This is the sixth in a series of interviews to be published monthly via my blog page, with a selection of Artists & Artisans based in the North East of England. The series is scheduled to run for the next year and we’ve already heard from Stephen Richardson of SPQR Design, Amanda and Alison of Driftworks Tidal Art, James Pocklington of Pocklington Art, Freddie Matthews of Hanging By a Fred and Helen Hardy of Helen Hardy Art! Quite the talented bunch - Check out the interviews here.
Now, it’s the turn of Ben Staves who runs StavesArt, an art business which focuses on creating intricately detailed architectural pen drawings of ‘globe cities. Ben produces a range of fantastic products featuring his wonderful designs including coasters, mugs, bags and his unique prints and originals. Ben’s growing his artistic business whilst also completing a degree in architecture at Northumbria University and he has a particular passion for sports stadium design, which meant that our conversation bounced around quite a bit from fine art - to the merits of the design of Manchester City’s Etihad stadium complex - to the (very appealing) possibility of demolishing Anfield with the click of a button. And it’s abundantly clear that Ben’s talent and potential points to an exciting and successful future both in his artwork and his architecture.
So, brew a cuppa, put your feet up for a few minutes and enjoy!
Ben's 'Edinburgh Globe'
We meet at Starbucks next to Grey’s Monument in the centre of Newcastle, which has been Ben’s home since starting his University degree 4 years ago. Previous to that, Ben spent his early years in Leeds, but Newcastle has always been engrained in his life, thanks in part to his parent’s influence, both Ben’s mum and dad went to Newcastle University, but also due to his own interest in Sports stadiums; their design and the impact that they can have on the places and communities immediately surrounding them – Newcastle United’s St James Park being a superb example.
From Rovers to Rhino’s to Magpies
As we talk, Ben references the three elements that have developed as his passions in both his academic studies and his fledgling art business; ‘sport, architecture and drawing’. And if you take a look at Ben’s artwork you see the sport and architecture shining through in the intricate and angular detail of his pieces and the inclusion of sporting stadia and landmarks. And, all of this can be traced back to Ben’s childhood:
‘My Dad came from Doncaster and as a kid he watched Doncaster Rovers with his Dad (my Grandad) and actually worked at Belle View (Rovers ground) along with his brother-in-law selling raffle tickets. He then went to University in Newcastle and started to follow Newcastle United, and he passed that on to me, so I’ve supported Newcastle from a young age’.
I can relate to this. My Dad was born and bred in Manchester, and in my childhood all I heard about were the tales of the brilliance of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton – hence my love for Manchester United. But football isn’t Ben’s primary sporting passion – he’s a Rugby League man! This, again, is due largely to his Dad’s decision to take him to see the Leeds Rhino’s at a young age; ‘When I was 9, Dad was going to take us to watch Leeds United, however, it was at the time that Leeds Rhinos were offering free tickets to school kids and so we went there instead, and we’ve been hooked ever since’.
These early sporting memories, and the time spent with his Dad watching Football and Rugby League around the UK provide the genesis of Ben’s particular passion for his intricate city-globe pieces; ‘I used to draw whilst my Dad was watching football’, Ben recalls, ‘I would draw the kits, the stadiums, the football imagery’.
And, much like the latest John Lewis Christmas advert tracing Elton John’s pianistic genius back to an early Christmas gift of a piano, you can see Ben’s talents starting to develop to the backdrop of Tino Asprilla putting Barcelona to the sword in the Champions League on the TV.
One for us Geordies - Ben's 'Newcastle Globe'
And so, Ben is now in the final year of his Architecture degree at Northumbria University (again following in his fathers’ footsteps), and you won’t be surprised to learn that the topic for his final year dissertation is…’the potential that sports stadia have to help to regenerate cities’. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but being a fellow sports fan, and having worked with Sunderland Football Club to review one of their many community projects, I have seen just what an influence for good football clubs and their stadiums can be.
However, it’s at this point in our conversation that Ben starts to reference Manchester City and their Etihad stadium as a great example of positive stadium design. Now, being a Man United fan, this is a bitter pill to swallow – but even I must admit that ‘Citeh’ have got it right as Ben explains:
‘Man City is a great example of considering how the community can become a part of the football stadium and can feel included. City have the Etihad stadium itself, and then across a footbridge is the first team training complex which sits next to that the Man City Women’s stadium, then the reserve team pitches, junior pitches and finally a set of community pitches all linked. So local kids can be playing on the community pitches whilst the first team are training a stone’s throw away’.
There is a highfalutin term for this, it’s called ‘inclusive design’ – where those who will end up using a building or a space are included in the initial design process to make sure the final designs are fit for their intended purpose. It’s really just common sense, but so often in the past it hasn’t happened, and the design process has been a ‘them and us’ situation. A developer building to their own designs whether the end-users like it or not.
But design, just like Ben’s artwork is an evolutionary process, with building standards, the materials used and the idea of best practice changing constantly. And, so Ben’s artwork is continually evolving too.
