I met Alex Evans on a clear sunny Wednesday morning at his studio in Tower Bridge. Alex became Tower Bridge’s first artist in residence earlier in 2017 and as we walked around the impressive structure of the bridge he tells me a bit about how this came about.
Alex’s background is in drama and he only took the plunge and fully committed to his art in 2011, so it is impressive how much he has achieved already. When Tower Bridge put out a call for an artist in residence at the end of 2016, Alex felt that his work would be ideally suited to the project and he began to address the idea of “Beauty or beast, Tower Bridge is a living showpiece of Victorian art and architecture…”.
His application was successful and he has thrown himself into the challenge of capturing the unique building that is Tower Bridge.
Fast forward 6 months and as we walk around the bridge, unusually quiet and free from tourists, Alex begins to tell me about how Tower Bridge has inspired him throughout his residency. First we talk about the enormity of the operation - including the heritage, education and maintenance teams, Tower Bridge employs over 80 people. Engaging with this community is crucial for Alex. He tells me that meeting all the people that make Tower Bridge tick has been incredibly inspiring and helped him interpret the bridge for his residency.
As we continue up through the south tower and up on to one of Tower Bridge’s two observation walkways - which are open to the public daily between 10 and 17:30 - it is clear that Alex is an artist completely immersed in his surroundings. We stop and lie face down over the glass floor, looking down on to the Thames so Alex can show me the shadow cast by the bridge on to the pavement below. It is a secret view of the structure and its place within the landscape and I feel enormously privileged to have been shown it.
Alex goes on to tell me a story about when he was working late in his studio during a storm. He asked the maintenance team if he could go up to the walkway and watch the bridge open from above. The excitement in his voice is clear as he recalls lying down right above the middle of the bridge and watching it open until he was staring straight down into the Thames surrounded by the elements.
It is amazing to see the intimate knowledge Alex has built up during his time at Tower Bridge. Coming to work here every day has given him a perspective of the building that very few people get to see and his joy at sharing this is clear.
When we get back to Alex’s studio, a wonderful space situated in the south tower, we start to talk in more detail about his work and how his practice has evolved whilst in residence here. Alex has traditionally used pen to render his incredibly detailed geometric drawings but this residency has allowed him to explore other methods of draughtsmanship.
He shows me drawings done with a 3D pen, contour drawings and drawings he has printed on to silk. He tells me about plans to do laser etchings on copper, steel and Portland stone – this latter material in particular holds a special fascination for Alex. Not only does Portland stone have huge significance to the architectural history of London but its physical characteristics make it ideally suited to Alex’s work.
Tower Bridge is clad almost entirely in Portland stone and the material’s soft nature makes it susceptible to erosion. Alex has been fascinated by the patterns nature has created on the bridge and he enthusiastically talks about taking microscopic photos of the patterns formed by erosion, lichen and rust forming on the bridge. “I like to think of the bridge as a living building” he tells me and he has combined these organic patterns with the geometric patterns of the bridge’s architecture in his work.
“My work is often about dissolution” he continues “breaking down patterns and then building them up again”. HIs exploration of the countless patterns, both natural and man-made, within Tower Bridge, alongside his experimentation with different materials have certainly brought the structure to life as a work of Victorian art and architecture.
As we talk about both the bridge and Alex’s work sharing an organic or living element our conversation turns to The Big Draw and the 2017 festival theme - Living Lines: An Animated Big Draw. Although it might not seem like it at first animation has played a huge part in Alex’s work and career.
“My drawings are inherently an animation as they are all about growth, both organic and geometric” Alex explains. He uses a projector to show me how he creates his work, starting with a hexagonal pattern which is then repeated until he builds up the insanely detailed cityscapes which are the signature of his work. You can see this process in the GIF below. Once Alex has shown me this it is immediately clear how his work contains core elements of animation even if not in the traditional sense.
Animation and the moving image has also been central to Alex’s success as an artist. He tells me about how Vine - a video hosting service where users share 6 second videos - was crucial in getting him noticed. Alex started to use the service as viewers assumed his work was computer generated and Vine allowed him to show people his process in an accessible way.
“People remember Vine for comedy, and that was definitely a big part of it, but there was also a massive artistic community”. Alex goes on to tell me that the great thing about Vine was that “it allowed me to invite the viewer into my studio”. He continues to do this using his own GIFs after the closure of the service earlier this year.
As well as helping him showcase his work, Vine also garnered Alex critical acclaim. In 2016 he was nominated for a Shorty Award, an award honouring the very best of social media, in New York. He tells me that this was a pivotal moment in his career as it gave him both exposure and the confidence to move forward. There is no doubt his career has gone from strength to strength since and Alex’s awareness of the power of the moving image has played a huge part in this.
Alex’s interest in animation has only grown over the years. In 2016 he collaborated with Greenwich University to create a stop motion animation by cutting up some of his drawings and creating a moving image using Greenwich’s state of art equipment. You can see the work below.
Following on from this Alex worked on a further project called Paper Cities with Greenwich University, Emergency Exit Arts and Year 4 pupils from James Wolfe School in Greenwich. The students created a stop motion animated city using drawing and collage. The result is this fantastic video with music from Arjunan Manuelpillai. You can watch the video in full here.
We finish our visit by having a chat about The Big Draw more generally and our message of visual literacy. I ask Alex what visual literacy means to him.
“Confidence” he replies immediately “It is all about confidence as an artist or as a viewer. There are no wrong answers when it comes to drawing - it is about having the confidence to commit pen to paper”.
“I always loved art when I was at school” Alex continues “because it was something I could do on my own and take time to think and create. I was very lucky that I was supported by my teachers but I think a lot of people have it squashed out of them at school.”
Alex goes on to explain why visual literacy is so important to him as a professional artist. “I think a lot of artists are scared or unable to articulate their work to others. If I can’t write about my work and if I can’t speak about my work, then who will?”
Having spent 2 hours with Alex there is no doubt that he can speak about his work with a nuance and self-awareness that is unusual to find in today’s world of hot takes and snackable content. It was a truly wonderful experience to have Alex give me a window into his residency at Tower Bridge and I am looking forward to seeing more of his outstanding work.
If you want to find out more about Alex’s work check out his website here or you can follow him on Twitter @evansalexevans or on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/alexevansart/.
In addition if you want to see the work that Alex has been creating during his residency at Tower Bridge there will be a exhibition at the bridge in July. You can also find out more about Tower Bridge's artist in residence and it's learning and cultural outreach programmes here.
Tower Bridge also run monthly familly learning activities which will tie in with The Big Draw festival in October which you can find out all about right here.
We hope our chat with Alex has inspired you to get involved with The Big Draw this year! Sign up to take part in the festival here.