As a way to meet the neighbours it’s certainly novel. When actor Steve Huison escaped the urban sprawl and moved to Robin Hood’s Bay, he didn’t know a single soul. A year on, he knows pretty much everyone in the pretty fishing village and has painted the portraits of most of them.
“Lots of people are tempted to move to the coast, tempted by the idea that it will be some beautiful idyll, but the reality is of course very different,” says Huison, who had spent the 20 years previously living in Shipley. “I suddenly didn’t have friends I could go out with and I am naturally quite a gregarious person. I think we are all better when we are surrounded by other people and as an actor I’m fascinated by characters and the way that every face tells a story.
“I’d had some work on display at the Eat Me cafe in Scarborough and through that the Pyramid Gallery in York contacted me and asked if I would like to stage an exhibition there. You don’t turn those kind of invites down and the timing couldn’t have been better. I needed to get out and meet people and painting their portraits was the perfect introduction.”
Over the following nine months, Steve, best known for playing Lomper in The Fully Monty, completed dozens of drawings and sketches, which have now been whittled down to 15 portraits for the exhibition which opened yesterday.
Alongside a couple of landscapes of the place he now calls home, the collection includes delicate ink portraits of artist Louis Hughes, cafe owner Luke Pearson, who according to Huison also happens to have the voice of Otis Redding, and professional drummer Steve Cooper.
Huison bumped into some of his subjects while wandering the cobbled streets of Robin Hood’s Bay, but most he met in the bar of the Grosvenor Hotel. Perched at the top of a hill, overlooking the Bay, the Grosvenor has become a bit of a magnet for the area’s creative types.
“It is the social hub of the village and every Tuesday night the locals gather to play music. It’s become a bit of a tradition and it’s led by blues guitarist Steve Phillips who used to be in The Notting Hillbillies, along with Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.
“It’s just a lovely atmosphere and it was over a few pints that the project really took off.”
Taking his artistic endeavour as seriously as he had any acting job, Huison, who grew up in Leeds, spent at least five hours a day in his studio as a succession of strangers, soon to become friends, sat in front of his easel.
“Part of the reason for moving to the coast was I felt I needed a bit of space. I’d been doing a lot of touring theatre and I remember lying in the bath one day thinking I just want to stop the hamster wheel and get off for a while. I needed to take stock of my life.
“The last year has allowed me to do that and it’s given me the time to really explore my art.I realise that I am very lucky to be able to take that amount of time off from regular work, but it’s been hugely rewarding.”
While Huison says he was encouraged at school by his art teacher Rod Wells, a spell at Jacob Kramer College of Art didn’t end so well, which was how he ended up becoming an actor.
“It just wasn’t right for me and I ended up doing very little art while I was there. I was in my late teens and just drifting, but I used to go to a youth theatre and they encouraged me to apply for drama school, which is how I ended up at Rose Bruford College in Kent.
“The course I signed up for was called community theatre. To be honest I wasn’t sure what community theatre was and it took me the first year to get my head around it, but it gave me a good foundation and I’m still best of friends with one of my tutors, Jean Hart, who taught me so much.”
For a while after graduating, Huison was one of the acting world’s journeymen. He’d appeared at the National Theatre and had various small roles in film and television, but a successful audition for a modest budget film about a group of redundant Sheffield steel workers changed all that. The Full Monty was the biggest box office success of 1997 and made stars of its cast.
“When I was told I’d got the part I was playing the genie in a production for five-year-olds which was touring less than glamorous school halls. The Full Monty changed my life. It was a calling card, which said, ‘take a look at him, he’s not bad you know’.”
Since The Full Monty Huison has been a regular on the small screen, appearing on the likes of Casualty, Where the Heart Is, Scott and Bailey and in 2008 he began a three-year spell playing Eddie Windass in Coronation Street. The demands of working on a soap are well-known, but it was ironically when he was at his busiest that found time to rekindle his passion for art.
“I hadn’t picked up a brush for 28 years, but I spotted an advertisement for life drawing classes which happened to fit around Corrie’s filming schedule. I remember going to first session and thinking, ‘Ah right, yes that’s how you do it’. Suddenly everything came flooding back.”
Huison isn’t giving up the acting just yet. In September he will star in a new Northern Broadsides production of the JB Priestley classic When We Are Married, which opens in York before touring. “I was in Broadsides very first production of Richard III, so it does feel like a bit of a homecoming and it’s always a pleasure to work with Barrie (Rutter). He’s worked so hard to make Broadsides a success, but who knows what the future will hold for any of us.
“Many theatre companies are struggling to make ends meet and the impact Brexit will have has so far been underplayed, but I suspect it will be huge. A huge amount of EU money has helped fund British culture, particularly our film industry and I’m not quite sure what will happen once the plug has been pulled.
“There are a growing number of drama schools churning out graduates, but the work just isn’t there. I I feel incredibly lucky not only to have started out when I did, but also to have left drama school knowing that I had to be resourceful and never to rely on other people to provide work.”
It’s why he stages his own monthly cabaret show in Shipley, which he is taking to Ribblesdale’s Beat-Herder festival this summer and why he already has plans for another exhibition of his art.
“I’m not sure it’s very accessible, but I would like to do a project focused on people’s hands. Do you know that during the French Revolution the nobility, who had never done a hard day’s work in the life, were easily identified because of their soft perfect hands, in stark contrast to the peasants? I would definitely have been heading for the guillotine and I think it’s fascinating what you can tell just by looking at a person’s hands.”
Huison is looking forward to going back into the studio and to putting down more roots in Robin Hood’s Bay. “I will be there as long as my knees can manage the hills,” he says. “So hopefully that will be for a little while yet.”
A Year in the Bay - Portraits by Steve Huison runs at York’s Pyramid Gallery (01904 641187, pyramidgallery.com) to September 2.
When We Are Married runs at York Theatre Royal (yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, 01904 623568) from September 9 to 24. For full tour details see northern-broadsides.co.uk