I am following Luke Evans through the country lanes of Herefordshire when he slams on his brake lights. He jumps out cheerfully and walks back to update me. “My studio is just down there but we’re going to have to wait because the farmer is taking his cows across the road.”
It’s safe to say Luke’s choice of location is unusual. After the herd is ensconced in a new field, we drive into a charmingly ramshackle courtyard and Luke throws open the wooden doors to his studio. The contrast stepping through from the rolling fields of one of England’s most picturesque counties is jarring; suddenly we could be in any smart east London photo studio. There’s concrete floors and whitewashed walls and his pride and joy – a Sinar P2 8×10 camera – set up facing a huge pockmarked rock. But there’s quirkier touches too – a wall of power tools and a gleaming pole in the middle (where Luke’s boyfriend, a professional dancer likes to practise).
Luke graduated from Kingston last summer and left London in the autumn. After a series of underwhelming meetings with agencies – “They told me I’d die if I was was stuck there working on Boots posters” – he resolved to develop his own practice rather than relying on commissions.
“I needed to pay attention to what was going well, rather than what I thought may go well,” he says. “Once I realised that, I didn’t need to be in a certain place to make the work that I want to make. Why not come back to this remote, beautiful place in the middle of nowhere and see what happens?” Initially he found an extraordinary space, a 3,000 square foot former munitions factory which seemed to be the prefect base for his ambitious, unusual and often very large-scale work, but that fell through after the local council decided to sell it off for development.
He looked at lots of options before being shown the one that would finally become this studio we’re standing in, but he admits he wasn’t immediately convinced. “It had a wattle and daub ceiling and the floor was dipped because of all the cows walking on it. It stank and it was literally falling to pieces. It took a massive leap of the imagination to think this is where I am going to base my work.”
There is a young mother who lives in the cottage attached to the barn and when she found out Luke was a photographer she asked if he could do a portrait of her baby. “I am not sure she realised what sort of photographer I am,” he laughs.
In fact he’s a hard creative to categorise. As a teenager he wanted to be a contemporary dancer, and moved to Berlin while studying for his A-Levels, rehearsing until 11pm, revising until 3am, sleeping for a few hours then starting all over again at 6am. He became interested in image-making and wanted a degree that combined practical skills and conceptual thinking, finding a natural home on the Kingston Graphic Design and Photography course.
“There’s a romance about an artist roaming round having his spark – no, I’m sat on a chair grinding my brain out onto a sheet of paper."
But Luke didn’t find it easy going at first. He visibly cringes remembering his first crit: “the worst thing I have ever done.” His group was given the bladder and told to respond to it in some way. “There were balloons and weird drawings; it was just like looking at someone who can’t think, the inside of their brain. After that I realised I had to do something different, so I was working, working, working, really racking my brains and trying to outwit myself.”
He has a very rigorous way of developing his ideas, almost all of which begin as lists or statements he writes. “There’s a romance about an artist roaming round having his spark – no, I’m sat on a chair grinding my brain out onto a sheet of paper. Then I whittle it down into an idea and go off and see what works and what doesn’t.
“I work slowly because I rip myself apart. I come up with an idea and think that’s not going to work or that’s not interesting or I just don’t care.”
If the process sounds gruelling the results prove it’s certainly effective. Luke’s projects have ranged from Forge – where he created amazing miniature landscapes of raging seas and otherworldly plains on his kitchen table – to Xero, where he draws with electricity, firing a 400,000 volt Van der Graaff generator onto a piece of acrylic and visualising the effects using photocopying toner. I particularly like the series where he went round collecting the selfies people took (and left) on display models in Apple stores (so did the D&AD New Blood jury, and his Yellow Pencil sits proudly in his barn-cum-studio).
There’s craft and cleverness and mischief in his work, as well as a giddy sense of “what if?” thinking that’s almost childlike in its purity. This combination is best exemplified in Inside Out, a collaborative project he did with Josh Lake as the final project in their first year. The pair ate 35mm film, let it pass through their digestive systems then scanned the film and exhibited the large prints that resemble silvery satellite shots.
Luke says they realised it was “the most art school thing you can think of” but the key was to make sure the end results were beguiling and intriguing in themselves. “I hate it when people think just because you have an interesting process that no matter what you make at the end is going to be awesome, because it’s not. At the end of the day you have to make something that looks stunning or the idea hasn’t worked. We were scared it would look shit.”
In fact the early results were unpromising; developed as photographs the pictures comprised of dull green and white blobs. It was only when the idea of scanning and enlarging the film came up that everything clicked. A passing third year student saw the early tests and suggested they send it to Creative Review, and from there things went crazy.
“Overnight, literally, it just went mad and you couldn’t grab hold of it anymore,” Luke remembers. “Once you’ve put it out there it clones itself and it becomes like Chinese whispers. Loads of people thought we had lied and the comments sections on some of the tech blogs were terrible. To be fair we had no proof; we didn’t film ourselves or do a behind-the-scenes, because we had never intended to share it.”
It was one of those stories that transcended creative media; on one Brazilian news website the story had six million views. The Saatchi Gallery ended up buying the entire series, as well as Forge.
Luke thinks the experience made him more self-aware, and ultimately encouraged him to make better work because he knew people were interested in him after the success of Inside Out. But the experience of being turned on by some of the online community was difficult and Luke has to work hard not to let potential criticisms stop him following his creative instincts. “When I put something out, people will try to pull it apart. It can be really damaging when that kind of thinking comes in at the beginning.”
After leaving Kingston last summer he felt himself at a crossroads. He worked with several brands and magazines like The Gourmand on commissioned projects, but became a little frustrated – “I was dying to do whatever the fuck I wanted.”
Inspired by artists like Ryan McGinley and aware thanks to his Google Analytics “addiction” that people were interested in his work, he decided to follow his own path. “I knew people were looking at my work and I needed to decide what kind of people they were. I kind of decided I want to be more a part of the art world.”
“I was dying to do whatever the fuck I wanted. I decided I want to be more a part of the art world.”
This led to the move to Hereford but in March this year, with the studio coming together and a number of exciting projects in the pipeline, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“It was shit. It was really shit. I was so ready to get in there and I had all these ideas. It affected me in so many different ways – I realised I am not invincible, that there were times I needed to stop and focus on me. I had never done that, for three years at uni I had killed myself. I was in awful physical shape, had a crap diet, was depressed a lot, unhappy with the work, anxious about where I was going. I was in a massive state when I left uni.”
Thanks to a swift operation and a course of drugs Luke’s hoping to get the all-clear soon, and although he doesn’t romanticise the experience, he’s positive about some of the changes it brought about. For example he took up archery to help with his general health – he’s so good he’s now made the county team.
The impression you get is of coiled energy – he just wants to unleash the creative ideas that have been backing up since his diagnosis. He is in talks with an agent, and is set to travel to South America to make giant sculptures harnessing lightning bolts in the stormiest place on earth. He’s also been talking to a British Army expert who has been advising him about a series of sculptures he wants to make that capture explosions, setting off bombs in huge bits of clay and casting the spaces created within. There have been tests which he shows me in the studio but he wants to scale up – there’s talk of using a crane. “I make everything very difficult for myself,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”