Words Sarah Langton-Lockton Photographs Neil Brown and Simon Shaw
Our gently swelling band of readers tells us they like lots of things about Faversham Life. These include the quality of the writing and photography and the fact that we are resolutely non commercial. Our mission is simple: to share with readers our love of our town, its quirkiness and accommodating nature, its remarkable people, with their rich spread of creative talent, its sense of community, its architectural beauty and its wide-ranging culture. Readers applaud the elegance of our website and its ease of navigation. Neil Brown is the man to thank for this. He became involved in web design through skateboarding. His is a classic Faversham Life success story.
Neil hails from Margate, where he lived until the age of 26. At school, he recalls, he wanted to learn, but hadn’t found out where his interests and talents lay. Career choices were limited. ‘At that time,’ he says, ‘if you were good with your hands, men would do engineering or mechanics, and girls would do hairdressing. Definitely, in the mid 1980s, it was a very segregated world. I was a classic “taking something apart” person, but maybe didn’t want to put it back again, or would try to make something new out of it.’ This, he explains, ‘was before I understood what being creative was.’ For example, he says, ‘I had a teddy bear. I cut its legs and arms off and put them back in different places.’ Not macabre, just an undernourished talent for creativity.
After school, which Neil left at 16, came a YTS placement, a basic engineering course – four days’ work, one day at college and pay of £29 a week. Skateboarding became the big thing in Neil’s life. ‘Skateboarding was my first creative outlet. Through that I learnt about alternative cultures, all kinds of things, including punk music, fashion, the graphics of skateboarding – every single skateboard is different.‘
By the age of 17, Neil had left home, and when he became eligible for benefits, he rented a flat in Cliftonville. Margate, in the 1980s and ‘90s, he says, was ‘100 per cent run down’ and known as the ‘Costa del Dole’. After four years of living with unemployment, he was ready to move on. ‘One thing I loved about skateboarding is that it is very inclusive. Two friends who were younger than me had gone to Canterbury College of Art. They were going to the end-of-year show and asked if I wanted to come. I walked into this room – there were all these amazing paintings and sculptures.’
Neil chatted to students and teachers, and one of the latter, Jon Dent, said ‘And what do you do?’ When Neil, who was a bit embarrassed, remained silent, Jon Dent prompted him: ‘I saw that video you made’ (called The Outsiders, it was about skateboarders in Margate). ‘It was really creative. Have you thought about going to college?’ This was June/July 1994, and by the autumn Neil had enrolled on an intermediate course, intended for 16 year olds – foundation years came later. ‘It was an amazing three years,’ says Neil. ‘I got to travel – to Paris and Amsterdam – and was increasingly drawn to sculpture. This led me to apply to study Fine Art Sculpture at Kingston. I got one of 19 places on the course and graduated with a 2.1, the first person in my family to get a degree.’
While he was at Kingston University Neil had learnt about digital photography – ‘digital media was then quite new’. When he left, he was still not sure which way his career would develop, but, he says: ‘As luck would have it, there was a vacancy at Canterbury College of Art for a sculpture and Apple Mac technician. I was back at the place where I had spent three amazing years.’ Soon he was asked to write and run the graphic design course, which he did from 2001 to 2009/10. ‘It was brilliant, I absolutely loved it.’
Meanwhile, he had met and married Luci, who is Assistant Head of Whitstable School, and they settled in Faversham. Their first son, Seth, was born in 2007, and Jude followed two years later. Neil and Luci talked about childcare. Neil said he would see if he could take a day off work each week. Meanwhile, he had started making websites for artist friends, who were happy to pay. Each year he asked the College for a further day off until he was down to teaching one day a week. The freelance work built up. Neil gave up teaching and took his by now established new venture in web design and photography to Creek Creative when it opened in March 2010. The building was originally the bottling plant for a local brewery. In its guise as Creek Creative it is now a gallery, shop, award-winning café, and affordable studios and workspaces for 40-plus local artists, artisan makers and others in creative businesses.
Neil’s studio is in the loft of Creek Creative; beams abound. There is a skateboard hanging on the wall, shelves of cameras, computer equipment and a few bottles of beer (Shepherd Neame is a client). Neil has been a full-time freelance for eight years. ‘I really enjoy that freedom,’ he says. He shares childcare and can support Luci in her career. ‘It is a really nice balance.’ His work is very successful, he says, ‘in the sense of it’s what I want to do.’
He now works with many Faversham companies and has a broad mix of clients. The photography is important – ‘websites,’ he comments, ‘are often let down by poor photos.’ Beamtwenty3 is the name of Neil’s business. The references derive from his time at college and are to light, as in photography or beams of light, (Neil produced a series of works using coloured LED lights) and the 23 enigma and William Burroughs.
Neil remembers well his first tentative meeting with Amicia, Posy, Lisa and me to explore our idea for Faversham Life. He likes Faversham Life for its simplicity. ‘It is such an honest thing,’ he says. Neil is a significant contributor to Faversham Life’s success. The website he designed for us shares our ethos. It is a perfect fit.
Words: Sarah Langton-Lockton. Photographs: Neil Brown and Simon Shaw