Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty One

May 7, 2014

18/19 April 2014

Part One of Two

There has been a seven month hiatus since Stephen Scott worked on his portrait of me and an awful lot has happened during that time.

The major thing, of course, was Stephen’s battle with oral cancer. It was a fight that everyone hopes that he has won. It has not been easy; a long and complicated operation followed by many, many sessions of radiation, but he is a stubborn and courageous fighter. He has very good support from his family and friends and, in particular, from his wife and soulmate, Sophie. The other thing that has happened, and this a good thing, is that our project resulted in a major exhibition, which I curated, at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick that is presently on view and will continue until the 8th. of June. The exhibition’s title is the same as our project, Stephen Paints a Picture, and consists of the oil sketches and drawings he completed over last summer, plus an e-book of all of my blog posts. In addition, there are over twenty more, mostly large, oil paintings of his that I picked from his studio.

The exhibition was planned just prior to Stephen learning about his cancer. “Just prior” are the operative words here as it was only one week before he was diagnosed that we settled on a date for the exhibition. Many of us in Sackville over the summer, Stephen, in particular, had an idea that there was something seriously wrong with his health, but the idea of an exhibition of our summer’s work at a major public art gallery was certainly attractive. Originally the idea, if you were following my blog, was that I would go to Fredericton several times over the fall and Stephen would finish the large portrait that he had started in Sackville. This was to central to the idea of the exhibition. Plans change.

I thought that it was important that the exhibition go on regardless of Stephen’s illness in the grand cliché of the “show must go on”. I believe very strongly in the quality of Stephen’s work and when you have a chance at a major exhibition at a public art gallery you take it. Fortunately, Stephen agreed and we had to come up an alternative to our original plan. I thought, what would happen if we displayed the unfinished portrait, which was a charcoal cartoon on canvas, along with the oil sketches and drawings and that we finished the painting in the gallery during the run of the exhibition? There were a lot of imponderables in the idea as we had to believe that Stephen would be well enough to paint while the exhibition was up, but Stephen and I believed that he would be. Terry Graff, the Beaverbrook’s director, thought it was a really interesting idea and it was his idea to extend the exhibition to include more works by Stephen.

So when Stephen Paints a Picture opened on the 27th. of February we had created a small studio in one corner of the exhibition with the unfinished painting sitting on easel with brushes, paint and a palette on a small table beside it. It should be said that Stephen had just finished his radiation treatment a few days before the opening and it wasn’t certain that he would be well enough to attend, but nothing was going to stop him and he was there. Now we had to figure out the when and how of completing the portrait. So on the 16th. of April, I arrived at Stephen’s house, in Nashwaak Village which is just outside of Fredericton, and now is his studio as well, to see if we could get a head start on finishing the painting as there was no way that it could all be done in the gallery given how slowly he works. Stephen had spent over forty hours on the preliminary oil sketches and drawings during the summer as this was to be a major three by four foot painting.

The following day was a bust as the Saint John River, on which his house borders, was threatening to flood and we spent the day checking the basement and an escape route, but the river crested and all was OK except we were out of wine and beer. The next day we got to the gallery, had a pleasant lunch with Terry, took the unfinished canvas, replaced it with a blank canvas, bought lots of wine and retreated to Naswaak Village.

After drinking some of the wine we decided that it would be better to start painting the next day. After breakfast Stephen had to solve some technical problems before we could start. The big one was to recreate the lighting that we had at my house over the summer so that he could use the oil sketches and drawings as a guide for the large painting. This meant blocking all the windows in the studio and setting up artificial light.

VH 18april14

Portrait of Virgil by Stephen Scott

“What colour shirt do you want me to wear? The blue one or the yellow one?” I asked. During the summer we had used two different shirts for the oil sketches, two with me wearing a blue shirt and two with a yellow one. I had brought both of them with me. “It doesn’t matter. How about the yellow one?”

“Suits me.”

“Wait, I want to put some tape on the floor to mark the legs on the chair.” The idea was to mark everything so that we cold replicate the situation at each sitting. I sat in the chair, while he played with the lights and when he was satisfied, he marked their positions as well.

“It’s bloody cold in here, man, I’m going to freeze my ass off,” I complained.

“There’s a heater upstairs in the bathroom,” he told me.

“OK, I’ll go get it while you play with your paints.”

