Stephen Charlton
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Artist Stephen Charlton On Designing His Unretirement

As a creative working in the design agency world, Stephen has always loved art, it wasn’t until the age of 40 that he found the courage to take it up as his lifetime ambition.

With an intrinsic passion and skill for the creative, Stephen Charlton has never stopped doodling and sketching. In his forties, Stephen created his first serious sculpture at home in his garage.

Now a renowned painter and sculptor based in Hertfordshire, Stephen was born in Newcastle and attended York College of Art to study graphic design. He went on to have a long and illustrious career as a design consultant, working with many global agencies and companies.

Today, Stephen’s sculptures, mostly of animals, are created in bronze and resin. His signature style encompasses tactile textures, whether rough or smooth. These sculptures were showcased at Chelsea Flower Show numerous times, much to the delight of the public. A significant milestone in his creative career he is proud of.

A sculpture of a mouse on a swing by Stephen Charlton.
A rabbit's head.
A sculpture of a mouse on a ball.

These days, of a morning you will most likely find him in his studio at an old brick factory in the countryside and come afternoon, he often attends meetings and presents creative brand solutions to his clients. However, this work-life balance Stephen now enjoys didn’t happen overnight but is something he had longed for since early on in his career.

“I was looking for the kind of balance that fuels my desire to deliver the energy wherever and whenever it is required. Days can vary from installing sculpture in gardens that may necessitate climbing trees to private underground garages to install automotive artwork. Whether it be sculpture or design consulting, the opportunity to collaborate with clients and engage with the public, keeps the fires burning within and an eye to the horizon,” Stephen explains.

We sat down with Stephen to talk about his passions, his career, his biggest lessons so far and how he eventually found the conviction to design his life according to his own needs and realise his ideal work-life balance.

Going from Working in Agencies to Combining Consulting and Art, Tell Us about Your Career Path That Led You to Realise Your Ideal Work/Life Balance?

“When I go into big multi-national companies, I talk a lot about purpose – individual and at company level. If you get your purpose right, then everything else becomes so much easier.

There are thousands, if not millions, of people who are in jobs they don’t enjoy but they get an income from. For me, design became something I enjoyed, and I became good at it. I’ve always felt lucky because I have a desire for what I do, and I’ve never got out of bed in the morning and thought ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go to work’, not ever.

I often achieve success as a design consultant because initially, I don’t take it from a visual point of view when I’m rebranding or repositioning a company, I start from words with an emotional perspective. Essentially, it’s about finding through emotionally intelligent questioning the purpose and the aims of a company. Most advertising and design agencies out there only look at what they’ve been given, whereas I will challenge what is perceived to be the situation and always link back to their purpose and values. If it doesn’t align with them – and a lot of the time it doesn’t, that’s where I bring clarity to the client’s purpose. This enables the company from top to bottom, to move forward and succeed together.

"We can lose our identity in the concept of retirement"

I have always enjoyed running my own consultancy business and after 30 years it has got easier with time.

My work involves me playing with perceptions. By understanding yours and your audience’s, I can then create a strategy that will disrupt and influence that.

Something I’ve realised as I am getting older is, that it’s great to have work and clients, but I don’t want them to bother me. I just want to go away and for them to leave me to it. Because I haven’t been in a traditional work role situation for some time now, I’ve forgotten what it’s like. I forgot what it’s like to go off for a coffee and to walk out the door and someone ask, ‘where are you going?’, or it’s ‘5:30 or 6 o’clock, why are you leaving early?’

Stephen Charlton's works displayed.

When it comes to my art, a word I use more and more now is, play. The word play, in itself, people don’t like because it comes with misconceptions and baggage. In business, people are uncomfortable with the idea of play. We associate play with our childhood, those were the times that we felt free, without constraints and less boundaries. There’s a whole misconception that we can’t let go of the shackles. In earlier days, the art world wasn’t deemed a worthy profession and were steered toward academia. And those attitudes have all now changed thank goodness.

So now, I love to create my sculptures and paintings where I can express myself for myself instead of trying to please others. Although I’ve always enjoyed the branding, my art satisfies me more, which is so important to me.

I started to sculpt and paint when I was 40. And as I’m a creative in a commercial world, I was always under pressure from clients who wanted everything yesterday. But now working as a consultant, I can steer the direction of timings and deliverables, so I’m more in control, taking the stress out of the day.”

What Does the Concept of Retirement Mean to You?

“Because I thoroughly enjoy what I do, I’ve never really thought about retirement, it always seemed off in the distant future. Retirement is a fascinating man-made concept, structured around education, work and retirement. We gain an education, we serve our time in work and then we retire. With the help of 55/Redefined, the world is taking fresh perspective on the ‘why’ of work, enabling people to revisit how they live their lives to the full.

Working for myself provides me with the freedom to flex my options and a choice of when I wish to ‘slow down’. I will always be painting and sculpting, and given the opportunity, I will go off to the coast or find a nice quite little place to express my thoughts and feelings through art. And in doing so, with the view to achieving a sense of inner peace and tranquillity.

I’ve already relinquished the idea of ‘work’. There’s not a direct cut-off point for me now with retirement. I think we can lose our identity in the concept of retirement, and we don’t know what to do with ourselves. There’s a whole paradigm shift that happens and you’re left thinking ‘well what now, what do I do and how do it do it?’. It’s an interesting dynamic that I don’t think as society we consider enough. What I do know, is that for myself, I have a never-ending drive and purpose expressed through my art that gives me renewed energy and delight.”

What Does Age Mean to You and What Lessons Have You Learnt Over the Years?

“Age had never meant anything to me until I hit about 58. I feel very fortunate to be young of heart, young of mind and young of body. I take time to keep fit by playing Badminton once a week and truly love it! I’ve no ailments that restrict me and I’m constantly thankful for my health. Age is simply a transition. As one gets older, you have to consider the future which I’ve never really done before as I am very much a ‘living in the now’ person.

However, as you age, you need to think about where you want to live, consider financial resources, and what’s to be your future path. In recent months, I’ve been telling myself to take a risk and so I am launching my new website and putting prices on my work (which I’ve never done before). I always have the question in my mind, ‘Am I good enough?’ and I find I am now saying, ‘of course you are’. It’s a realisation rather than imposter syndrome. It’s realising that it doesn’t it really matter what other people think. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do, and trust yourself.

For me, it’s all about finding the true self. And not enough people ask the right questions of themselves. As a consultant, I’m often asking my client’s questions. And the deeper I go to get to the why, the more meaningful answers I get back. Then people are liberated to think and explore the meaning and direction of their lives. Unfortunately, people often don’t trust themselves enough and if they did, they would find another world where work and play can be enjoyed together. Fear rules most of us and if you let it, keep you in your comfort zone for the rest of your life. Many people die not really knowing who they really were or what they could have been.”

To discover more about Stephen and view his wonderful art, visit his website here