Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Seven

August 11, 2014

21 May 2014

When I left Stephen Scott’s Nashwaak Village home on May 11th to return to Sackville, I intended to return once more to get some additional work done on my portrait before we were scheduled to finish it at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery later in the month. We both felt that we could use the extra time, but that morning, Stephen woke up with his jaw very swollen and in pain. He, Sophie, his wife and I were all very concerned and it was decided that he should go to the ER at the hospital and find out what was going on. It did turn out that he had a bad infection, and not, thank God, a return of the cancer, but it required him to have daily IV treatments and many trips to the hospital over the next two weeks. There were times during that period when we thought that we might not be able to finish the portrait at the gallery as planned. The idea was to work in the gallery from Tuesday May 20th. until Sunday May25th., which was Lord Beaverbrook Day at the gallery, an open house that attracts hundreds of people to the gallery. We thought that it would be a great day to finish the painting.

As it turned out, May 20th. was Stephen’s last day of treatment and he was very determined to finish the picture come hell or high water. So, I arrived on the afternoon of the 20th. and we planned to start work the next day, Wednesday the 21st., a day late.

The original idea was to work every day from one to five pm with the exception of Beaverbrook Day, when we would work from eleven until two. We figured that we could work extra hours, if need be, to make up for the day that we missed. The first problem was making sure that we had everything we needed to work in the gallery as it was a fifteen kilometre drive from the gallery to his studio to get anything we forgot. So, around noon we were at the gallery with boxes of supplies, lights, extension cords and anything else we could think of. “At least, I now know what the background will look like,” Stephen told me. He had struggled with the background while we were working in his home studio. The next step was to get the lighting in the gallery to match the lighting that we had been using in his studio and to find a chair that would work for me to sit on that was similar to the one at his house. We also placed tape on the floor to mark the location of the chair and lights. It took us a full hour to set everything up, but we were ready to start at the advertised one pm start.

painting at beaverbrook

“The gallery lighting is a bit difficult,” he said.

“But, at least it’s constant,” I added, “and won’t change throughout the day.”

“You know, I haven’t got enough white paint,” he held up a tube of nearly spent white paint, “Even Winsor & Newton sucks. You can’t buy good paint for any price.”

“Can you get some white paint down the street at that art supply place?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ll get Sophie to go and see what she can dig up, but last time I tried, I was with you, I had a hard time getting lead white. I’ll have to settle for whatever they have.” He sent her on the mission and added, “See if you can get a couple cups of good coffee.”

Stephen had a difficult time getting me in the right pose, but after a considerable time of getting me to move my head this way and that, he started. At first there were only a few people in the gallery watching us work, but after about a half a hour, Adda Mihailescu, the gallery’s education officer, showed up with a large group of young children who ranged in age from around five to ten. They were the very audience we were looking for. They asked the questions that older people would like to ask, but are afraid to.

One young boy looked at me and at Stephen and asked him, “Is that your brother?” Another asked him. “Are you a painter?”

“Yes,” Stephen replied, and asked the children, “What do you kids like to paint?” Several of girls said ponies and boys liked, of course, super heroes. One of the girls said, “Can you paint butterflies?” It was apparent that they would rather have seen Stephen paint ponies and butterflies than me, but their attention was rapt, nevertheless. One of the older girls, about eight or nine, told us that her favourite class was art and added, “When I grow up, I want to be an artist.” They stayed for all of about ten to fifteen minutes, but it was the reaction that we wanted and it made seem like what we were doing in the gallery was the right thing. After they left, Stephen said, “If kids got into art from the start the world would be a better place.”

“Yeah, by the time kids get older than this group all their creativity has been crushed out of them. They are convinced that they can’t draw. It’s a fucking shame,” I said.

By this time, Sophie had returned with the paint, the coffee, and couple of candy bars to boot. She managed to find a large tube of titanium white. “This will have to do,” Stephen said. We took a break to see how things were going while we drank our coffee. “It’s interesting,” he said, “we’re painting the picture in the space and light where it will be exhibited in.” Adda showed up with another chair with arms for me to sit in. Both Stephen and I thought it was a better choice. It was certainly more comfortable and I was going to be sitting in it for a long time.

“What do you feel about working under such a tight deadline,” I asked.

“It does put me under a lot of pressure, but it’s probably a good thing,” he answered.

“You seem to be throwing a lot of paint around today. I would never know that you were sick as dog for the last couple of weeks.”

“It does feel good to be painting again.”

When we were back at work again, people came in and out of the gallery and watched what we were doing, but most of them remained silent and kept their distance. They were interested, but didn’t know quite what to do. They treated it like theatre. We tried our best to engage them in conversation. “So, what do you think?”, I asked a young woman who was looking intently at Stephen working on the painting. ‘It does look like you,” she replied.

“That’s more or less the point,” Stephen said, “Do you paint?”

“Not really, I had a couple classes in college, but I never followed it up, but I do like art.”

“You should really give it a shot again,” he told her, “It’s never too late.”

“Maybe I should, but I don’t think I would ever be any good.”

“I think that you should follow Stephen’s advice,” I added.

She left smiling and we felt that we were accomplishing something. “It’s good to have you working on this painting with the rest of your work on the walls. It takes some of the mystery out of art. I don’t think most people understand that painting, in particular, realistic painting, is done by a human being. Mind you, a talented human being,” I told Stephen.

“Yeah, I think that they find it interesting to see me working from life rather than photographs.”

“It’s great having the drawings and oil sketches here as well. Hopefully people will see the progress from them to the painting and perhaps get some understaning of how you work and think,” I said.
“It’s about working it up from the sketches. I certainly learned a lot from drawing,” he said.

About that time, Stephen May, another Fredericton painter showed up. Both Stephens were students at Mount Allison around the same time and are, at least in my opinion, fine realist artists, but it’s hardly an objective opinion as I was the head of the fine arts programme when they were students.

“I’ve been look forward to this,” May told Scott, “I’ve been to the show a few times, but this is different.”

“Don’t make me nervous,” Scott said.

“I doubt I could do that. I like the show, but I guess I told you that at the opening.”

“It’s certainly a new thing for me painting in public. It’s sort of like being naked in public. No place to hide your mistakes,” Scott told him.

“You do use a very limited palette, don’t you?” May asked.
“I think that it works better. You can do a lot with little,” Scott replied.

They talked for a while as people came and went and listened to their conversation. “You know,” I said, “It’s getting close to closing time. We’d better get out of the gallery before they throw us out.” Sophie had returned and was taking photographs of the process. Just as May departed, yet another Fredericton artist and Mount Allison graduate showed up, Stephanie Weirathmuller, a younger colleague, but also a realist painter who I had invited to dinner with Stephen Scott, Sophie and I.

“Just give me a chance to clean up and we’ll be on our way. I could use a drink and something to eat,” Scott said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, August 10, 2014.

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