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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Eight

October 9, 2013

12 August 2013

Stephen Scott came into the house carrying a small blank canvas and said, “It’s time to start a new oil sketch.” This followed on the heels of our last session which was limited to him drawing studies for my portrait. “OK,” I said, “Maybe I can change my shirt so that we can keep track of which picture is which.” So I found a yellow shirt to replace the blue and red one that I was wearing for the first oil sketch. “So, what are your thoughts on your drawings of the other day?” “You know, I think I am rediscovering drawing as a tool for my painting. Even brief drawings carry a lot of information that I can use,” he said. Stephen taped the two large drawings he had done two days before on the wall so he could see them while he worked. “I don’t think that your photographs of you, look like you, my pictures look like you,” he said. He was referring to my project where I try to take a self-portrait of myself every day to test my morbid fascination with the aging process. “You have a point,” I conceded.

paletteHe seated himself in front of the new canvas, prepared his palette and started to paint. “I just cannot get good quality (art) materials in this province; paper, paint and not even a decent pencil. I even had to put an additional white ground on this prepared canvas to get a surface I can work with.” “There is just not the market for the good stuff,” I said. “I have been thinking more about German painting since our last session,” he said, “I forgot about Max Beckmann. He was a really good painter.” “Strange you should bring him up. When I was in grad school (Indiana University) the head of school (Henry Hope) had a large painting of him and his family by Beckmann in his dining room. Henry was very rich, family money, and could afford such things. Nice man helped me through school,” I said. “Wild,” Stephen said. “You know,” I added, “Beckmann taught for a number of years in St. Louis and was a big influence on Midwestern painting.” “He was a very good portrait painter, but a bit edgy,” Stephen said. “Scary, might be a better word,” I said, “Those were troubled times when he worked in Europe. Even the Hope family portrait was a bit strange.”

I noted that Stephen had a photograph of one of the drawings on his iPhone that was on the wall in his hand while he was painting my picture. “That’s odd, Stephen. I am sitting here, the drawings are on the wall and you are looking at a photograph of a drawing that is staring you in the face.” “It is just different. It gives me another viewpoint,” he said. Whatever his methods, they seemed to be working very well and who am I to question success? “I have to compete with artists using photography and I guess this is a way of doing that.” I guess one can never have too many sources and it was interesting to watch him move his eyes from me, to one of the drawings on the wall, to the photograph on his phone in his left hand and repeat the process, all along painting on the canvas with swift brush strokes.

paints and portrait“You know, I can not think of a single male muse,” Stephen said. “What do you mean? A muse who is actual a male? The female muses all served male masters. At least, that was supposed to be the idea until women artists showed up,” I said. “No, a male muse. Let’s see if I can name the traditional muses?” he said. Good luck with that and besides the plural of muse is musae, I thought. “Let’s see, Calliope, Erato, Terpsichore, Clio, Urania. Who am I missing?” He said. “Damned, if I know, but I have a book in the bedroom that will tells us.” Why I keep a dictionary of classical mythology in the bedroom is anybody’s guess, but I haven’t impressed any women guests with it, yet. Back with the book, I quickly added: Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Thalia. “And, you know, none of these fine ladies are the muse of painting much less being a man,” I said. “Something we’ll have to fix,” Stephen said. “If I had my rathers, I would prefer my muse for painting to be a woman, but I like the company of women,” I added. “I knew that,” he said. As usual, our conversation was all over the map and I suggest we stop for a coffee break.

“The reason there wasn’t a muse for painting in the classical world was that painters were thought to be, at best, craftsman and not artists,” Stephen said has he stared into his Americano. “Yes, Plato treated us particularly rough,” I said. “We need to invent a muse,” he said, “Any ideas?” “We are a couple of thousand years too late,” I said, “perhaps we could add painting on to the list duties of one the traditional nine. I sort of like Polyhymnia. Nobody talks about her much.” “What does she do?” Stephen asked. Looking into the book, I told him that she was the muse for sacred song, oratory, lyric, singing and rhetoric. “Besides poly means many, so what’s another duty to her list?” I said. “I still think that we need our own muse,” he said. “I will see if I can take it up with Zeus, but Mnemosyne (his wife) has already had nine daughters and might be tired,” I said. “She might get lucky and the tenth time, it might be a son and our muse,” he said.”Better late, than never,” I added.

VH 8Back at painting, Stephen said, “My job is to be critical, a perfectionist.” Laudable sentiments, but difficult to accomplish, I thought, “What do you mean by that?” “You need the vision and the drive to get a painting where you want it to be,” he answered. “I agree, but perfection is pretty hard to come by,” I said. “Perhaps, what I mean is to seek perfection,” he said. “I usually find more perfection in the work of other people than I do in my own,” I said, “particularly in my writing.” “Yes, it is easy to find fault in your own work,” he said. “The reason I mainly gave up on painting and photography and resorted to writing was that I never could get them to the point where I was satisfied with the work. How come you never went there?” I asked. “I have had plenty of low points, but I was always able to battle my way back. I guess it was through hard work,” he said. “It has always been a battle between my mind and I eye,” I countered. “They never reconciled. I knew what I wanted my pictures to look like, but never matched my mind’s image. I still think that I can draw well and I like to think that I still have the eye and that’s why I am trying photography again,” I said. “You give up too easy. Art is always a fight,” Stephen said.

As usual, Stephen had a point and common sense on his side and that’s what makes him a good artist and me a wannabe. Those of us who delve into intellectual issues often find ourselves sidelined by inaction brought on by too much thinking and not enough doing. Stephen’s perfection was sought through his painting while mine way was in my mind. “Painting is a thing, an object, a direct experience,” he said which only added to my discomfort. “Let’s have a look at what you are doing,” I said and perhaps, we could call it day.” I was learning a lot from my afternoons with him. Yes, he had a gift, but he knew how to use it. He was teaching me that I had ventured off the track of my own creativity by being too lazy. I had some catching up to do and, perhaps, only another month of Stephen painting my picture.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Saturday, 5 October, 2013.

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