Meet the next Hockney. But Steve Harris hasn't given up his day job

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The Independent Online

In his home town of Heysham, in Lancashire, Steve Harris is known as a hardworking scaffolder, a job he has been doing for more than 30 years. But in art galleries in New York and Zurich he is being hailed as a major new British artistic talent.

In his home town of Heysham, in Lancashire, Steve Harris is known as a hardworking scaffolder, a job he has been doing for more than 30 years. But in art galleries in New York and Zurich he is being hailed as a major new British artistic talent.

The self-taught painter was recently exhibited at the fashionable Montserrat Gallery on Broadway in New York where one excitable critic even compared him to Francis Bacon and David Hockney.

Harris has also had his work shown at galleries in Zurich and Cyprus.

Yet in Heysham, local galleries, he says, have refused to show his work, which has strong sexual themes, preferring more acceptable watercolours.

Harris, who works a full day as a scaffolder - a job he has done since leaving school at 16 - and paints in his spare time, cannot afford trips abroad to see his work being hung.

Yet in New York, one critic, Peter Wiley, recently wrote in Gallery & Studio, a magazine which specialises in emerging artists: "Although Harris is self-taught, there is nothing naive or innocent about his work. Rather, his paintings are almost wickedly knowing about convoluted entanglements of human relationships.

"To the league of modern British artists, such as Bacon, Hockney and Hodgkin, whom we admire as much for their quirky qualities as for their solid aesthetic attributes, we can now add the name of Steven John Harris.''

One of the nine paintings he has had on exhibition recently at the gallery sold for $800 (£420) - a fairly considerable sum for Harris - to a British theatre producer. Although the show has now finished, the gallery wants to keep at least some works on permanent display.

Monse Coll, the director of the gallery, said: "People have taken a lot of interest they really like his work. His paintings are lovely and they have been very popular here. Of course it takes time for a new artist who hasn't shown before to start selling paintings. An artist isn't born in a day. ''

Harris confessed he would love to give up his day job, but was uncertain whether he could survive by painting alone. He said: "The art world seems to me a fickle place you need to know what you're doing, and I've never even met another artist.''

Harris began painting to occupy his time when briefly unemployed about 15 years ago. "I just needed something to do. I would paint on anything: wood, toilet seats, plywood, paper anything I could get my hands on, and do the paintings sitting on the end of my bed."

All his work was given away free to friends, until a local sculptor, for whom he was doing some scaffolding work, saw his paintings and urged him to display them more widely.

He set up a website, www.unbelievable-art.co.uk, and was soon getting emails from all over the world.

"I called it unbelievable art because no one who met me would believe I could paint. I've been in scaffolding for over 30 years. If you mention it at work, the lads just say 'Artist? P*** artist more like', and that sort of thing.

"But a couple of them have got my work hanging in their living rooms.''

His work has strong sexual themes and explores issues such as fetishism, voyeurism and perversion. He said: "Freud would have a good time with me. Sometimes I'm shocked or disturbed by what comes out. I like it if people have a strong response, because it gets them talking and debating and thinking differently."

When galleries began asking him to send examples of his work, he was nonplussed. "They asked me to put a price on them," he explained, "but didn't know what to put. I don't know how to sell this stuff. All I wanted was the money back for what I had laid out.''

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