'Down Town NYC' - work in progress
‘Can you just delete Anfield please…’
Ben now has an Etsy site selling his work, which includes a range of prints, coasters, mugs and bags. He is stocked in the For The Love Of The North store and The Time Freezer store in the new Stack development in Newcastle City Centre and in the North East Art Collective in Newcastle’s Eldon Square shopping centre. He also has a very popular stall at Tynemouth Market most weeks, but I’m interested to know where his art business all started:
‘Well, I did art all the way through school and achieved a ‘C’ at A-level and when I went to University, I was just experimenting with my style and as the course required us to consider city planning, I started to draw more and more city-scapes. In-fact, the first assignment I was ever given at Uni, was to map out part of the City of Newcastle around Central Station area. My designs flowed from there. I loved the work of Stephen Wiltshire and so started to develop designs based on his kind of incredibly detailed pen and ink drawings. A friend of the family spotted a drawing I’d done and asked me to do one of London, for which they paid me. The idea of setting up the business grew from there with a view initially to helping to pay the University fees’.
From these beginnings, Ben did what this generation do, he set up his own website and then replaced that with his Etsy site, which provided a gateway to the online marketplace, and his online sales are going ‘steadily’ at present.
In and amongst this steady beginning is the constant evolution of Ben’s artwork. From pen and ink drawings accurately mapping cities, Ben has taken note not only of his own stylistic preferences – but also those of his customers. Just like the architect including his or her clients and end-users in the initial designs, Ben has noted the comments made by his customers and adjusted his style:
‘My style has changed quite a bit over time. I’m not being so careful with my accuracy at the moment – what I’m focussing on is what customers and friends have told me they’d like to see if they were going to buy one of my city globes. So now, when I begin a new piece, I start by googling ‘top landmarks’ in that city, because I’m thinking about accentuating the key landmarks that the City is known for, not getting the scale absolutely correct’. And as this style develops, so Ben can indulge his particular preferences…which of course include Sports Stadiums!
‘I recently drew the City of Glasgow and from both a personal and commercial point of view I wanted to get both Ibrox (Rangers ground) and Celtic Park into the piece. To do that I had to sacrifice some tenement buildings…but I put that down to artistic license and I don’t think my customers would mind too much’.
And this ability to be flexible with his work, led to a comedic online exchange with an Everton fan who was interested in buying Ben’s Liverpool Globe, but only if he would ‘remove Anfield’ (Liverpool’s stadium), which, with the magic of Photoshop Ben was able to do.
'The Sunderland Globe'
In chatting to Ben, you get an impression of how much fun he’s beginning to have in this evolutionary journey. And the beauty of his product, is that the world really is his oyster! There are so many themes and ideas that could be applied to his work, the mind boggles.
‘I’m having such fun with my artwork. Not adhering absolutely to the correct scale means I can be freer with my creativity. For instance, if you were applying a scale to my London globe-city, St Paul’s would be about 5 miles wide’. And Ben’s even had a bit of a Where’s Wally moment; ‘I’ve been hiding things in the pieces, like a fleet of London buses’. That broadens the appeal of Ben’s work across the age range – and at Tynemouth Market, Ben encourages youngsters to search his drawings to see if they can find particular hidden items.
And there’s even a nod to Steven Spielburg’s powerful use of colour in his epic film Schindler’s List. Speilburg filmed Schindler’s List in black and white, all except for a little girl in a red coat, who stood out so starkly and so memorably from the background; ‘I’ve started to add colour too, just little bits here and there so it’s not too overpowering, but just enough so that it brings certain elements of the drawing to the fore’.
And the evolution will continue as more ideas emerge and develop. In-fact, Ben’s already developing the next iteration which is going to focus on an ‘historical city’ taking us back in history…but that’s a discussion for another time.
The completed 'NYC Globe'
And what does the future hold?
As we draw our conversation to a close, I’m keen to understand what the future holds for Ben. He’s a few months away from completing his degree, his art business has gained traction and is looking promising…so what next?
‘As the business has grown, it has made me think hard about my next steps’ Ben explains, ‘Whilst I really love architecture and I’ve enjoyed the course at Uni here in Northumbria immensely (though not so much the £80k student debt), my real passion lies in my artwork. So, I’ve met up with a graduate enterprise group that works alongside Northumbria Uni and they along with my better half Amy and my parents are going to support me to go full time with StavesArt after I graduate in May. My plan B is a job in architecture, which isn’t too bad is it’?
It goes without saying that this is a big decision, but it’s abundantly clear that Ben has done his due diligence and reasoned it through with his nearest and dearest. Given his talent and the potential to take his artistic products to a much wider market, this feels like a passion and a business that will with dedication and 24/7 blood, sweat and tears will only grow. Indeed, I’ll be tracking his work from now on, as one of the products he’s recently developed is a Hogwarts Globe – which, given that I and my eldest Niece are big Harry Potter Fans, may well lead to a print shaped present under the tree this Christmas.
The Pink Panther's home - 'Durham City Globe'.
Finally, I want to know where Ben finds his inspiration?
‘Well, aside from my parents and my Dad’s sporting influence, my Nan was very arty, and I can remember going with her to an art-class she used to attend. Drawing and being creative was always just there in my family. In-fact, my Dad, having taken geography at Uni, then became an Accountant before setting up his own landscaping business where he would hand draw his landscape designs.
‘I had great teachers for my A-Levels; Mrs Barraclough and Mrs Brown in particular, but I suppose a key artistic influence is Stephen Wiltshire - https://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/ - an autistic artist who draws city scapes. He has a photographic memory and so he has this almost unbelievable ability to see a scene once and then draw it. For his New York piece, he literally went up above New York in a helicopter for maybe half an hour and created this incredible panoramic piece simply from that one helicopter ride’.
That’s pretty mind-blowing. But then again, I think Ben’s work and the way that he has developed his art business is pretty mind blowing too.
You can find out more about Ben and see more of his art work if you wish in the following places: