are some of the main challenges – both creative and logistical – that you face as an artist in your day-to-day practice?

Ah, where to start! Challenges are the very engine of creative careers. For people who work solo such as I do, self-control and maintaining a routine is crucial if you want to get stuff done.. and it takes a while to learn these things and actually start implementing them in your daily life. I could be a fairly moody and erratic person – which is great for creating art and sparking off ideas, but maybe not so much for keeping a steady routine, even though this has changed a lot over the years. So, I would say that trying to achieve a balance between these two ways of working is one big challenge that I face on a day-to-day basis.

How closely are you following the Maltese visual arts scene these days? From what you can see, what would you change about it?

I try to follow it as closely as I can. It is now easier than ever to do so from afar, especially this year with everything moving online. I also try to stay as involved as I can within it through collaborations with other Maltese creatives, commissions and client work, and other projects such as helping set up the Malta Community of Illustrators (MCOI) together with other Maltese and Malta-based illustrators earlier this year.

My impression is that the visual arts scene is more prominent, international and sophisticated than ever, with plenty of new art spaces serving it, both online and offline.

It also seems to have gained a certain self-confidence which was sorely missing from the more DIY art scene of my youth, maybe as a result of the help that new institutions such as Arts Council Malta are providing. Of course, there’s always room for improvement and it would be great to see the country as a whole benefit more from the wealth of talent that is available on the island at the moment.

A piece from Contracompositions, a solo exhibition of paintings by Steven Scicluna which ran as part of Valencia Design Week 2017
A piece from Contracompositions, a solo exhibition of paintings by Steven Scicluna which ran as part of Valencia Design Week 2017

How does it feel to form part of the upcoming Spread the Ink exhibition? Are you glad for your work to be exhibited on home turf, so to speak, and do you feel a particular affinity to the process whereby Alexandra Aquilina recreates your work using screenprinting methods?

I couldn’t be more glad! I’ve known Alex for quite a few years now and also know a few of the other artists who will be contributing to the exhibition quite well, so it’s great to finally get the chance to work together and get some work shown locally. It was also nice to revisit the technique of screenprinting, which I hadn’t used in quite a few years.

Screenprinting is a printing method that requires precise craftsmanship and a good knowledge of colours, tints and paper types, amongst other things. This exhibition is exciting because of the stylistic range that will be on show, yet this diversity also means that the printing of each artwork would have needed to be well-planned and researched by Alex beforehand.

Being a manual printing method, it is normal for a set of screenprints to have slight defects in registration (the precise layering of different layers of color) and color output, but from the few photos I’ve seen of the printed version of my submission so far, the results look absolutely fantastic. Can’t wait to see how Alex managed to deal with some of the other submissions.

What’s next for you?

Plenty of things. Myself and Sara [wife and designer] are currently co-directing and putting the final touches on a new online Masters in Branding course for a university here in Valencia, which is keeping us fairly busy at the moment. Back in Malta with the MCOI, I am also involved in developing a couple of projects over the coming months (including Malta’s first ever illustration annual), all of which should help increase the opportunities available to local illustrators. Finally, I’m also working on a research project together with a team of Maltese designers and curators which aims to shed some much-needed light on the history of Maltese graphic arts, its origins and issues surrounding the theme of national visual identity. It’s a project that’s been in the pipeline for quite some time, so it’s great to finally have the time to work on it.

Spread the Ink will be on display at Desko, St Lucy Street, Valletta from September 17 to 24. Opening hours: 11:00-14:00, 16:00-19:00 (Monday to Friday) and 11:00-15:00 (Saturday). Due to the pandemic, only groups of four people will be allowed at the gallery at a given time.

Visitors are asked to practice social distancing and wear masks while inside. The participating artists include: Alexandra Aquilina, Magda Azab, Nigel Baldacchino, Matthew Cardona, Valentina Fyorh Attard, Chris ‘Sea Puppy’ Jensen, Eric Leone, Illenia ‘Illy’ Madaro, Marietta Mifsud, Pierre Portelli, Zvezdan Reljic, Steven Scicluna, and Moria Zahra. The project is supported by Arts Council Malta

Spread the Ink will be on display at Desko, St Lucy Street, Valletta from September 17 to 24. Opening hours: 11:00-14:00, 16:00-19:00 (Monday to Friday) and 11:00-15:00 (Saturday). Due to the pandemic, only groups of four people will be allowed at the gallery at a given time. Visitors are asked to practice social distancing and wear masks while inside. The participating artists include: Alexandra Aquilina, Magda Azab, Nigel Baldacchino, Matthew Cardona, Valentina Fyorh Attard, Chris ‘Sea Puppy’ Jensen, Eric Leone, Illenia ‘Illy’ Madaro, Marietta Mifsud, Pierre Portelli, Zvezdan Reljic, Steven Scicluna, and Moria Zahra. The project is supported by Arts Council Malta

More in Art