After I plugged in the heater and sat down again, he said, “Your hair is the same.”

“It’s been seven months and not seven years, but I assure you, I’m getting older and not necessarily better.”

“Sit still for a minute while I figure it out.” He told me to move my head this way and that before he figured he had it right.

“Look, you know that I’m going to move from time to time if I’m going to keep notes of our brilliant conversation.”

“Yeah, but try and keep it to a minimum.”

“The conversation or my movement?”

“Very funny and your left hand goes over your right.”

paintings in the beaverbrook

Stephen & Virgil at The Beaverbrook Art Gallery

“That was quite an interesting painting we looked at in the vault at the Beaverbrook yesterday. Graham Sutherland’s small portrait of Somerset Maugham. A good choice, if I say so myself,” I said. I was talking about a painting that was the first choice for a new project that Stephen and I were looking forward to doing this summer. Starting with the Beaverbrook, the only Canadian location, we want to go art museums in the north eastern United States from Maine to New York and, at each, pick a painting from their collection and have a conversation about it. I’ll put the conversation on my blog, produce an e-book and a short You Tube video on each painting.

“I really like Sutherland’s paintings, in particular, his portraits, but there was another picture on the same rack. A tall thin painting of a man in a grey overcoat,” Stephen said.

“I think I know the one you mean it’s by Walter Sickert. Another great British painter. It’s a shame that artists like Sutherland and Sickert aren’t appreciated as much has they should be.”

“They are in sort of a lost period, but I agree they are both really interesting artists,” he replied, “you know this surface is crap.” He was referring to canvas he was working on. “I bought this at Mt. A (Mount Allison University) bookstore. It was cheap and shows. It’s not sealed enough and it’s sucking up the paint. I’m going to put on a couple of coats shellac. It’ll dry fast. In the meantime, we can have another cup of coffee.”

“Sure, I’ve got no place to go. What did you think that you learned from our show?”

“I think that I have more freedom to move forward. It’s really interesting to see your work in a venue like the Beaverbrook.”

“It’s also cool to have it up in it’s own space for three to four months,” I added.

“In a commercial art gallery you’re lucky if it’s two weeks and then your work that doesn’t sell is generally tied up for a year.”

“The answer, Stephen, is to sell all your work at the opening.”

“Fat chance of that in a place like New Brunswick,” he said.

“I don’t know about you, but a life changing event like the one that you just went through is certainly a good time to reflect on your life. I know it was for me after my heart attack and my own bout of cancer and your crap was a whole lot more dramatic than mine. This much is for sure, you scared the shit the shit out of me.”

“Yeah, it does give you a pause. Life is short and I don’t feel like fucking around any more.”

He started back on the painting and was using quite a long maul stick. “I had one of those,” I said, “I gave it to one of my students when I retired and stopped painting.

Most artists don’t even know about them much less how to use them.”

“They come in handy to keep your hand steady and out of the paint,” he said. The other thing that he did was to add extensions, wooden dowels, to his brushes to make them longer so that he could paint further away from the canvas. Also, different from our Sackville sessions over the summer is that he was mostly standing while he painted rather than seated.

“Painters in the past did use much longer brushes when they were painting larger portraits. It’s hard to buy long portrait brushes these days,” I remarked, “however, I did find some remarkable and beautiful portrait brushes at Pearl Paint in New York City. They cost me a small fortune and I ended up giving them to the same student that I gave the maul stick to.”

“I didn’t want hear that. I wish that you had given them to me,” Stephen said.

“You weren’t around at the time, but I did give you that great French drawing paper and a roll of six foot canvas.”

“So you did. Try and keep your head in one place. You know one thing that we haven’t talked much about is 19th. century English Romantic painters like John William Waterhouse.”

“Yeah, he’s coming back in fashion after being nearly forgotten. I tried to look him up in my 1970 copy of The Oxford Companion to Art, a big honking 1200 page book, and he’s not there. I think his 1888 Lady of Shalott is a hoot, but it’s beautifully painted.”

“I like his The Mermaid around the turn of the century, 1901, I think. Again, a very pretty painting.”

“I guess you could call him a Post Pre-Raphaelite. He was out of date when he was painting his best pictures. It was round the same time as the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists, but he was wildly popular in his own time,” I said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Thursday, May 1, 2014.

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