After a 25-year absence from the studio, the renowned gallery director Stephen Snoddy started creating his own art again in 2013. The resulting work from the past decade is about to go on show at Manchester’s Saul Hay Gallery.I used to work with Stephen at Manchester’s Cornerhouse in the 1990s. When I caught up with him to find out what’s been going on, it was via Zoom and we had just 45 minutes. But as the online meeting’s end was heralded by the dreaded one-minute warning, I hadn’t asked a single question about Stephen’s return to creating his own art after decades of gallery management and his current exhibition. Why? Because to spend a few minutes with the affable Mr Snoddy is to find yourself chatting about all manner of things, such is the ease with which old relationships of worth are easy to fall back into, and such is the jovial character of the man.Anyway, we did run out of time, so, after a ten-minute coffee break, we set up a new meeting. Northern Soul: As a student you were prolific and graduated from the Belfast Collage of Art with a Fine Art MA in 1983. Four years later you stopped, and it took 26 years for you to get back to that part of your creativity. Why did you stop?
Stephen Snoddy: I moved to Manchester from Belfast in 1986 to do a postgraduate in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. I was already working as an artist back in Belfast. I decided that this postgrad would help me to get a job in the art world because trying to make it as an artist would be incredibly difficult. I was very lucky to start a new job at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol the Monday after my final exam so I had no real breathing space between doing the postgraduate and starting a proper job. It very quickly became apparent that I couldn’t be an artist and organise exhibitions. It felt that I had to make a distinction between one and the other.Every year, the Arts Council in Northern Ireland would do a showcase of young artists, and me and two others were asked to do it but I was heading off to Manchester, but it was a big deal. But I started the job and, of course, you have to pretend you know what you’re doing, and there was the added difficulty of moving from Northern Ireland to England in 1986. Anyway, the man from the Arts Council phoned and asked how the preparations were going and I realised I just couldn’t do it. So I wrote to the man at the Arts Council and asked them to give my opportunity to another young artist. I realised I couldn’t do both. So I built a career.NS: What brought you back to it? I believe it was something that your Mum showed you.SS: Around about 2007/8, I visited the studio of the artist Christopher Le Brun in Camberwell in South London. He became President of the Royal Academy of Arts but, back then, he hadn’t had a show in public gallery in donkey’s years. I Iike doing exhibitions by artists who have something to say but for whatever reason, fashion, age, have been slightly forgotten. I got to his studio and it was like a dream studio – just wonderful. And he’s an accomplished artist, an all-rounder, and it was being in his studio and seeing so much of his work that brought the feeling back to me. I knew I wanted to make art again.It coincided with a trip back to Belfast and my Mum had found a book of monotypes titled ‘8 x 8’ I’d done in the second year at art college in 1981. I’d put them in a black bound book, and I’d forgotten about it. And here they were, 30 years later, and they looked as fresh as they did back then because they’d been sitting a drawer at Mum’s home. It was a catalyst. I got very quickly back into the swing of it. It came back naturally.I met my wife Sandra at art college, and Christmas 2012 she bought me some brushes and paint because I’d been nattering on about it, so she got me these brushes and told me to get on with it. I’d scanned these monotypes and started working with them so wasn’t starting from scratch, I had something to work with. If you haven’t played the piano for years you not going to start with Shostakovich. But once I started, I was off.

NS: We used to work together in the 1990s at Cornerhouse when you were the exhibitions director. Your career has seen you working in venues like the Baltic, Southampton City Art Gallery, The NAG in Walsall, and you’ve worked with many high-profile artists, including Maggi Hambling, John Baldissari and Chris Ofili. What do you find more rewarding? Creating or facilitating creation?
SS: That’s a very good question and I think it’s a bit of both. But, as I move towards the end of my career, it’s definitely moved towards my own art making. There’s no doubt that when I stopped making art all those years ago, all of the creativity that went into working in so many venues with so many artists, all of that curatorial stuff gave me immense satisfaction. It felt as creative.For me, the most important thing was always the audience, not me as a curator, not the art world. We did football shows at Cornerhouse in 1996 when the Euro Cup Finals were in England. I always wanted to create programmes that mixed contemporary art with things reflecting what else was going on that attracted people. Those types of programmes gave me immense creativity and satisfaction, as did the opening of the Milton Keynes Gallery with Gilbert & George – that was one of the highlights.When I started making work again in 2013, it was a dual thing for a while. Plus, I’d been working away from home for 24 years. But what I found that, when I was making my art I completely cut off from the worries about funding, staffing, buildings, politics, Arts Council. I stopped worrying about my day job. And that actually made me focus more when I was at work. I was worried about what my peers might think about me creating again. Other directors might think ‘so Stephen thinks he’s an artist now?’ And artists might think I could use my position in the art world to promote my own work, so that all held me back. But then I just thought ‘fuck it’, I just want to do it. I don’t care. Genuinely, it was the motivation of just wanting to make some work.

NS: What can we expect from your new show?
SS: I’ll be showing the very first painting I did when I kickstarted myself in 2013, right up to work I have just finished. So, I aim to show works from every single year from the past 10 years across the whole spectrum – paintings on paper, on canvas, pastel drawings, monotypes, with examples of all the different types of work I make. It’ll be mixed up not chronological. I think it’ll look like the Royal Academy Summer Show. Loads of works, paintings against drawings against prints.


Stephen Snoddy TEN is at Saul Hay Gallery from June 3-25, 2023. For more information, click here.