“Honey, I’m Home” – A Creative’s Guide in London with SMAY.

We first met Sebastian May, the creative mastermind behind SMAY Art in the dingy rain-soaked cobblestone streets of Bruxelles, Belgium and immediately were drawn to his vivacious and worldly creative side. In this brief interview with us, SMAY shares his meaning of home, places to unwind in London and Europe’s creative hot-spots…

When did you first step foot in London?
I first came to London, two suitcases in hand, when I was 18, and immediately fell in love with the city. The big city lights, the buzzing and colourful international vibe have always inspired me and still today feed directly into my work as a visual artist.

Was it love at first sight?
Ironically it was my move to Belgium, where I spent three and a half years studying, working and being in love, which made me realise how much I missed London. I often found myself heading back to visit some of my favourite art galleries and museums. Most importantly, I just couldn’t do without some of the most inspiring and supportive people in my life, my friends and family. And so I relocated again and set up shop in East London in 2012.

Does it bring out the best in you?
The city itself is a great place to develop my creativity and my work. But I found that it’s not the exuberant cityscape or its people’s eccentricities that feed into my work, it’s little moments in my week that allow me to wind down and breathe and think.

Where are you really from?
I grew up in Germany’s hilly countryside outside of Frankfurt (think Heidi – the book, not the supermodel, sadly), but spent my formative High School years in Detroit, before moving to London in 2004.

Sebastian May of SMAY Art
Sebastian May of SMAY Art

I say “home” and you say… ?
So when thinking of home, perhaps I’m just a little bit greedy. But why settle for one country, one city even, as your home when you can have a whole continent? After all, home should be where you feel at ease, happy and yourself. While London did a wonderful job in shaping my artist practice and personal life, it also helped me find myself and discover that my home – at least for the time being – is here in Europe. My family took me on many travels across the continent when I was a little boy. Little creative me was allowed to freely roam Italian piazzas and French seaside coasts, film camera in hand at all times. My grandmother, with whom I spent many hours a day growing up, fled Hungary during the Second World War and ended up settling in Germany, adding more spice to the flavour that is SMAY today! And maybe all those things combined are why today, anywhere in Europe feels like home to me.

'Nosebird escapes' - mixed media on canvas, 2013 by Sebastian May
‘Nosebird escapes’ – mixed media on canvas, 2013 by Sebastian May

Will you let us in on a little sneak peek of your latest artistic projects & ventures?
An environmental artist at heart, I’m currently working on an exciting new collection of vibrant mixed media works embodied in the shape of colourful birds. I’m really interested in our relationship with nature and how we treat our environment, and use wildlife characters to express my story in a fun yet evocative way. The images I use are very kooky, yet there are lots of layers (a mixture of paint, photography and news clippings) that let you discover little stories and truths about our conflict with nature.

Where can we see some SMAY Art in all its glory?
I continually exhibit my work in various places, from having had a solo show in a contemporary art gallery in Germany last year, to my latest gig at a community centre/ local gallery space in Limehouse. And I’m hoping to feature some of my kooky characters in a children’s book to be published next year, so stay tuned for more SMAY in the shape of bedtime reading.

Sketchbook or tablet in hand, give us your top four spots to unwind in London

  • Every few weeks I hop onto the District Line and head to South Kensington, buy myself a copy of Le Monde and a cup of decaf soy latte (with a decadent shot of hazelnut syrup) and have an utterly pretentious morning strutting around the affluent streets. Of course, no trip to Kensington is complete without stopping by my favourite French patisserie on Old Brompton Road, whose goods I then enjoy by the fountain in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s courtyard. They normally don’t allow you to carry food and drink through the museum, so play to your charms!
  • For more baked goods but also for the savoury minded amongst us, head to the Carmelite Gallery Café in Bow, where you can enjoy art and great food, and nobody minds you sitting and sketching for a couple of hours. There’s a beautiful garden right behind the old Nunnery and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to peek into one of the artist studios too. If you still have time, the River Lea makes for a beautiful walk through the East End, and is just a few metres around the corner as well.
  • Heading to South London, another one of my favourite excursions is to the White Cube Gallery, a magical space which opened on Bermondsey Street in 2011. The building was formerly a 1970s warehouse and was converted into more than 5000 square metres of whiteness, making it Europe’s biggest commercial gallery space. Bermondsey Street is line with nice restaurants, pubs and bars, and I may have been on a nice date or two here myself. Otherwise the vintage stores and boutiques also allow for perusing.
  • Before Shoreditch goes completely upmarket, I’m enjoying its grittier corners. Firstly I like heading to the Bagel Shop at the top of Brick Lane. It’s open 24/7 and serves bagels at 25 pence a pop. You can’t go wrong with that! Close by, Redchurch and Rivington Street are lined with dirty little galleries, so watch out for their Thursday night openings, which are fantastic to socialise, if maybe not to see the world’s greatest art. And if you really need something more upmarket, there’s always Flowers Gallery on Kingsland Road and an exquisite (if not overpriced) organic food store next door.
V&A in London (c) Sebastian May
V&A in London (c) Sebastian May

But you’re a man of many talents!
In between brush strokes and decaf soy latte’s, where else can we find you?

