When we were dreaming and planning for the recently launched Grow Coffee House, one of the many things that we wanted to value and support was the local creative scene. We wanted to construct an environment that welcomed and celebrated the very best creative talent that Exeter has to offer – from the graphic designers and musicians to the actors and painters. 

So, closely consulted by the incredible Cleo Heard from Miss*C’s Graffiti Academy, we went about finding a local artist to paint a mural on a large part of one of the interior walls of the coffee house with the plan to then showcase and show some love for that artist. The first one that came to Cleo’s mind was the incredibly talented Steph Leighton who, over a three day period, proceeded to wow our customers as they sat and watched her masterpiece take shape in front of their very eyes. 

I recently sat down with Steph for a coffee (I think my caffeine intake has trebled since we launched the Coffee House) and we chatted about her inspiration, her creative process and how she came to be an artist. Chuck in a photoshoot and a healthy dollop of laughter and it made for a really enjoyable couple of hours.


Born and brought up in the village of Cheriton Fitzpaine, Steph lived with her Mum, sister and Nan for most of her childhood. Her Dad wasn’t really around at all and Steph told me what an influence and inspiration her Nan was to her, commenting,

“My Nan was a great artist and painted most of her life. She was always encouraging me to be creative and pushing me to express myself. She even used to hand me a biro and tell me to draw all over her walls, much to my Mum’s displeasure! She was an amazing cheerleader, mentor and influence on my life.”

Having gone to a small village primary school, Steph went on to study Art at GCSE level but found it really limiting and restrictive. She told me,

“If anything it put me off art and nearly extinguished my natural passion for being creative. It wasn’t really developing our creativity or flexing any creative muscles at all. When it came to choosing A-Levels, I was so disillusioned that I initially chose Law over Art but that only lasted for one lesson before I reverted back!”

After slowly falling back in love with art at A-Level, Steph went on to study an Art Foundation course at Exeter College – a seminal moment in her creative journey. She explained to me that this was where she realised for the first time that art wasn’t about copying or recreating something that you could see. It was more about interpretation, expression, freedom and exploration – the real gold at the core of being creative.

woman smiling painting

Since this positive experience at Exeter College, Steph has gone on to study Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University where she is now starting her third and final year. Steph sang the praises of this experience, stating,

“It has been an incredible journey being at MMU. I remember my first ever lecture where a huge picture of a sponge was up on the large projector screen at the front of the room. The lecturer opened this first class by saying ‘You see this sponge? This is what you need to be over the next three years. You don’t need to like everything that we teach you, but you need to absorb little bits of all of it and take it in to yourself and your creative process.’ This is what I’ve tried to hold on to and do every day at Uni. It’s turned my creative process and my style upside down!”


I was interested to find out what inspired Steph as, often, that says a lot about a creative and can give you a sneak peek behind the curtain of their process. She thought for a second and then told me,

“If I’m honest, I have been inspired by literally hundreds of people, things, pieces of art, songs and films. I’m also really inspired by nature and that always comes through in my work.”

She continued,

“A couple of artists stand out in my mind as having had a formative effect on my art. Tracey Emin is a real influence of mine. The honesty that sits at the core of her work is so inspiring and powerful. Maria Lassnig is another artist who has really informed my work in terms of colour, palette and pastels. I also take a huge amount of inspiration from dreams that I have. I dream every night and always remember them. I am going to start keeping a dream journal so that I can start documenting some of them. They’re always pretty ‘out there’ and often have some depth and a little bit of a dark element to them.”

I was also struck by some of the tattoos that I could see on Steph’s arms and back. Not only were they really well done but also nicely designed too and I wondered if they had any particular significance to her. It turned out that her backpiece had huge meaning to her as she had suffered badly from scoliosis as a child and had to have a serious operation to break and then straighten her spine. As a result, she has a scar from the bottom of her neck all the way down to the top of her coccyx and she decided to get her backpiece tattoo to mark the resilience and inner-strength that she developed having to go through that operation and the lengthy recovery afterwards. Fittingly, the tattoo took almost exactly the same amount of time to do as the operation took to perform – only further making it a redemptive experience.


So, what about the mural then? How did Steph tackle such a large blank canvass and what did the process feel like for her? She explained,

“I am so lucky and flattered to have been asked to do the mural. It has been an amazing chance to express myself and add something really colourful to this already vibrant place. When I first saw the wall, I was pretty daunted by the size of the project if I’m honest. It is definitely the biggest thing that I’ve ever painted by a long way which was quite intimidating initially. I didn’t really have a plan but I had roughly set out what I wanted to do and then just let things develop as I went. It was so much fun!”

She added,

“I definitely didn’t want it to feel too perfect and polished. There are bits that I’m not too crazy about but overall I’m really happy with it, which is often not the case with things that I draw or paint. My Nan taught me never to edit my work too soon or be too critical of what I made. Even if I didn’t like something that I’d created, she encourage me that, often, other people would and that I should keep it as inspiration or ideas for future work, a tip that has stood me in really good stead as the years have gone by.”

And what does the future hold for this exciting artistic talent? Steph dreamed out loud,

“My creative dream would be to break into the world of homewares and household goods, with a signature style of designs on cushions, pillows, note cards, teapots and that sort of things. Kind of like the Banksy of homewares! I’d also like to teach kids to be creative and expressive. The support that I was given by my Nan is one of the main reasons that I am who I am today and I’d love to bring that nurture and support into an educational environment to give children a chance to fall in love with art in mainstream school rather than having to find that inspiration from elsewhere. The journey is just as important as the end result. It’s important to maintain as much naivety as possible in art as that is what makes work more authentic. Returning to a childlike approach can sometimes be a freeing and powerful creative tool.”

We haven’t settled on a name for the mural yet, but as I sit here and look at it, I’m reminded of the famous children’s activity books Where’s Wally (in that you are struck with an initial feel of the design and then notice more and more details the more that you look at it).

On top of the naming conundrum, the other challenge that the mural has given us is that we had initially planned to paint over it after a couple of months and showcase another local artist. However, we’re so in love with it (and we continue to get compliments on it every single day from Coffee House customers) that I’m not sure we could ever bring ourselves to do so. Maybe we’ll have to find some space on another wall in a couple of months’ time. A nice problem to have I suppose and a real compliment to Steph and the amazing work she has done on the mural.

Three cheers for Steph. Hip hip… HOORAY!

Follow @sleightonart on Instagram to keep up with Steph’s creative loveliness!

All content by Joff Alexander-Frye

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