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Stephen Paints a Picture – Part Twenty

January 2, 2014

12 September 2013

Today was the last day that Stephen Scott was going to work on our portrait project in Sackville before he returned home to Fredericton. We did have a short session three days before, on the 9th. of September, which was after our last two hour plus session on the 7th. The short session was to work more on tracing a drawing to a large canvas and to do a little more work on the first oil sketch. We had talked earlier that morning at the Black Duck Café about Bay Area (San Francisco) figurative painting and we continued the talk at my place while he worked on the drawing on the canvas. “I like the Bay Area painters,” he said, “but, seeing as you studied with a lot of them in San Francisco, you’ve seen a lot more of their real stuff than I have.” “Yeah, I spent five years at the San Francisco Art Institute between 1959 and 1965 and did get to know a lot of them pretty well. Actually, it was still the California School of Fine Arts when I started.” “Who did you like?” he said. “Well, there was a difference between who I liked best as a teacher and who I liked best as an artist.” “It’s true that the best teachers might not be the best artists. Some really good artists are more concerned with themselves than they’re with students,” he said.

“Of course, the most famous artist I studied with at the time was Richard Diebenkorn, but the guy I liked most was Jim Weeks. He did a lot for me,” I said.

“What was wrong with Diebenkorn?”

“Dick was OK, but we locked horns in my third or fourth year painting class. He was OK with the painting, but he couldn’t stand my subject matter—thought it was shit. On reflection, he may have been right.”

“What were you doing?”

“California style stuff with Pop content. He was more at home with Matisse.”

“The best teacher at Mount A was Ted Pulford,” Stephen said.

“I agree, but he was the one that most of the students complained to me about. They thought he was too hard-assed. It was only years later that some of those same student said he was their best teacher.”

“We’ve talked about this before,” he said, “ you often don’t have a clue what’s going on while you are at school. It only comes to you later and then it’s too late.”

“The thing about Weeks that was different, and I took a lot of classes from him, was that he would come to my house towards the end of my studies to look at my work. At that time at the school I was working full-time, married and had a child. So I ended up doing most of work at home on my own. He is the reason I finished art school. Great guy. Really good painter who never got the fame he deserved.”

“You should really write about your time in San Francisco. It was an important time.” he said.

“I did start a novel years ago. Maybe, I should go back and finish it.”

VH sketch 12Sept

On the 12th., Stephen brought over everything, the oil sketches, the drawings and the large canvas. “I need to work on the hands,” he said opening up his sketchbook and picking up a pencil. The large painting was to include my hands, but he had not decided whether to include me holding my note book. So, he did some quick studies of my hands with and without the notebook. “I’ll have to figure this out back in Fredericton. It’ll sure work better if you were posing in person than from drawings and sketches.” “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Maybe I’ve done all my best work,” he said.

“Ridiculous. You’re next painting will be your best work.”

“Would it be that easy.”

“Well, I’m hoping that your paintings of me will be masterpieces. I don’t want to be remembered in mediocre work. Should I be remembered at all. In any case, you’re the famous artist and I am your humble subject.”

“Get off the humble shit.”

He was now working on the third and, final, oil sketch and had placed a white paper frame around it, “It helps me, I can see the colours better.” The day before we had kicked around whether he thought he was a figurative or realist painter and he settled on figurative, perhaps because we had spent most of our time talking about the Bay Area Figurative School.

“I change my mind,” he announced, “I’m a realist. I am a mannerist for fuck sake.”

“Well, as I have said before, you’re full of contradictions, but who am I to judge? I change my mind on a daily basis.”

“Look, that’s what art is; it works its way through contradictions,” Stephen said.

“You were talking about regionalism and realism yesterday as well,” I said.

“Yes, and I said realism was a universal and regionalism obviously is not.”

“But, at times, it pretty hard not to be a regionalist if you happen to be a realist particularly when you live in place like this,” I countered.

“Yes and no. Even landscape can be universal. It all depends on the tone and, of course, portraiture and still-life can overcome place.”

“Is place such a bad thing?”

“Of course not, but maybe it shouldn’t be the main thing.”

VH 12Sept

Stephen was looking at me and painting furiously, “You know my biggest kick has been my German experience. I became more painterly,” he said. “Sure, it’s really important to look at as much good art has you can and there is certainly more to look at in Germany than in New Brunswick,” I said. “Max Beckmann and the earlier painters of Die Brücke like Nolde, Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff were really revolutionary,” he said. “And it got them into hot shit when Nazis came along, particularly Beckmann,” I added. “In Beckmann’s case it was America’s gain, Germany’s loss,” he said.

“It’s hard to believe how much great painting was done before World War I and the period leading up to World War II in Germany and how it got all screwed around by the Nazis and Hitler,” I said

“Too bad Hitler wasn’t a better artist. The world would be a different place now,” he said.

“Actually, his watercolours weren’t that bad and certainly not bad enough to start a world war,” I added.

Art, we agreed, was only a mirror to history and not a revolution in itself. The politics of art when you come right down to it are minor when compared to the catastrophe of the real thing, but we both thought it was good to be an artist as no one is actual killed by bad painting or a bad piece of writing. “ I am pretty happy about the way this summer has panned out. I’ve learned something about painting,” he said. “And what would that be?” “Well, that honesty is important and I really don’t care how long it takes to make a decent picture.” I had to certainly agree with those conclusions and that it had, indeed, been a good summer. We had talked ourselves hoarse about art and were no closer to truth than when we started in mid-July, but we did have a product: some paintings, drawings and a lot of words. We still had a larger painting to complete and that was to come.

P.S. An exhibition of this project will open at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada on February 27th. 2014 and run through June 8th. 2014.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Saturday, December 28, 2013.

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