When I’m not in the studio doing artist things, I’m using my creativity in the corporate world, and develop brand and communications campaigns for clients across Europe. It’s safe to say, I like to stay busy.
I think it’s old-fashioned to think that a “true artist” need to lock himself up in his studio and hide away from the corporate world to create amazing works. I enjoy playing parts in both worlds and both areas feed into each other. My more abstract studio work allows me to come up with some fantastic concepts, which help me think more creatively when working out client briefs. On the other hand, the business and management skills I have picked up by working for some of Europe’s biggest companies, from Google to Kellogg’s, have been invaluable for running my own business.

Does it get a little crazy working on so many things at the same time?
Absolutely. But when you’re passionate about what you do, and enjoy having a career with many different facets, you’ll make it work. And, of course, a little diary management helps too. 😉

Is London really all roses, all the time?
I have to confess, it’s not always easy living in the giant machine of London, which has a lot of energy to give as well as to take. Some days can be a battle — even if it’s just getting to work in time! — and the city certainly keeps you on your toes. The eternal struggle between all that it good and bad in this city, as I’m sure is the same case in many capitals around the world, feeds into my creativity and helps me come up with new and exciting ideas. The city has certainly helped me find myself as an artist and has nurtured my personal development like no other place could have done over the last five years.

"My little creative corner to sketch and brainstorm ideas. I think every flat needs one." Sebastian May
“My little creative corner to sketch and brainstorm ideas. I think every flat needs one.” Sebastian May

So being “home” in Europe, which cities do you think present the most creative opportunity?
Forget your overly funded capitals with their lush museums and galleries, the places I find most inspiring are your rough on the edges kind of gritty cities, that live and breathe real European culture.

  • Cologne – Anyone who likes architecture will like it here. The city welcomes you with Germany’s most visited landmark, the Cologne Cathedral, when you arrive by train. One of the most astounding pieces of Gothic architecture I’ve ever seen. And I simply love how it contrasts the ueber-modern riverside buildings with their glass and steel fronts. Bring your sketchbook.
  • Marseilles – Nobody thinks of semi-industrial Marseille when you say you’re heading to the South of France for a relaxing summer holiday by the beach, but if you want to meet real working French people (with an adorable Southern accent) while getting a tan, head here. You’ll be able to find some of the most influential architectural gems, such as Le Corbusier‘s Unité d’Habitation, but also some amazing collections of art, like in the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Marseille : The MAC.
  • Glasgow – Known for its fantastic music scene, I recently discovered its other talents in painting and photography. My favourite spot must be its Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), home to many (free) exhibitions, lectures and workshops, as well as one tasty vegetarian/vegan restaurant.
  • Milan – Italy’s second largest city, Milan makes for a fantastic weekend trip if you’re in need for good food – I have yet to eat badly in Milan – and design – a good start is its Triennale di Milano. I’d highly recommend taking your dancing shoes. It might be a clichee, but the men are well dressed, and they’re good on their feet.
Sebastian May in Cologne Germany. Image copyright SMAY Art
Sebastian May in Cologne Germany. Image copyright SMAY Art

So you travel a lot and you’re always on the go. What’s in your bag?

Let’s have a look then. *Opens up bag.*

  • Sketchbook and pen. Because you never know when creativity strikes. Although I’m on a mission to digitize my arts practice, and am making an effort to take along my iPad and stylus more and more these days.
  • My Oyster! For those of you not living in London, that’s the little blue top-up travel card that gets you anywhere in the city (+suburbs) … at a price.
  • A book! Right now I’m reading Maya Angelou’s ‘Why the caged bird sings’.
  • My mobile. I “live abroad”, so staying in touch with my friends and family is a big thing, even if it’s just to call mom in Frankfurt for a 5 minute chat on my way to work or a quick Skype session with friends in DC during lunch.
  • Chapstick for a set of luscious lips. Well, you just never know who you’re going to meet. My favourite is Body Shop’s Hemp Lip Protector
What's in your bag? (c) Sebastian May
What’s in your bag? (c) Sebastian May

Need a little more SMAY in your life? You can find Sebastian under the following links too:

SMAY Art by Sebastian May 
SMAY Art on Facebook
@SmayIt tweets
Sebastian May on Pinterest

SMAY Art by Sebastian May
SMAY Art by Sebastian May
Black and white in SMAY's art studio. (C) Simon Tupper 2012. http://www.simontupperphotography.co.uk/ — at Bow Arts Trust.
Black and white in SMAY’s art studio. (C) Simon Tupper 2012. http://www.simontupperphotography.co.uk/ — at Bow Arts Trust.
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